From the Archives: Women’s Widening Field

UPDATED: March 6, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 6, 2024
DECEMBER 1897 Premier issue of SUCCESS magazine.

DECEMBER 1897, Premier issue

When Florence Nightingale left home and friends to care for the sick and suffering, she little knew how her influence and example would lead thousands of women to become conscientious, well-trained nurses. The great good accomplished by them has gradually hushed the criticism and slander against those who pass out from home life because they wish to do good to others or to be independent of the aid and support of family or friends. Until now, even popular opinion upholds the idea that every girl should prepare for her life work wherever her lot may be cast, for the day of adversity may come to her however bright her prospects. If she makes preparations for some vocation and then is prevented from following it, nothing is lost. 

Knowledge, at least, is acquired: It will broaden her own life, and although not in the way expected, it will sooner or later broaden the lives of others.

Her educational progress

Until the present century, sometimes called the “Woman’s Century,” there never has been an opportunity for the equal education of men and women, although there have been exceptional cases where special opportunities were granted to daughters, wives or sisters. For a century and a half after schools were established in America, girls were not admitted to them; in the latter part of the 18th century, they were granted leave to attend from April to October. After this, the records of one town meeting say: “It is the sense of this meeting that girls should not be taught the back part of the Arithmetic.” In 1828, Massachusetts proclaimed that “girls may attend school the year round.” The first coeducational high school was established in Lowell in 1831, but there was no permanent high school for girls in Boston until 1852.

For the first quarter of this century, women were not allowed the privileges of public libraries, nor could they attend lectures and lyceums. If a woman wished for any education besides what she could obtain in school for the short period allowed and by home study, she must receive private instruction from some minister or college professor. In this way, Mary Lyon, Catherine Beecher and Emma Willard acquired such knowledge that they could go forth as pioneers, establishing those seminaries which gave the first public opportunities in America for the higher education of women.

SUCCESS Magazine Subscription offer

In 1833 at Oberlin College in Ohio, braving the discussion and opposition that would follow, stood forth as the first college in the country with open doors for all. There are now fully 200 universities, colleges and seminaries for girls, two-thirds of which confer degrees; and the older and more conservative institutions, like Harvard, Columbia, Oxford and Cambridge, have opened their side entrances for women.

It has been well said that “after the establishment of Vassar, the first college devoted exclusively to the education of the so-called weaker sex, in 1865, one can no more read the signs along the road—i.e., to the higher education of women—than he can count the telegraph poles as he is whirled along in a modern express train, and the pace of the girls themselves from that humble starting point of the back part of the Arithmetic to the goal of college president, a position now held by five American women, is like the chariot race in Ben-Hur.”

Women in the professions

Besides the increase of opportunities for general education, the doors have opened to nearly every branch of scientific research—medicine, law, theology, art literature, invention and architecture. Whatever a woman craves for her life work, that can she accomplish; for if the door has not been already opened and the way made easy by others, it will swing on its creaking hinges for her, if she perseveres in the right way, as it has for other pioneers.

One of the first doors opened, besides dressmaking and millinery, which were always considered strictly feminine employments, was that of medicine. And when we consider that there are now nearly 5,000 women physicians and surgeons in the United States, many of them in the prominent positions in college, hospital, county or state, we can hardly realize how heavy the door was to open, how it stood ajar for a little, then swung backward and again opened wider and so on for many years. 

Nor can we fully appreciate the struggles and rebuffs of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to hold a medical diploma. Scarcely 50 years ago, she applied at 12 different colleges for admission and was refused at all but finally graduated from Geneva, New York. A little later, those doors were closed against her sister, who was allowed one year only at Rush Medical College; she then finished her course in Cleveland. When these two sisters began their practice in New York City, in 1855, they were obliged to buy a house of their own, as even their most intimate friends would not be disgraced by having a woman’s doctor’s sign on their homes.

Notable triumphs

The first woman to practice law was Mrs. [Arabella] Mansfield, of Iowa, who began in 1869. Now, there are over 200 women lawyers in the United States. Twenty-five states and territories admit them to the bar. The bill allowing them to practice before the United States Supreme Court passed Congress in February 1879. Some women lawyers devote themselves wholly to office work, some accept salaried positions, while others prefer court practice. It is in social, purity cases and in all other cases where women appear as plaintiffs and defendants, that a woman lawyer exerts her most beneficent influence at the bar. May the day soon come when her voice shall be allowed among the jury in such cases!

One of those who have made the most rapid strides toward success is a daughter of New Hampshire, and graduate of Bates College, a rising lawyer of great prominence in Montana and the assistant attorney-general of that state, who missed the attorney-generalship by only a few votes. She also has the reputation of being “the only woman who ever went to Washington as the accredited representative of a sovereign state on official business.”

There is scarcely a library of consequence in the United States in which there is not at least one woman in charge of a department, while one-half of the libraries that once excluded women now employ them as librarians.

The first patent granted to a woman in this country bears the date of May 5, 1809. Since then, women have obtained more than 4,000 patents, many giving a return of large sums of money for their use and sale. 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of SUCCESS magazine. This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Courtesy of Library of Congress.