A Celebration of Women Writers

"Higher Education and the Home." by Mrs. Eliza Jane Read Sunderland (1839-1910).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 318-322.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 318] 



There is a widespread fear that the higher education of women will in some way prove inimical to domestic life. This fear has been voiced to me recently from two very different sources: First, by an intelligent Japanese gentleman, a member of the nobility of Japan, spending some time in this country for the purpose of studying our institutions, with a view to their introduction into Japan; second, by one of the lady managers for the Columbian Exposition, who asked the above question, accompanied by the request that I answer it from this platform, as one of the living questions now pressing for consideration.

There are two possible bases for answering the question: one a historical study of results, the other a theoretical study of tendencies.

The time is as yet too short for an adequate answer to be possible from the historical standpoint. At the beginning of this century the highest education offered to the women of America was to be had in Dames' Schools, and consisted chiefly in reading, writing, and working the "Sampler," which was their only diploma. About 1820 Boston, Mass., decided that girls might be admitted to the boys' lower schools for an hour in the afternoon, after the boys were dismissed; a dangerous innovation, as it proved. The camel's nose once within the tent, it was only a question of time when the whole body would be within the sacred inclosure.

In 1822 or 1823 the town meeting of Northampton, Mass., decided that the public schools should be opened to girls, but the school committee simply ignored the ordinance by making no provision for a larger attendance, and, since the boys filled the space already provided, the new law remained a dead letter till the citizens insured its execution through a lawsuit to compel the committee to provide room sufficient to accommodate the girls as well as boys. Thus, in these movements in Boston and Northampton, we have the entering wedge to primary education for girls in the country generally.

The earliest hint of anything better than this primary instruction is to be found in the once famous Troy Seminary, of Troy, N. Y., organized, I believe, somewhere in the thirties, and the even more famous Mt. Holyoke Seminary, in Massachusetts, [Page 319]  founded in 1836. Yet, measured by the curriculum of Harvard or Yale, the courses of study offered in these schools could not be designated as "higher education."

Of colleges proper open to women, Oberlin was founded in 1833, Antioch College in 1852, Cornell University in 1862, Vassar College in 1865, and Michigan University opened its doors to women in 1870. Here we have a few centers for the really higher education of women.

But how are the girls to obtain the preparation for this higher education? Public high schools were generally closed to girls till about the middle of this century. Boston did not establish a permanent high school for girls until 1852, two hundred years, almost, after she had established a Latin school for boys, and more than two hundred after the founding of Harvard College. In 1891, twenty-one years after the first women entered Michigan University, there were but 445 women enrolled to 1,975 men.

The fact is that over these first colleges and universities opened to women there lowered a dark cloud of doubt and distrust on the part of an unsympathetic public, which had already decided as to the legitimate sphere of women.

All these facts are of value as showing that the higher education of women is yet in its early infancy, and, therefore, can not, in the nature of the case, furnish data for a historical estimate of results.

The other possible basis for an answer to our question must be sought in a study of tendencies. Is there anything in the nature of the higher education incompatible with domestic life?

Domestic life means home life, life with and for the few. What are the requisites for such a life? Briefly, "taste and training;" and since taste is largely a matter of education, of habit, it might, perhaps, be as correct to use but one word and say training. What training? That depends upon the time and place. In the time of our Revolutionary foremothers a training for domestic life meant a practical knowledge of baking and brewing, of spinning and weaving, of laundrying and dyeing, of dressmaking and millinery, besides all the housewifely arts which a wide hospitality called into constant requisition. An appalling array of requirements, these–how was it possible ever to master them? It was easy enough in those days, when every mother was a notable housewife and every daughter had it for her supreme ambition to equal if not surpass her mother; when a girl's education consisted in just this, was begun almost as soon as she could walk, and lasted right on till the wedding day, with only the slight break, quite insignificant, of attending the Dame's School long enough to learn to read and write and work the samplers.

At the present time how stands the case? Under our modern principle of division of labor much of the baking and all of the brewing, spinning and weaving; much of the laundrying, most of the dressmaking and all of the millinery, have been relegated to experts outside the home; and for the demands of hospitality, the occasional reception has taken the place of the old-time informal and frequent visiting; and florist and caterer take the place of deft maidenly and matronly fingers, while for all other requirements of the home hired help is expected to bear the burden of all practical execution at least.

Is there anything left for the mother and daughters to do? Yes, much; for in the new times as in the old not a little of personal service must be given by the mother and daughters of each home, if the home is to be more than a boarding-house. For them the price which must be paid for efficiency is personal knowledge of what constitutes good work and practical acquaintance with details.

How are the girls of the present day to get this knowledge and training? The especial pride of the nineteenth century of America is the free public school, its passport to social position and success in life is a diploma, standing for so much of book knowledge appropriated by the holder. But this diploma means–oh, how many years of work! The little maiden of five years trudges away with her big brother of seven to enter the primary school, and if for twelve years of her life she is able to appear [Page 320]  daily in classes with lessons learned, she may hope for that crowning glory of American youth of both sexes, the high school diploma. "If she is able to appear in classes daily with lessons learned!" A large "if," that; an "if" which means weary hours of lamplight study to supplement the too short daylight hours; an "if" which means little time for play, none for home work.

And what is the relation of this school-life to the home-life–of the times of our great-great-grandmothers–we will say? That home-life meant for girls and misses quiet, seclusion, doing duties and sharing burdens for others. This school-life means a crowd, gregariousness, working for public applause and public honors in the schoolroom and on commencement day. That home-life meant physical activity, many-sided, manual training on many lines, developed muscular systems. This school-life means sedentary habits, lack of muscular vigor, distaste for muscular exertion, inefficiency in the practical affairs of life. That home-life meant home, the center of thought and effort, as of daily life. This school-life means the outside world as the center of thought and effort, home the eating and sleeping place. That old time life meant that home duties took precedence of all other demands. In this new time life school duties and responsibilities stand pre-eminent; duties to the home and its inmates, and even to personal health, being ruthlessly pushed aside if they come in collision with school requirements and class grades.

And when these school years are ended, and the maiden of sixteen, seventeen or eighteen turns for the last time from the doors of the high school, bearing proudly her much coveted diploma, is she then ready to take her place in the home and enter upon as careful and thorough training for domestic life as the schools have given her in book lore? Let the great army of young women seeking places as teachers, clerks, bookkeepers, typewriters, dressmakers' apprentices and factory girls answer; and a still louder answer, if we will listen for it, may be heard from the urgent and wholly unfilled demand for intelligent help in the home.

The fact seems to be, and we may as well face it first as last, modern school-life and training does unfit the girl for domestic life first, by monopolizing the time once given to training for domestic life; second, by accustoming the daughters of rich and poor alike to the excitements of a gregarious public life through all their formative years, thus rendering distasteful to them, by its very strangeness, any work or pleasure to be had in the privacy of the home.

But all this is primary and secondary education. The girl who has finished these stands only on the threshold of the higher education. For the girls who take this there follow four or six years more of study now entirely removed from home influences and surroundings, as well as freed from domestic duties and responsibilities. How will these added years affect the problem of woman's relation to domestic life? Can they do otherwise than emphasize and exaggerate the evils already pointed out? and must not the A. B. or A. M. or Ph.D., after her four or five or six years given in college halls to Latin and Greek, science and philosophy, literature and mathematics, be even further removed still from both inclination and training for the quite unliterary and the relatively lonely work of superintending and serving in the various relations of domestic life? It would seem to follow that higher education for women must prove a public calamity, since its results must be to remove the picked young women of each community from domestic life, thus relegating home-making–and homes are the recognized corner-stones of society and the state–to second or third rate talent.

But suppose we close the college doors to the women of the future. Have we then averted the evils we fear? We must not forget that the result of our study has been to show that the higher education, at most, only emphasized evils already existing; that it is the primary and secondary education, not the higher, which lies at the root of the trouble, that the primary and secondary schools take not a select few, but the daughters from all our homes, rich and poor, cultured and uncultured homes alike; take them during the most plastic and formative period of life, and, by heavy exactions on time and strength, continued through many years, prevent the formation of tastes [Page 321]  and aptitudes essential to a happy and successful domestic life. And are we prepared, therefore, to condemn our whole public school system of co-education, and to relegate our daughters back again to the Dames' Schools of the beginning of the century? No one could be found foolhardy enough to answer in the affirmative. Some other remedy than this must be found, and that remedy when found will not consist in revolution, that is, overthrow, destruction, but in evolution, that is, adaptation.

We shall need to remind ourselves as well as the croakers that secondary education for girls dates back only to the middle of the century, and that the higher education of woman, as offered in any adequate form, can be measured by a quarter of a century. It is not strange that so potent a factor introduced into woman's life should prove a disturbing element, and should require readjustment. The new thing always, for the time being, takes precedence of the old, if it does not supersede it. So wonderful was the new world opened up to women through books and education, the world of history and literature, science and art and philosophy, that the old world of domestic life seemed by comparison meager indeed. And if sharing the boy's studies had brought such enlargement of life, might not sharing his occupations, or, at least, his life of public and organized activity, bring equal good? It was in the nature of things that the experiment must be tried. We are living in the transition period, and are interested observers of the experiment. What will be the outcome? The first result could not have been other than an over emphasis of importance put upon the public life in store or office or teacher's chair (for these were all new), and an under emphasis put upon the old life of home service. And it was well that it should be so. Domestic work had fallen under the ban of being an occupation adapted to the capacities of the uneducated and dependent classes. So that wife and daughters might with their own brains and hands plan and execute the work of the entire household, from cooking the food, through spinning, weaving and making the clothes, to caring for the children and nursing the sick, and yet this wife and these daughters before the law were supported by husband and father, and any money they might need for their own personal expenses was regarded as a gift, not as a wage earned. Moreover, as with all work done by uneducated and dependent classes, the value put upon it was low if it had to be obtained from strangers. Is it strange that when the public school had fitted a girl for earning an independent competence she should have gladly turned her back upon the often galling dependence of the home. And this is but one side of the movement; the other side is that the home being thus deprived of its accustomed workers, the household machinery creaks, bringing widespread discomfort, and the world is awaking to the fact that housework as well as other work demands brains and skill and that these must be paid for in the home as well as in the shop and schoolroom.

Thus far the experiment has progressed. The world has begun to recognize the supreme importance of skilled work in the home, while on the other hand it has in efficient operation an instrumentality expressly adapted to insure that skilled work shall not be had there. Such is the dilemma. Readjustment must be made. What is the outlook for it? I turn, as I believe the world ere long will turn, for an efficient agent in such readjustment to the woman made by the higher education. She alone has reached the vantage-ground from which she is prepared to see domestic life in its true perspective in relation to all of life. She has learned from her sociological studies that the moral fiber which makes possible a free government must be developed in the home; and from her scientific researches that moral and intellectual as well as muscular fiber are dependent upon pure air, cleanly surroundings, healthful food, adequate and appropriate clothing, regular habits, and a cheerful environment of comfort and hope, all of which it is largely the work of the house-mother and her assistants to furnish. Moreover, these college-bred women are prepared, by years of close logical thinking, to undertake the task of readjusting woman's life to the life of society as a whole in the light of nineteenth-century needs and possibilities; because they are able to recognize society as an organism of which women are organic parts, [Page 322]  and they well know that the good of no one organ can be found apart from the good of the whole.

What will be the steps of readjustment? I think I see at least five. First of all there will be a remodeling of primary and secondary school-life. The school was and is designed as a means of education; but what is it to be educated? "To have passed successful examinations upon a certain number of books," answers the average member of the school board and the average teacher; "hence everything must bend to this mental feat." "To have gained command of all one's powers, mental, moral, and physical, answers the woman who has climbed all the rounds of the educational ladder and stands at the top, "and to gain such command requires brain work and hand work, work for self and work for others, work with others in the school and work alone in the home, theoretical work and practical work, and the two sides of the couplets should go hand in hand, to attempt to separate them means a one-sided development unworthy the name of education. Hence the curriculum of the school must be so remodeled as to leave time for the training of the home to go side by side with it."

Second: There will be needed a remodeling of the curricula of secondary and higher education to make them touch more closely the life and needs of men and women. Anatomy, physiology and psychology, heat and light, air and its movements, chemistry and germ theories, if studied first in the laboratories of the schools, should be tested anew in the practical laboratory of the home and of society. The nation and its history are only the family and its history writ large; political economy domestic economy magnified.

Third: With the home and its needs thus made the practical objective point of a large part of college study, the home will rise into new importance, and the home keeper to a new place of honor; since only the owner of the cultured brain can aspire to the rank of a scientific as well as practical housekeeper, and such housekeeping will be seen to be as worthy an object of ambition as club work, reporting or teaching.

Fourth: Housekeeping alone will not fill all the time or satisfy all the aspirations of every cultured woman, and unless the home is to lose many of its brightest lights, it must be demonstrated that the brains of a cultured woman put into a household may save time for other work–the club, the magazine article, the book to be written, the profession to be followed while yet the home suffers no loss. But to make all this possible another step must be taken in the process of readjustment; namely,

Fifth: Under the wise guidance of the woman of higher education, the woman of secondary education will come again into the home, not as a drudge but as "help," and very efficient help–yes, come out of not a few stores and offices and even schoolrooms into the domestic circle, there to receive full recognition and adequate compensation as trained workers, they having had, as a part of their education, the training which will make domestic work easy and pleasant.

If, then, the higher education of woman tends at all today to unfit women for domestic life, it seems to me to carry with it the promise and potency of a revivified and reglorified domestic life in a not-distant future; a domestic life which shall be recognized as not a slavery, but the broadest freedom; not a drudgery, but the noblest service, because the once household drudge–drudge because dependent and ignorant–is now the independent, self-poised, scientific mistress of a position of recognized importance.

[Page 318] 

Mrs. Eliza Read Sunderland was born April 19, 1839. Her parents were Amasa Read, a Quaker, and Jane Henderson Read, a Scotch Presbyterian. She was educated at Mt. Holyoke Seminary, Massachusetts, and at the University of Michigan, taking from the latter a B.L. and later Ph.D. degree. She has traveled extensively through this country and in Europe. She married in 1871 Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland, a Unitarian minister. She is at present Professor of History and Political Economy in the Ann Arbor High School; addresses each Sunday a Bible-class of university students, frequently reaching a hundred members, and occasionally fills her husband's pulpit, as well as other pulpits and platforms. She is a mother and home-maker, teacher and assistant pastor. Mrs. Sunderland stands as a living proof that "Higher education does not unfit women for domestic life." She has three children–two daughters and a son. In religious faith she is a Unitarian. Her postoffice address is Ann Arbor, Mich.

* The title under which this address was delivered at the congress was, "Does the Higher Education Tend to Unfit Women for Domestic Life."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom