Book Discussion -- An American Girl, and Her Four Years in a Boys' College
The years immediately following the Civil War were times of ferment in the United States. The plantation-owning class in the South had lost much of its power and a new industrial oligarchy was rising in the North. Immigrants from all over Europe were arriving in Northern cities and moving out into the West; black Americans were demanding the rights that they believed accompanied emancipation; reformers were calling for children to be sent to school rather than into factories.
One of the changes that occurred in some quarters was a rethinking of the status of women. In 1870, the University of Michigan took the daring step of opening its classes to women. One year later, Olive San Louie Anderson enrolled there as a freshman. Her An American Girl, and Her Four Years in a Boys' College, originally published in 1878, is a fictionalized account of her experiences. It is also a description of the challenges that faced some of what Henry James called the "New Women" as they sought to negotiate their way in a man's world.
The novel, newly republished and annotated by Prof. Elisabeth Israels Perry and Jennifer Ann Price, was discussed in a seminar organized by the Division of United States Studies and cosponsored by the National Women's History Museum. It recounts the experiences of Wilhemine "Will" Elliot, a rebellious young woman who not only excels in her classwork at the fictionalized University of Michigan but engages in rigorous physical activities (chopping wood, training horses and hunting), thereby challenging conventional notions of "women's place." Will and the other women students had to cope with the initial reluctance of parents, the skepticism of some professors, and the threat of sexual assault, as well as with the hostility of male students and townspeople. As Perry noted, many Americans of the era agreed with the ideas of the renowned Harvard University physician Edward Clark, who warned in a much republished volume that higher education would render women physically unfit for motherhood. Flouting Clark, elite women's colleges would become more prevalent towards the end of the nineteenth century, but the idea of women sitting in the same classrooms as men was widely regarded with the same outrage as, a century later, was the idea of coeducation in the nation's military academies.
Will and some of her colleagues were daring in ways that went beyond the intellectual and the physical. Perry and commentator Phyllis Palmer spoke of the constraints that organized religion placed on women of the era, reinforcing traditional notions of women's place. Part of Will's rebellion consisted of her refusal to have her religiosity defined for her and her insistence on expressing a deeply felt religious ethos as one defined by personal values rather than male-dominated institutions.
The novel opens a window into the ferment outside of suffrage efforts that would ultimately result in a women's rights movement, and thereby provides a corrective to the prevalent idea that the questioning of women's place was limited to the suffragists. Women such as Will – who had dreams of becoming a doctor, although the novel suggests they would not be realized – were in fact altering gender roles by living their unorthodox lives. As Prof. Kriste Lindenmeyer commented, however, while Will and her colleagues were pushing the limits of gender roles, so were women of the urban working class. They were the women who could not follow models of middle-class female propriety, and it was they who confronted the still-relevant issue of how one juggles the demands of the workplace and the family.
As frequently happens after a time of societal ferment, the seemingly boundless opportunities of the 1870s were largely shut off by the resurgence of traditional values in the 1890s. History is not a story that moves in only one direction, as the panelists told the audience. The optimism of the 1870s would not result in sustained opportunities for women, any more than it would for African Americans, until well into the twentieth century.
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129