Classics in the History of Psychology

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Wherein Should the Education of a Woman Differ from That of a Man

Kate Gordon (1905)
Mount Holyoke College

First published in School Review, 13, 789-794.

Posted August 2000

Members of the New England Association: It is my privilege to speak to you upon the subject: "Wherein should the education of a woman differ from that of a man? What changes in school and college does this involve?" The question of woman's education is seductively close to the question of woman's "sphere." I hold it to be almost a transgression even to mention woman's sphere -- the word recalls so many painful and impertinent deliverances, so much of futile discussion about it -- and yet the willingness to dogmatize about woman in general is so common an infirmity that I am emboldened to err. Let us ask, then: "What is a woman's business, and what is the best way to train her for it?"

Certain theories recently advocated remind one of the London cab-driver whom a gentleman engaged to take him to the station. The driver set off at a furious rate in the opposite direction, and when his passenger called out, "Cabby, cabby, you're going in the wrong direction," he answered: "Ah, but see what a beautiful pace I'm giving you!" In my opinion. President Stanley Hall, in his work on Adolescence, has been giving us a beautiful pace -- only he has been traveling backward. Permit me to quote from the chapter on "Adolescent Girls and Their Education" what seems to me a fair representation of the mediæval standpoint -- done, perhaps, in oriental color. He says (Vol. II, chap. 17, p. 562):

She [woman] works by intuition and feeling..... If she abandons her natural naïveté and takes up the burden of guiding and accounting for her life by consciousness, she is likely to lose more than she gains, according to the old saw that she who deliberates is lost..... Biological psychology already dreams of a new philosophy of sex which places the wife and mother at the heart of a new world and makes her the object of a new religion and almost of a new worship, that will give her reverent exemption from sex-competition and reconsecrate her to the higher responsibilities of the human race into the past and future of which the roots of her being penetrate; where the blind worship of mere mental illumination has no place; and where her real superiority to man will have free course and be glorified. [p. 790]

We find further on, p. 646, that the author profoundly sympathizes with woman's claims, that he has worship and adoration for her shrine, and that he is "more and more passionately in love with woman as he conceives she came from the hand of God."

This is certainly all very handsome indeed, but to adore this naïve being, passionately to worship an unconscious divinity (the roots of whose being are so penetrating), is it not a very apotheosis of the vegetable? This attitude toward women did very well in the Middle Ages, but, to tell the truth, the modern woman is made a little bit ill by the incense. She longs for fresh air and common-sense, and is not willing to be a dolt for the sake of being called a deity. In a word, she is ready to resign the charm of her naïveté, and to brave the perils of consciousness and reflection.

President's Hall's central thesis is that a woman ought to be trained to regard matrimony as her one legitimate province. Concerning the details of curriculum and method he offers the suggestion that botany should be taught with an emphasis on its poetic aspect, zoölogy with plenty of pets. Astronomy and geology are valuable because they can be taught out of doors! Specialization hurts a woman's soul more that it does a man's.

The serious valuations of this writer's conclusions need not detain us long; for a work so bizarre both in style and taste is not to be classed as literature; neither can an inquiry so uncritical in method find a place in science. I have quoted at some length because the above discussion raises the two questions upon which I wish to speak. First: Should a woman's school and college training be in any sense a matrimonial education? This I should call the social side of the question. Second: When a woman is pursuing the same subject that a man is, must she be taught by a different method? This is the psychological question.

The first point must not be confused with the query whether a woman needs special training for matrimony. Nobody denies that a woman, if she marries, should be acquainted in some degree with domestic economy and the care of children. The question is: Are the school and college years the time for such instruction, or are these institutions the place for it? In the first place, a girl's domestic training should not begin until she knows not only that she will marry, but whom she will marry. An adequate matrimonial education should be regulated to wit the taste and the income of the man who's wife she is going to be. So one will pretend that all men like the same thing in a woman, nor that the administration of a very humble and a very pretentious household requires the same technique. The proper time for such training, then, is subsequent to her engagement in marriage to some individual. [p. 791]

In the second place, domestic economy is a strictly technical professional pursuit, and to give it any considerable position in school and college curricula would be to alter the very foundation idea of those institutions. As a special technique it has no more right there than military tactics or agriculture. Certainly the knowledge of cooking, housekeeping, retail buying, and nursing must be recognized as techincal[sic], and not in any sense liberal, knowledge. The college, as I understand it, aims to give four years of non-professional training -- years of respite from strictly utilitarian interests -- a period of leisure for the cultivation, in a variety of directions, of taste, of character, and of judgment. The essential idea of the college is the carrying on of liberal or non-specialized inquiry. Our question would then reshape itself to this: Ought a woman to receive a liberal education, or ought she to spend the usual college years in a school for matrimony?

My conviction is all for the collegiate education. Matrimony is only one of a large number of possible occupations for women. In the ministry, in law, in medicine, in teaching, in journalism, in scientific research, in civil engineering, in insurance, in business of many kinds, women have worked successfully and contentedly. Although it will always be true that the greater number of women will elect the domestic career, yet I cannot but think that the superlative fascination of that estate has been by recent writers a trifle overworked. Sentiment aside for a moment, is not matrimony the most precarious business in the world. The mat rial[sic] returns -- not to mention the vagaries of affection -- are notoriously disproportionate to a woman's efficiency. If it be the business of a domestic woman to rear a large family of children, she must acknowledge that her reward in worldly goods is inversely proportional to her success; for with every additional child the same income must be made to reach farther. Of course, no self-respecting woman marries merely for money but are we not coming to see that it is not respectable to enter any calling merely for money? Again, are we not likely to fall into the fallacy of supposing that there is something intrinsically desirable in a mere quantity of human beings? As Jane Austen says: "A family of ten children will always be called a fine family, were there are head and arms and legs enough for the number." We must remember that reproduction is too often a vain repetition. Why repeat, until we find something worth while? Indeed, I would almost say that a woman had no business to be a mother until she can demonstrate her ability to be something else.

However, be the allurements of different callings what they may, of a woman's inalienable right to choose for herself I cannot understand that [p. 792] there should be any question. And, if a woman has abilities to follow various professions, and the right to choose which she will, is it just or is it honorable so to manage her education that she never would follow, never would choose, but the one ? If her teachers decide for her what she ought to be, if they foreordain her to some one career, and then instruct her accordingly, she never has any real freedom or any real choice. In every trial both sides are supposed to get a hearing before judgment is pronounced; our sense of fair play demands that. It seems to me only an affair of common honesty to educate a girl so that she really comprehends more than one possibility in her life. A biased education is half truth and half lie. A woman's education, like a man's education, should fit her to make a free and intelligent choice of a life-occupation, A woman's education should place within her reach the possibility of economic independence; that is to say, the possibility of competing with men. For the woman who does not marry, economic independence is, of course, almost indispensable. But for the woman who does marry this possibility is hardly less desirable. I am not saying that a married woman ought actually to be earning an independent living, but I do say that she ought to be so educated that such a thing is within her power.

Historically, women have as a sex occupied a position inferior in dignity to that of men. Man's work in the world has been considered as more important than woman's work. If it really is more important, of course nobody can blame women for aspiring to do the higher kind of service. If it is not more important, there is but one way for women to prove it, and that is to meet men upon their own ground. We measure one man against another by setting the two at the same kind of work. We use the objective result as a measure of value. What women must be able to do is to produce the same definite impersonal objective result that a man does, and if the event shows that women can compete creditably with men, this fact enhances the value of whatever career the woman chooses. The woman who could follow another calling if she would dignifies by so much the calling which she does follow. She goes into it with the enthusiasm of a personal conviction, not because there was no alternative. We should have even more respect for matrimony as a vocation if we knew that it never was the only possible resource of any woman. Moreover, there are many married women for whom it would be a valuable experience to know the meaning of a hard day's work -- a woman's estimate of her husband may be considerably altered when she comes to appreciate the strain and effort of the work by which he supports her. In answer, then, to our question in its social aspect, I should say that a woman's prospect for [p. 793] social equality with men is conditioned by her ability to do the same work, and this ability is largely dependent upon her having the same school and college training which a man has.

Let us turn now to the psychological aspect of our question. Supposing that we wish to get the same grasp of a subject into a girl's head which we wish to get into a boy's, are her mental processes so diverse that we must adopt a radically different method of instruction and discipline?

The scientific investigation of the mental differences of the sexes is thus far limited in its scope and tentative in its conclusions. Many inquiries which have been made are almost entirely worthless on account of the lack of rigor in method. A contribution of the highest merit and importance has been made in this field by Dr. Helen Thompson, in her book The Mental Traits of Sex. Her conclusions are drawn from a systematic experimental study. She says:

The psychological differences of sex seem to be largely due, not to difference of average capacity, nor to difference in type of mental activity, but to differences in the social influences brought to bear on the developing individual from early infancy to adult years. The question of the future development of the intellectual life of women is one of social necessities and ideals, rather than of the inborn psychological characteristics of sex.

Some mental distinctions of sex there probably are, but they certainly are pretty difficult to determine. The environmental conditions of men and women are so disparate that it is hard to be sure that differences, apparently sexual, are not to be explained upon another basis. For practical purposes of education the mental likenesses seem overwhelming, and to attempt upon any such basis as we have to reconstruct the plan of woman's education would be wholly fantastic. I have said that education has three ends in view: the training of judgment, character, and taste. Let us turn to them in order. In forming a judgment a woman must observe exactly the same logical procedure as a man; she has no royal road to learning; the feminine syllogism has just as many terms and premises as the masculine, and no more. There is an old superstition that women's minds work by feeling and men's by reason. Surely it is time to give that up. Does a woman solve the binomial theorem by feeling, or a quadratic equation by intuition? Does a man never move without consulting the principle of sufficient reason? Does he appreciate a sonnet by logical deduction, or respond to a lyric in reasoned conclusions?

Again, in cultivating right character, how are we to be distinguished? Are girls not to have energy and initiative, are boys not to know gentleness and obedience? Is stealing not stealing, is a lie not a lie, are meanness [p. 794] and cowardice any the less mean and cowardly because of a sex distinction in the culprit? Are not honesty, veracity, courage, courtesy, as admirable in the one as in the other?

Or, finally, in forming taste cannot both sexes learn by the same acquaintance with the best in art. Must women be lured on by flower-pieces and men by battle-scenes to appreciate good painting? Shall we have a Mrs. Browning for men, and Jane Austen translated into the masculine? Must we edit a Woman's Bible, or the Ladies' Own Shakespeare?

Let me, then, answer the original question in this way: The education of a woman should not differ from that of a man, until after she becomes engaged to be married. This difference would not involve any changes in school and college. To my mind, the simplest, most natural, and most certain way of securing to men and women an identity of opportunity is the coeducational plan. I believe that coeducation helps to correct the faults of both sexes, without at all endangering the development of a desirable individuality. To the fear that women may be coarsened by the association, or men made less manly, I am inclined to reply that if men and women are fit to marry one another, they are fit to go to school together.

Let me say, in conclusion, that it would seem to me both frivolous and morally wrong for a school or college to spend time, money and intelligence in devising different systems of training for the two sexes, while so many, and those so real, problems in education are waiting for solution.