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Fri May 4, 2012, 03:16 PM

The fairer sex

The second half of the 19th century witnessed a broad movement to provide higher education to women. Women’s colleges, including Vassar, Wellesley, Smith and Bryn Mawr, opened in the Northeast, while the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 accelerated the opening of state universities, open to both men and women, in the Midwest. By 1870, women could go to 239 colleges around the country, and by 1890, 63 percent of the 1,082 colleges in the country admitted women.

The availability of higher education to women sparked a heated debate. Advocates claimed that college made women better wives and mothers and gave single women the tools to be self-supporting. Opponents railed against the dangers of higher education, warning that it encouraged independence in women and threatened marriage and the family. At the heart of their criticism was the prevailing belief that women were biologically different, indeed inferior, to men and could not withstand the physical and mental demands of higher education. Dire consequences — physical weakness, emotional breakdown, sterility, even death — awaited young women who put their intellectual pursuits before their unique physiological needs.

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