Women's History Month: Women And Education

March 9, 2012

March 9, 2012 - “I regret the trifling, narrow, contracted education of the females of my country.” Abigail Adams, wife and advisor to President John Adams, 1778.

The theme for Women’s History Month in 2012 is empowerment through education. According to the National Women’s History Project, women now outnumber men in the nation’s colleges. That fact is a testament to the significant advancement of women in education. Prior to the 19th century, women had few opportunities for education—one of the most important factors in economic betterment then and now. Women at that time were not considered physically or mentally capable of educational development.

However, women did not allow the status quo to prevent them from learning. The 19th century saw changes in the educational system with the development of women’s and coeducational colleges. Still, graduate schools of law and medicine rarely admitted women until the 20th century, and even then in far lesser numbers. Yet women continued to pursue higher learning and set standards of achievement across the nation.

  • Elizabeth Blackwell was admitted to medical school in 1848, only because the administration of Geneva Medical College asked the students to vote on her admission, and the students thought her application a practical joke. Nonetheless, Blackwell went on to graduate at the top of her class.
  • The first woman to earn a baccalaureate degree was Catherine E. Brewer in 1840, at Wesleyan College. The first African American woman to obtain a college degree was Mary Jane Patterson in 1862, at Oberlin College. Ada H. Kepley was the first female lawyer to graduate from law school, at the Union College of Law in 1870. Elizabeth Bragg was the first woman to earn an engineering degree in 1876, at the University of California at Berkeley.

A major boost to women’s empowerment in higher education was the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX states in part: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal assistance.”

Congressperson Patsy Mink of Hawaii (1927-2002) was the principal author of Title IX, also known as the Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. Title IX has had powerful effect upon women’s athletics and academic programs in primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities. Women gained a larger profile in school textbooks and in graduate and professional programs. As of 2008-2009, women earned approximately 62 percent of associate’s degrees, 57 percent of baccalaureate degrees, 60 percent of master's and 52 percent of doctoral degrees. (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011, The Condition of Education 2011). The number of female Division I, Division II and Division III student-athletes has risen significantly between 1991-1992 and 2005–2006. (National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2008, 2005-06 NCAA Gender Equity Report).

Legal Momentum has long been a leader in the reform in education since the passing of Title IX. In 1974, Legal Momentum launched the Project on Equal Education Rights (PEER) to study and monitor the impact of Title IX regulations. The PEER program immediately documented and exposed sex role stereotypes in elementary school texts and in the federal government’s pattern of neglect in enforcing Title IX. Since then, Legal Momentum has consistently challenged instances of gender inequity in education through national advocacy, public policy analysis, outreach, litigation and public service ads, and fought attempts to weaken Title IX. Today, we are building upon that work and Title IX guarantees with our Pipeline Project. The Pipeline Project works to increase girls young women’s participation in career and technical training in non-traditional trades in vocational high schools. The project challenges the pervasive sex segregation that has long been the norm in these schools, and further promotes the goals of Title IX.

The Pipeline Project works with career and technical education high schools in New York City to improve recruitment and retention of girls and enhance girls’ participation in training for highly paid jobs as well increase compliance with laws ensuring educational equity and opportunity.