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  • Logan Drake

Gender Ideology in American Educational History

America faced several daunting challenges in the early republic era. The new nation’s existence felt perilous, and the need for stabilizing nation-building was high. At the same time, the nation faced contradictions between Enlightenment-inspired revolutionary ideology and key social and economic systems. While the revolution heightened rhetoric around freedom, equality, and independence, the nation relied on a social, political, and economic system premised on inequality. One’s ability to exercise freedom and independence was moderated by class, sex, and race. Suffrage existed only for the land-owning wealthy, race-based slavery powered the agricultural south, and women had no real avenues for success apart from marriage, and no real independence or individual rights within marriage.

To ease this tension, at least with respect to sex-based inequality, Americans justified sexual inequality through the ideal of “separate spheres.” Men and women weren’t so much “unequal” as they were simply operating in separate spheres. Men operated mainly in the public sphere, working for pay, participating in politics, and owning land. Women, on the other hand, operated in the private sphere, raising children, preparing food, and generally managing household duties. Within their spheres, so the story went, men and women were independent, free, and morally equal. Of course, women’s sphere actually provided greater restrictions than the men’s sphere and continued to systematically limit women’s freedom and independence. This ideal nevertheless gained much power and was used to justify and shape the country’s economic and political systems of sexual inequality, and eventually the young nation’s developing educational system.

The nation’s common school system developed in the lead up to the Civil War, in the face of further change and instability introduced by the development of industrialization. Common schools were locally controlled, taxpayer funded, open to all white children in the surrounding area, and served several purposes. They were meant to instill a sense of national patriotism and Protestant moral beliefs, in order to provide the nation with upright and moral citizens and establish a uniquely American identity. By teaching reading, writing, and mathematics, students would not only be better qualified to run businesses and operate their personal finances, but to become active, involved citizens capable of following political issues through daily newspapers. After all, the nation’s experiment with democracy was new and required a stream of knowledgeable, upright citizens and voters to maintain stability and build confidence.

Of course, the young girls who attended common schools were not destined to become good, active citizens and voters. Women’s right to vote would not be installed for about another century. What was the purpose of educating these young women then? The ideology of separate spheres provided an answer. While men needed their education in order to be good citizens and stabilize the nation, women also had their role to play. Women would require basic literacy and numeracy to manage household duties well (Nash 31). Women would also be the ones raising children, and children needed to be taught morality at home as well as during the inconsistently scheduled school year. The concept of “Republican Motherhood” emerged to capture the idea that women needed to understand at least the basics of politics, morality, reading, and writing in order to best raise their sons to become outstanding citizens like their fathers (Nash 27). To do this, only a basic education was needed, so the nation’s growing system of prestigious higher education was limited to men. A college or university education would not help a woman be a better mother, so the idea went, so it was unnecessary. In this way, the separate spheres ideology provided a reason for young girls to receive an education, but the same ideology limited their education and further reinforced the women’s sphere as the private sphere.

Jumping to the end of the 20th century, this picture looked very different. Not only were women entering many coeducational colleges and universities, but they numerically dominated higher education. In the fall of 2000, over 7.25 million women were enrolled in higher education institutions, compared to under 5.75 million men (NCES). While public, political, and economic life continue to be far from equal, women’s political rights and economic independence exist in a totally different world from that of the mid-to-late 18th century when common schools emerged. Gone were the days of coverture and of exclusively male suffrage, and the expectation that women will not work outside the home has also fallen. What brought about this change? It is easy to look to the sexual revolution and the women’s and civil rights movement of the 1960s as the main catalyst for this transformation. While these movements were certainly influential and transformative, the growth of women’s entrance into the public sphere stretches back much further and was inexorably tied to the growth and transformation of women’s education across the 19th and 20th centuries.

I argue that women’s increasing access to higher education and the education system itself played a key role in the changing nature of separate spheres ideology across the 19th and 20th centuries. While the ideology of separate spheres relegated women to a limited sphere of personal and professional development, women were able to utilize this space to build a professional world for themselves as teachers and, eventually, school leaders. This professional sphere allowed women greater autonomy and independence, and slowly picked away at the separate spheres ideology. As women entered the public sphere in greater numbers, their success served to undermine the legitimacy of the separate spheres ideology, demonstrating that women could operate effectively in the public sphere, seemingly without undermining the stability of the nation and society. In the 20th century, federal higher education policies designed to help America better compete with the Soviet Union would dramatically increase the number of women earning college degrees, further undermining the logic of separate spheres ideology and expanding gender boundaries for women. As women attained greater levels of education across the 19th and 20th century, the skills, experiences, connections, and confidence they gained as students gave them the tools to enter the public sphere, push gender boundaries, and effectively organize political movements for change.

Higher Education for Women in the 19th Century: Academies, Seminaries, and Normal Schools

While 19th century common schools were open to girls and boys, the nation’s prestigious colleges and universities, with their liberal arts curricula featuring a heavy dose of the classics (useless to future mothers), largely did not accept women, especially before 1850 (Tolley 50-51). Many enterprising young women still desired a more advanced education than common schools offered, and a number of higher schools for women emerged throughout the 19th century. These academies, seminaries, and normal schools often lacked the social prestige of the nation’s colleges and universities, insofar as they did not graduate men who went on to be civic and business leaders, but they provided opportunities for women to receive advanced educations and gain experience with skills that would allow them to assert greater autonomy, independence, and eventually enter the public sphere.

One of the most noted schools was the Troy Female Seminary, founded in 1821 by Emma Willard (Scott 3). Women at Troy participated in a curriculum similar to that at many men’s colleges, studying mathematics, science, modern languages, Latin, history, philosophy, geography, and literature (Scott 7). Between 1821 and 1871, over 12,000 women would attend Troy, while many more would attend the over 200 other seminaries and academies that appeared following Troy’s model (Scott 3, 12). As the Troy model of academies and seminaries grew, normal schools also proliferated. These schools emerged to train men and women to fill the growing number of teaching roles required by common schools, though at most schools women outnumbered men (Ogren 1995, 2). After all, teaching was the rare profession that fit into the women’s sphere, as it involved the care and nurturing of young children. While officially focused on teacher training, many came to mirror the diverse liberal arts curricula present at academies, seminaries, and colleges (Ogren 1995, 2).

At these academies, seminaries, and normal schools, women students not only received advanced training in academic study, they were also able to practice the skills men normally exercised in the public sphere: asserting independence and individuality, confidently speaking in public, and connecting and organizing with others. These schools were some of the only places where women had the freedom to explore nearly any intellectual curiosity, and were encouraged to do so (Scott 8). At schools founded or headed by women, such as Emma Willard at the Troy school, women students could also see role models not found elsewhere (Scott 8). Willard herself was married, a mother, and an active professional and intellectual, not a combination that fit neatly within the ideology of separate spheres.

At many normal schools, a vibrant campus life with public oratory and debates, literary societies, academic clubs, and Christian organizations developed that was largely inclusive of men and women students (Ogren 2005, 164-167). Through these sorts of organizations and associations, women students, along with men, were able to develop and refine skills in rhetoric and persuasive speaking, reasoning, critical writing, and confidence in planning and leading (Hevel 490, 496-7). And in working together in organizing these events, women students saw firsthand the power gained in organized associations with others, but also learned the skills necessary to accomplish such organization.

While many normal schools were coeducational from their founding, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that state universities began to accept women, mostly west of the Mississippi where low population density left institutions difficult to sustain with only men students. While these institutions furthered the expansion of the educational opportunities available to women, women students were often treated as second-class citizens at coeducational state universities (Rose 31). The institutions of higher education open to women in the 19th century nevertheless gave women an opportunity to see spaces where there were relatively few gender boundaries, and where women could work alongside men, or even only with other women, in areas of life usually limited to men. It is not difficult to imagine that graduating from these lively institutions and entering a world heavily shaped along gender lines would prompt many graduates to begin putting their organizing skills to use, to gain independence and influence, and to continue the intellectual and community engagement found at their alma maters.

19th Century Women Enter the Public Sphere: Professional Teachers and School Leaders

While many of these women students were not radical in their beliefs about women’s rights, most did vocally support at least basic rights of autonomy for women: the right to vote and especially the right not to marry (Ogren 2005, 178). With advanced educations and experience operating independently, many women students saw clearly that women were perfectly capable of operating in the public and civic world without ties to a husband. As these students graduated from academies, seminaries, and normal schools, this spirit of independence, as well as the connections, skills, and experiences they had developed, did not vanish. Some women were able to exercise their independence and experience navigating relationships to gain greater control of courtship practices, which had previously been dominated by men (Hevel 506). However, women graduates who wanted careers, or even short-term jobs, still faced a nation that saw earning money as a man’s role. The growing public school system offered a solution.

As the loose system of common schools formalized into a more standard system of public education, teachers were hired en masse to educate the nation’s children. Partly to save money amongst this growth (women teachers could be paid less than men, as they had no alternative prospects for employment and were not expected to support families), school systems increasingly turned towards women teachers. This decision was justifiable under the ideology of separate spheres, as teaching, particularly with young children, was very similar to motherhood and women, as the gentler sex, were better positioned to provide a moderating, moral influence to young students. As more and more women graduated from schools of higher education, they quickly filled the demand for qualified women teachers.

Teaching was one of the few careers open to women, and therefore one of the few avenues to economic and social independence. Many women teachers still married, but the opportunity to teach and make money independently allowed greater time to search for a husband, giving women more independence and autonomy in selecting marriage partners. Women teachers could choose to marry because they had found a good partner, not because they feared economic ruin (Blount 47). More disruptive to the separate spheres ideology, teaching also gave women a feasible and relatively accessible (for the educated) means of staying single their entire life. Teaching earned so-called spinsters a level of respect and social acceptance previously unavailable to single women (Blount 46). By remaining single throughout their lives, these women teachers technically remained within the women’s sphere, but also demonstrated that women’s lives need not be completely dependent on men. They pushed the women’s sphere to include the possibility of living independently. Even married women teachers were disrupting the separate spheres ideology; by making money outside the home, they demonstrated that married women could contribute financially and professionally to their families.

As women teachers, married and single, continued to use the separate spheres “loophole” of teaching to take control of their own lives, some found ways to build on this independence and push gender boundaries even further. Throughout the last half of the 19th century, women became not only teachers, but school leaders, administrators, and even elected supervisors and superintendents. After years of seeing women serving as local teachers, seeing women step to the next level of managing the affairs of local schools made sense to many citizens (Pisapia 4). Who better to manage schools than the women who knew their operations inside and out? Justified under the separate spheres ideology as a small progression from teaching, still concerning the shaping of children, this step up gave women more direct political and civic influence and opened the doors for women’s formal entry into the political realm.

Decades before the 1920 Nineteenth Amendment granted American women the right to vote in all elections, women were holding political offices and voting in elections related to school matters. Emma Willard herself ran for school supervisor in Connecticut and was elected by local men, and as early as 1838 states began granting women themselves the right to vote in school matters (Scott 11). By the end of the 19th century, nearly 30 states had such laws in place, fully 20 years before the Nineteenth Amendment (Piaspa 224). Women, now serving as local leaders and elected officially, had properly entered the public sphere, holding positions of local civic and political influence that had once exclusively been the domain of men.

As we have seen, women entered the teaching profession en masse as teaching was widely considered to be in the women’s sphere, given its proximity to nurturing children. Women then used this small step as a foothold to further push the gender boundaries and give themselves the ability to be leaders in the public sphere. While separate spheres ideology was still widely influential by the end of the 19th century, women had shaped the definition of their sphere to give themselves space to be professionals, leaders, and even elected officials. As historian Paula Baker put it, the woman’s sphere was still the domestic, home sphere, but “home” had expanded to be anywhere women and children were, opening new opportunities for women to enter the public sphere (Baker 631-632). Women’s academies and seminaries, as well as many coeducational normal schools, gave many thousands of 19th century women the skills and experience necessary to exercise autonomy and independence in their personal lives, and the public education system had given the means to expand this personal confidence and independence into professional careers, and eventually elected office. Compared to men, the public roles women could hold were small and mostly limited to the educational world, but the autonomy and independence this granted women was an immense step from the previous century. During the next century, women would continue to build their economic and social independence and expand their role into new aspects of the public sphere.

20th Century Women Storm Higher Ed: Federal Higher Ed Policy and Political Participation

In August 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted and women’s ability to participate in the political sphere was solidified nationwide. The widespread view of women as second-class citizens continued for many decades, however, and women’s political participation (voting, contacting representatives, and participating in political activities) continued to trail that of men’s (Rose 163). The ideology of separate spheres also persisted well into the 20th century, but it had morphed, at least for women, to incorporate a certain amount of professionalism. A survey of several hundred women teachers born around 1900 found that while many continued to look at teaching as an extension of a woman’s domestic role, nearly all said they struggled for fair treatment on the job and supported appointing women leaders in schools (Pisapia 172-173). These women saw themselves operating within the woman’s sphere, but they also saw themselves as deserving of professional respect and saw women’s leadership as not only acceptable but preferable.

Many stories of women’s entrance into the public sphere in the 20th century focus on the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. But as in the 19th century, education continued to play a key role. The Progressive Era, from about 1880 to 1920, saw the growth of many coeducational colleges and universities, but women were treated as clear second-class citizens at most (Rose 31, 33). Women had started to make overall gains in higher education enrollment at the turn of the century, though three times as many men as women earned college degrees; this despite women graduating from high school at greater rates (Rose 15). The trend worsened for women with the 1944 GI Bill, whose financial assistance for college almost completely went to men veterans and led to an explosion in men’s college enrollment (Rose 15). While many thousands of women had used their experiences in higher ed to enter the public sphere in new ways, the number of women able to access these opportunities remained small, especially compared to men’s increasing college enrollment.

This began to change with the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The NDEA represented an unprecedented federal intervention into the nation’s higher education system, providing need-based aid directly to students (Rose 44). It was also unusual in that the aid was open to men and women with no quotas or limits on the amount of support given to women students. The general principle of encouraging greater higher education enrollment was justified as necessary in the face of the heightened global tensions and competition of the Cold War (Rose 57-58, 69). The bill’s gender egalitarianism was the result of several forces. Public opinion of women’s higher educational attainment was improving, with many polls showing majority support (Rose 57). Some lawmakers emphasized how greater access to education would help women integrate into civic life in greater numbers, giving America a stronger claim to the equitable democracy that contrasted the nation with the Soviet Union (Rose 58). But, surprisingly, the topic of gender inclusion was little discussed compared to other contentious aspects of the bill, including federal involvement and issues of race and religion (Rose 65, 67). Deondra Rose, who documented the passage of the NDEA, called the bill “accidentally egalitarian” (Rose 64). To avoid contentious issues, the bill was made to appear “inherently non-discriminatory” by avoiding references to gender, religion, or race altogether (Rose 72-3). This allowed the bill to earn support from liberals (due to its non-discriminatory nature) without turning away conservatives who would not support a bill directly targeting women or racial minorities.

Following the NDEA, women’s enrollment in higher education skyrocketed, a trend made sustainable by the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA), which provided more money to students and schools, and the passage of Title IX in 1972, which sought to eliminate the treatment of women students as second-class (Rose 15, 79-80, 100). By the 1980s, women’s enrollment exceeded that of men. As women’s access to higher education expanded, and higher education institutions became more supportive of women students through the passage of Title IX, women’s participation in the public sphere also increased. There was, of course, the women’s rights movement and sexual revolution, both of which saw women taking active political stands in the public realm. Beyond issues specifically related to women’s rights, however, women’s political participation also increased, as measured by voting, attending political meetings, donating money to political campaigns, contacting representatives, and discussing politics with friends and family (Rose 164-165). The gender gaps in political participation present after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment shrank or vanished by the end of the 20th century.

In expanding women’s ability to access higher education and improving the ways in which women students were treated in higher ed, the NDEA, HEA, and Title IX opened the doors for women to receive advanced educations at an unprecedented level. While the 19th century saw women making important strides in educational attainment, which aided their entry into the public sphere through the public schooling system and public organizations and associations, the 20th century saw their educational attainment reach new levels. This critical mass of 20th century educated women gained many of the same skills and experiences of their 19th century counterparts, and allowed women to enter the political realm in a new and effective way.


American women at the end of the 20th century faced gender boundaries and expectations very different than American women at the beginning of the 19th century. The ideology of separate spheres, that men and women are morally equal but have different roles to play in social and civic life, had not disappeared. Men still outnumbered women in political offices and in leadership positions in most professional fields, and women continued to face gendered oppression in the form of sexual harassment and abuse and domestic violence, to name a few. But the bounds of socially acceptable behavior for women had certainly changed dramatically. Women exercised their right to vote and participated in political causes, and many millions of women worked outside of the home and made careers in professional industries outside of education, though they would continue to face unfair harassment and gender bias. These actions would nevertheless have been well outside the norm during most of the 19th century, especially in the huge numbers found at the end of the 20th.

This transformation was the result, in large part, of the fight for women’s suffrage in the lead up to 1920 and women’s rights in the 1960s and 70s. But these fights had their roots in the growth of women’s educational attainment across two centuries, which gave many women the confidence, skills, experience, connections, and role models necessary to carry out effective mass movements. Beyond this, the public education system itself provided an important structure for women to begin working independently in a way that would otherwise have been unacceptable to 19th century gender ideology.

Women’s entry into the public sphere, and the weakening of the gender boundaries enforced through separate spheres ideology, was rarely brought about intentionally by powerful parties in society. Common schools welcomed girls and boys, but did so with gendered expectations as to their eventual roles. Given this taste of education, however, many women pushed for more advanced opportunities, and women’s academies and seminaries, as well as coeducational normal schools emerged (or were founded by women) to provide such opportunities. The expanding public education system then embraced women teachers, in order to save money and under the gendered logic of separate spheres. Many state colleges and universities began accepting women, often because there were not enough men students to sustain their institutions. Finally, the 20th century federal higher education policies that flung open the doors to women students at an unprecedented level were not passed with this explosive growth in women’s participation in mind.

While expanding women’s ability to access public and professional roles was rarely the intention of decision makers at the time, women nevertheless found ways to make the most of each limited space granted them. And at each stage, women’s educational attainment, educational policies, and the education system itself operated as a tool and a stepping stone which women used to make incremental strides; strides which would cumulatively lead to the transformation of gender expectations and the weakening of separate spheres ideology.


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National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Table 303.70: Total undergraduate fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions. Retrieved from

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