‘A New Moral Vision’

Author discusses new book about how arrival of women in American higher education changed colleges’ sense of moral mission.

December 6, 2016

When increasing numbers of American colleges in the 19th century started to admit women, many institutions -- whether women’s colleges or newly coeducational institutions -- revised their view of their moral missions. A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917 (Cornell University Press) considers this important period in the history of American higher education.

The author is Andrea L. Turpin, assistant professor of history at Baylor University. She responded via email to questions about her book.

Q: Many of the oldest colleges in the United States had religious affiliations and, at least in part, religious missions. How was moral purpose originally defined in American higher education?

A: America’s earliest colleges -- like Harvard, Yale and Princeton -- understood themselves to serve both church and state. The goal was to form pious men of high character and broad mental training who would be capable, public-spirited ministers, doctors, lawyers and community leaders. Because colleges assumed only men could fill these positions, they did not focus on instilling character qualities specifically associated with men. Instead, they just sought to make students into good Christians in a way that could have applied equally to either sex.

Q: How did the arrival of women’s colleges change the picture?

A: The 19th-century push for women to enter higher education was led in large part by reformers I call “evangelical pragmatists.” They were willing to violate gender norms against women’s higher education in order to train more people to spread the Christian message intelligently -- to get more hands on deck for God, as it were. These educational reformers provided women the same moral training as men: they sought to make them into good Christians, in this case by fostering revivals on campus.

This approach to women’s higher education changed as women’s colleges became more established in the late 1800s. By then, it was considered narrow for a college to associate too closely with a particular religious tradition. So women’s colleges rebranded their identity around training their graduates for a specific type of service rather than a specific type of religious outlook. They defined their moral purpose in a way more religious traditions could agree on, but also more particular to women. Instead of trying to make students into evangelical Protestants, women’s colleges sought to prepare graduates for moral contributions at which they thought educated women would uniquely excel, such as the burgeoning field of social work, which required both head and heart.

Men’s colleges -- which, like women’s colleges, were now largely led by liberal Protestants -- followed suit. Instead of pursuing spiritual formation that applied equally to men and women, they started trying to set their graduates apart by fostering character traits associated in the public mind with successful elite men, such as courage and a tendency to seek positions of power from which to do good.

Q: As some institutions -- public and private -- educated men and women together, how did issues of moral vision play out?

A: Coeducational institutions tended to pattern their approach to women off of women’s colleges and their approach to men off of men’s colleges. Things could get a bit more complicated there, though. For example, in the decades around 1900, the University of Michigan was led by two presidents who believed the university’s women and men should have identical training, both intellectually and morally. But single-sex extracurricular student religious groups, especially the wildly popular YMCA and YWCA, disagreed. So even at an unusually egalitarian institution like Michigan, students still experienced a push toward types of service to their future communities considered appropriate for men versus women.

Q: Do you view the moral mission colleges took on as they educated women as sincere? Or was this effectively cover for deeply sexist attitudes even by institutions that educated women?

A: For the most part, yes, I do actually believe it was sincere, at least at many women’s colleges. For example, Wellesley trusted women’s abilities so much that it employed only female presidents and faculty. This leadership genuinely believed educated women had a unique role to play in society and sought to reproduce its own passion for social service in the student body. Of course, this approach limited women in certain ways while it expanded their options in others. A more nuanced case would be “coordinate” women’s colleges, like Radcliffe, which was attached to Harvard. Its founders wanted to expand opportunities for women, but Harvard approved it as a means to keep women firmly out of the men’s college. And some coeducational universities first admitted women on principle, but at others it was a means of making more money or a demand by their constituency.

Q: As you look at higher education today, women in the majority as students, but still facing sexism, do you see a lasting impact to the issues you discuss in your book?

A: Some legacies of that time period definitely still stick with us. Perhaps the most obvious is football. College football rose to prominence in the decades around 1900, when colleges shifted from trying to make male students into people of high character in general and started trying to foster in them traits specifically associated with successful, powerful men. Many individual football players today are people of high character and some programs do a good job of holding their players to a high standard. Yet something about the masculine ideal held up within the world of college football does sometimes seem to lend itself to a culture of sexual assault.


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