Colleges and universities were not open to women in the early days of the American Republic—a period from roughly 1720 to 1830—but literature reveals a new enthusiasm for the intellectual capacity of women.
Therein lies the paradox explored by Lucia McMahon, associate professor of history, in her recently published book, Mere Equals: A Paradox of Women’s Education in the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2012).
“It was a watershed moment in history, just prior to the women’s rights movement,” says McMahon. Education was deemed important to the progress of the country as a whole because it contributed to society’s culture, sensibility, and refinement. By 1802, scores of female academies were being established, yet the idea of college for women was still outside of serious consideration.
“There was persistent tension between women’s intellectual equality and sexual difference,” explains McMahon. Proponents of women’s education insisted that women were at once equal to and different from men. Yet, women were not political equals. They could not vote or hold office. And once married, it was difficult to own property or acquire independent wealth.
McMahon takes a closer look at this time in history, when women enjoyed unprecedented educational opportunities but were not encouraged to rise above their station in life. Every chapter centers on one woman’s story and how education impacted her role, whether in friendship, family, courtship, or motherhood. In a chapter on friendship, two educated women write letters to each other for a period of thirty years. “The letters are as much about their intellectual exchange as it is about their friendship,” she says.
McMahon teaches early American history and women’s history courses. She earned her Ph.D. from Rutgers University.