Date of Award

2012

Advisor(s)

Julie Kim

Second Advisor

Oneka LaBennett

Abstract

In this thesis, I examine the lives of women who attended college during a time far less accommodating to their ambitions for higher education than today. From 1890 to 1920, some of the first females to attend college in the United States matriculated from single-sex institutions along the east coast. Existing discourse emphasizes the difficulties these women faced as they tried to pursue both career and family after graduation. Citing population studies of this time period, scholars suggest that an unusual number of college-educated women did not marry following their graduation or married at a later age. Aside from the scholarly interventions on this topic, I used written accounts provided by questionnaires from the first students at Barnard College, founded in 1889, to supplement numerical data with first-hand perspectives. The college’s extensive archives provide a more comprehensive understanding of education’s effects upon women. Alumnae responses on biographical questionnaires reveal how college instruction exposed them to new opportunities. Simultaneously, their answers capture the societal pressures they felt as some graduates lamented Barnard’s lack of domestic training. Furthermore, higher education conferred a new way of life that some women participated in through socio-political activism after graduation. Ultimately, I assert that while a college degree allowed women at the turn of the twentieth century to pursue a life with career as the focal point as opposed to family, graduates became pulled between tradition and opportunity because a woman’s college education was not compatible with female roles in the family unit.



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