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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson


Title:     Experiments
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

Why is it, that, whenever anything is done for women in the way of education, it is called "an experiment,"--something that is to be long considered, stoutly opposed, grudgingly yielded, and dubiously watched,-- while, if the same thing is done for men, its desirableness is assumed as a matter of course, and the thing is done? Thus, when Harvard College was founded, it was not regarded as an experiment, but as an institution. The "General Court," in 1636, "agreed to give 400 _l_. towards a schoale or colledge," and the affair was settled. Every subsequent step in the expanding of educational opportunities for young men has gone in the same way. But when there seems a chance of extending, however irregularly, some of the same collegiate advantages to women, I observe that respectable newspapers, in all good faith, are apt to speak of the measure as an "experiment."

It seems to me no more of an "experiment" than when a boy who has usually eaten up his whole apple becomes a little touched with a sense of justice, and finally decides to offer his sister the smaller half. If he has ever regarded that offer as an experiment, the first actual trial will put the result into the list of certainties; and it will become an axiom in his mind that girls like apples. Whatever may be said about the position of women in law and society, it is clear that their educational disadvantages have been a prolonged disgrace to the other sex, and one for which women themselves are in no way accountable. When Francoise de Saintonges, in the sixteenth century, wished to establish girls' schools in France, she was hooted in the streets, and her father called together four doctors of law to decide whether she was possessed of a devil in planning to teach women,--"_pour s'assurer qu'instruire des femmes n'etait pas un oeuvre du demon_." From that day to this we have seen women almost always more ready to be taught than was any one else to teach them. Talk as you please about their wishing or not wishing to vote: they have certainly wished for instruction, and have had it doled out to them almost as grudgingly as if it were the ballot itself.

Consider the educational history of Massachusetts, for instance. The wife of President John Adams was born in 1744; and she says of her youth that "female education, in the best families, went no farther than writing and arithmetic." Barry tells us in his "History of Massachusetts," that the public education was first provided for boys only; "but light soon broke in, and girls were allowed to attend the public schools two hours a day."[1] It appears from President Quincy's "Municipal History of Boston,"[2] that from 1790 girls were there admitted to such schools, but during the summer months only, when there were not boys enough to fill them,--from April 20 to October 20 of each year. This lasted until 1822, when Boston became a city. Four years after, an attempt was made to establish a high school for girls, which was not, however, to teach Latin and Greek. It had, in the words of the school committee of 1854, "an alarming success;" and the school was abolished after eighteen months' trial, because the girls crowded into it; and as Mr. Quincy, with exquisite simplicity, records, "not one voluntarily quitted it, and there was no reason to suppose that any one admitted to the school would voluntarily quit for the whole three years, except in case of marriage!"

How amusing seems it now to read of such an "experiment" as this, abandoned only because of its overwhelming success! How absurd now seem the discussions of a few years ago!--the doubts whether young women really desired higher education, whether they were capable of it, whether their health would bear it, whether their parents would permit it. An address I gave before the Social Science Association on this subject, at Boston, May 14, 1873, now seems to me such a collection of platitudes that I hardly see how I dared come before an intelligent audience with such needless reasonings. It is as if I had soberly labored to prove that two and two make four, or that ginger is "hot i' the mouth." Yet the subsequent discussion in that meeting showed that around even these harmless and commonplace propositions the battle of debate could rage hot; and it really seemed as if even to teach women the alphabet ought still to be mentioned as "a promising experiment." Now, with the successes before us of so many colleges; with the spectacle at Cambridge of young women actually reading Plato "at sight" with Professor Goodwin,--it surely seems as if the higher education of women might be considered quite beyond the stage of experiment, and might henceforth be provided for in the same common-sense and matter-of-course way which we provide for the education of young men.

And, if this point is already reached in education, how long before it will also be reached in political life, and women's voting be viewed as a matter of course, and a thing no longer experimental?

[Footnote 1: Vol. iii. 323.]

[Footnote 2: Page 21.]

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Experiments