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A Time of Quiet Activism: Research, Practice, and Policy in American Women's Higher Education, 1945–1965

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017

Linda Eisenmann*
John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio


This exploration of American women's post-World War II higher education begins with three stories. These narratives reflect issues women faced when, as educators, they tried to plan curricula and programs for female students, and when, as professionals, they tried to manage their own careers in an era that frequently sent mixed messages about women's roles and opportunities. They also reveal a quiet type of activism practiced by postwar women educators, an approach which often pales in comparison to the firmer efforts of postsuffrage and World War II activists, or to the lively and boisterous work of late-1960s feminists. However, I will argue that this more muted style, when combined with the era's predilection for individualized solutions to women's concerns, marks a particular postwar approach to advocacy that may be different from other eras but that suited the contextually complicated postwar period.

Copyright © 2005 by the History of Education Society 

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1 Information about Meyer's life is drawn from Sicherman, Barbara and Green, Carol Hurd eds., Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980), 471473, and Graham, Katharine Personal History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).

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2 Graham, Personal History, 173.

3 Ibid., 252, 27.

4 Mueller's story is told in Kathryn Tuttle, “What Became of the Dean of Women? Changing Roles for Women Administrators in American Higher Education, 1940–1980” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1996), chapter 4.

5 Mueller, Kate Hevner Educating Women for a Changing World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954).

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6 See Tuttle, What Became of the Dean of Women?”; and Robert Schwartz, “Reconceptualizing the Leadership Roles of Women in Higher Education: A Brief Note on the Importance of the Dean of Women,” Journal of Higher Education, 68: 5 (September-October 1997): 502–22.

7 Turtle, What Became of the Dean of Women?“ especially 167–195.

8 The lawsuit, as well as AAUW's experience with racial issues, is discussed in Susan Levine, Degrees of Equality: The American Association of University Women and the Challenge of Twentieth-Century Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), especially chapter 6.

9 Ibid., 33.

10 Jones, BeverlyMary Eliza Church Terrell,” in Clark Hine, Darlene, ed., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1993), 11571159.

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11 Washington Branch of American Association of University Women v. American Association of University Women et al, 79 F. Supp. 88, July 16, 1948; American Association of University Women et al v. Washington Branch of American Association of University Women, 85 U.S. App. D.C. 163, 175 F.2d 368, 1949.

12 A discussion of four prominent postwar ideologies – patriotic, economic, cultural, and psychological—appears in Linda Eisenmann, “Educating the Female Citizen in a Postwar World: Competing Ideologies for American Women, 1945–1965,” Educational Review 54:2 (June 2002): 133141.

13 During the war, women held nearly 30 percent of all higher education teaching posts, having gained a few points with men's wartime absence. In 1944, women constituted 50 percent of all undergraduates, although their proportions declined with the advent of G.I. Bill of Rights recipients. See National Education Association, “Teacher Supply and Demand in Degree-Granting Institutions, 1954–55,” Research Bulletin of the National Education Association, 33:4 (1995): 127162; National Center for Educational Statistics, 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait (Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1993), 76.

14 For general discussions of the era, see Kaledin, Eugenia Mothers and More: American Women in the 1950s (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984); May, Elaine Tyler Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988); Chafe, William The Paradox of Change: American Women in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford Press, 1991); Sara Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1997).

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15 A good discussion of college campuses during the height of the era, G.I. Bill which pays particular attention to women's roles, is Clark, Daniel‘The Two Joes Meet—Joe College, Joe Veteran': The G.I. Bill, College Education, and Postwar American Culture,” History of Education Quarterly, 38: 2 (Summer 1998): 165189.

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16 A good discussion of how cultural demands translated into curricular confusion for women is Paula Fass, Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), especially chapter 5, “The Female Paradox: Higher Education for Women, 1945–1965,” 156–188.

17 See Chafe, The Paradox of Change; Evans, Born for Liberty; Kaledin, Mothers and More; May, Homeward Bound; and Kessler-Harris, Alice Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

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18 A noteworthy exception is the anthology by Meyerowitz, Joanne ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994). Its various articles discuss women's activism in politics, race relations, organizations, culture, and sexuality. Little mention is made of education, however. For a small but growing historiographic investigation of the era, see also Gabin, Nancy Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1935–1975 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990); Ware, Susan “American Women in the 1950s: Nonpartisan Politics and Women's Politicization,” in Tilly, Louise and Gurin, Patricia eds., Women, Politics, and Change (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1990), 281–299; Miller, Melody Moen, Phyllis and Dempster-McClain, Donna “Motherhood, Multiple Roles, and Maternal Well-Being: Women of the 1950s,” Gender and Society, 5:4 (December 1991): 565–582; Lynn, Susan Progressive Women in Conservative Times: Racial Justice, Peace, and Feminism, 1945–the 1960s (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992); Breines, Wini Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992); Scher, Abby “Cold War on the Home Front: Middle Class Women's Politics in the 1950s” (Ph.D. diss., New School for Social Research, 1995); and Hartmann, Susan The Other Feminists: Activists in the Liberal Establishment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

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19 Fass, The Female Paradox.

20 See Reclaiming the Incidental Student: Higher Education for American Women, 1945–1965 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming).

21 Allen, Lucile 26 May 1952 memorandum, American Council on Education, Commission on the Education of Women, collection B-22, box 1, folder 2, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

22 Significant Commission publications include: Hottel, Althea How Fare American Women? (Washington D.C.: American Council on Education, 1955); The Education of Women: Signs for the Future, ed. David, Opal (Washington D.C.: American Council of Education, 1958); The Span of a Woman's Life and Learning (Washington D.C.: The Commission on the Education of Women of the American Council on Education, 1960); and Education and a Woman's Life, ed. Dennis, Lawrence (Washington D.C.: American Council on Education, 1962).

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23 Work on motivation is best covered in How Fare American Women? and Signs for the Future. The Commission relied heavily on work by psychologist Elizabeth Douvan of the University of Michigan.

24 Hottel's discussion of this research is presented in How Fare American Women?

25 See especially Tiedeman, DavidCareer Development of Women: Some Propositions,” in Signs for the Future, 6474.

26 Sanford, NevittMotivation of High Achievers,” in Signs for the Future, 3439.

27 Fass, Outside In, lays out the parameters of the curriculum debate. My work differentiates among three approaches to curricular decisions: cultural conformism, economic utilitarianism, and equity-based planning. Exemplars of advocates of each approach include, as a cultural conformist, White, Lynn Jr. Educating Our Daughters: A Challenge to the Colleges (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950); as an economic utilitarian, Wolfle, Dael America's Resources of Specialized Talent: A Current Appraisal and a Look Ahead (New York: Harper and Bros., 1954); and, as an equity-based planner, Komarovsky, Mirra Women in the Modern World: Their Education and Their Dilemmas (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953).

28 The Commission's pamphlet, Span of a Woman's Life and Learning, as well as the book, Education and a Woman's Life, best outline their thinking about “lifespan” education. Continuing education for women became a significant movement after 1960, with its attempts to reclaim the educational careers of women who had dropped out before completing college. See, for example, Astin, Helen S. ed., Some Action of Her Own: The Adult Woman and Higher Education (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1976); and Eisenmann, Linda “Advocacy, Research, and Service: The Pioneering Origins of the University of Michigan's Center for the Education of Women,” University of Michigan, Center for the Education of Women Research Paper Series, Winter 2001.

29 See American Women: The Report of the President's Commission on the Status of Women and Other Publications of the Commission, eds. Mead, Margaret and Kaplan, Frances (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965).

30 A good discussion of the President's Commission is Harrison, Cynthia E. On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women's Issues, 1945–1968 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

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31 Harrington, Michael The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1962); U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research [Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1965); Coleman, James S. et al, Equality of Educational Opportunity (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1966).

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32 Harrison, On Account of Sex, covers this strategic shift in depth.

33 Committee on Education, “Summary of Report of Committee on Education” (27 March 1963), box 6, folder 41, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard Library, Cambridge, Mass.

34 Mead, and Kaplan, American Women, 25.

35 Ibid., 23.

36 The Education Committee of the President's Commission was chaired by Mary Ingraham Bunting, president of Radcliffe College, who had chaired the ACE Commission on the Education of Women just prior to assuming her college presidency. As Bunting left the ACE Commission, it was focusing closely on the idea of lifespan education. Several of the people whom Bunting and Esther Peterson chose as members of the Education Committee (especially Esther Raushenbush of Sarah Lawrence College and Virginia Senders, formerly of the University of Minnesota) were well-known advocates, and even programmatic founders, of women's continuing education.

37 The origins and history of AAUW are discussed in Levine, Degrees of Equality; for NADW, see Gangone, LynnNavigating Turbulence: A Case Study of a Voluntary Higher Education Association“ (Ph.D. diss., Teachers College, Columbia University, 1999).

38 Hottel's efforts as national AAUW president, as well as the wider story of race in the organization, are found in Levine, Degrees of Equality, especially chapter 6.

39 Brett, Ruth Calhoun, Edna Piggot, Lucille Davis, Hilda and Bell-Scott, PatriciaA Symposium: Our Living History: Reminiscences of Black Participation in NAWDAC,” Journal of the National Association of Women Deans, Administrators, and Counselors 33 (2): 3 (Winter 1979), 4951.

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40 The story of the NACW is in Carter, MaryThe Educational Activities of the National Association of College Women, 1923–1960“ (masters thesis, Howard University, 1962), and Perkins, Linda “The National Association of College Women: Vanguard of Black Women's Leadership and Education, 1923–1954,” Journal of Education 172:3 (1990): 65–75. For “the Colored Deans of Women,” as members often called it, see Hilda Davis and Patricia Bell-Scott, “The Association of Deans of Women and Advisers to Girls in Negro Schools, 1929–1954: A Brief Oral History,” Sage 6:1 (Summer 1989): 40–44; Hine, Darlene Clark ed., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing, 1993), 1157–1159; and Brett, Calhoun, Piggot, Davis, and Bell-Scott, “A Symposium.”

41 For discussion of the early deans’ work, see Nidiffer, Jana Pioneering Deans of Women: More than Wise and Pious Matrons (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 2000).

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42 Schwartz, Reconceptualizing the Leadership Roles of Women.

43 Roberts, EuniceKeynote Speech,” Journal of the National Association of Women Deans and Counselors 22: 4 (Summer 1959): 152153.

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44 Schleman, HelenThe Committee's Report of the AAUP as Viewed by the Dean of Women,” Journal of the National Association of Women Deans and Counselors 27: 4 (Summer 1965): 147148. See also Blanding, Sarah “The Dean's Contribution to the Life of Our Times,” Journal of the National Association of Deans of Women 9:4 (Summer 1946): 148; and Hilton, Eunice “‘The Feminine Mystique': A Special Message to Counselors of Women,” Journal of the National Association of Women Deans and Counselors 27:2 (Winter 1964): 61–62.

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