I was surprised over the weekend at how many notes I received about my Fannie Farmer post, mostly from women, saying in essence that they had no idea women were making so many advances in Nineteenth Century America. Indeed so. I’m no Gender Studies professor, but I do know that one of our great societal myths is that women didn’t start going to college in any great numbers until the 1960’s. In fact it was the 20’s and 30’s that were the groundbreak years for women in academia. Then, up to 20% of all the advance degrees that were being awarded in America, depending on the discipline, were being awarded to women. My own grandmothers, one a dirt poor farm girl from central Indiana, the other a dirt poor city girl from the South Side of Chicago, were college grads. One of them had a law degree.
They were extraordinary women (at least in my eyes), but not exceptional for their times. So what happened? Why were there a fraction of the women going to college in the 40’s and 50’s relative to the 20’s and 30’s? The answer is of course World War II and its aftermath. Men went off to fight and women either went to work (think Rosie the Riveter), stayed on the farm or managed their families. By the time the 60’s came along, things had normalized again, and women started going back to college. But it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that women as a group were receiving the number of degrees they were getting back in the early 1930’s. Amazing, isn’t it? The post-war generation takes a lot of credit for introducing women to higher ed, though in reality they were only picking up where their grandmothers left off.