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Higher Education for Women in Postwar America, 1945-1965


Linda Eisenmann


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006

 Paperback, 279 pages. $30.00. ISBN-13: 978-0801887451


American Higher Education Transformed, 1940-2005

 Documenting the National Discourse


 Edited by Wilson Smith & Thomas Bender


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008

 Hardcover, 523 pages. $82.00. ISBN-13: 978-0801886713


Reviewed by Malie Montagutelli

Université Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle




These two books, published by the same publishing house, are reviewed together as they partly cover the same period in the history of American higher education.

1. Linda Eisenmann has been Provost at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts, since 2009. Previously she was Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at John Carroll University in Ohio. A specialist in the History of Higher Education in the United States, she has taught history and education in various colleges and universities, focusing on women's issues. She is active nationally in several scholarly associations. She has been president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, president of the History of Education Society and vice-president of the American Educational Research Association. She regularly contributes to scholarly journals and has published several books on the history of higher education and of women in higher education. She was editor of The Historical Dictionary of Women's Education in the United States (Greenwood Press, 1998).

Up until this publication, scholars had mainly focused either on women's entrance into higher education during the nineteenth century and their first access to the professions or on the years of feminist militancy starting in the late 1960's. Thus in the present work, Eisenmann explores a period in the history of women in higher education which had hitherto been understudied by scholars: the twenty years following World War II generally seen as a period of female domesticity, with little interest in or attention to feminist issues. In other words, this book provides the missing link between women's activism during the war and the women's movement in the late 1960's.

Eisenmann's main contention is that feminism was indeed active during that period, but that it had to take on a different approach to solving the problems encountered by women in universities and in entering a career. Because the general opinion was indeed not inclined to readily accept feminine activism, women sought not to radically change the existing structures but to fit into them and stay there. This they did by adopting a more discreet form of advocacy and finding individualized solutions, helping each woman find her own point of equilibrium between education, family, and career. Eisenmann speaks of "adaptive activism", "adaptive" because it helped women find the right balance in their lives between domestic duties and their personal expectations and not renege on either. Women's advocates promoted individual choices rather than promote collective action, which was simply too early to even consider. But this was activism nevertheless and women continued to enrol in universities and by doing so they paved the way for the more radical goals and actions which were to come by the late 1960's.

The book divides into three parts, three points of focus. Part 1, entitled "Ideologies", discusses the ideological elements which influenced postwar society's views on women and consequently established social norms for them. It shows their difficulties to make themselves accepted in the universities as more than just "incidental students". The ideology outlined here is essentially white middle class. Part 2, entitled "Explorations", describes the research undertaken by the Commission on the Education of Women (CEW), and the three reports it published starting in 1957. These reports contributed to change the discourse on women, especially in one important aspect: CEW introduced the notion of "life phases" in the lives of women who had married and had children, and  could plan to return to school or enter the workforce once the children were old enough; whereas until then the predominating assumption was that once women married and had children they would never contemplate returning to school or work. This opened the door, albeit very slightly, to new education programs for this new kind of students. Two other associations were active too: the American Association of University Women, AAUW, and the National Association of Deans of Women, NADW, a professional organization for collegiate administrators, which became the National Association of Women in Higher Education and dissolved in 1999. Eisenmann concedes that these groups obtained very modest results but they held their attention on women's issues and certainly paved the way for what was to follow.

Part 3, entitled "Responses", focuses on the early 1960's and assesses the successes and limitations of the growth of women's continuing education programs. It closes with the impression that even though a deeper awareness of the special needs of women who go back to school had definitely developed, this fact had not aroused great interest on many campuses. In the end, women advocates became very much aware of the limited focus, and success, of their efforts, but they were also ready to expand their actions in the following decades.

The interest of this book is its focus on a period which had been neglected by scholars as an uneventful period in regard to women in higher education; as such it is a much needed publication. Linda Eisenmann, certainly one among the most prominent scholars in her field, has produced a book which is rich in details, well researched and documented and which by filling a gap comes as a welcome addition in the historiography of women and higher education.


2. The editors of this volume are both respected scholars. Thomas Bender is a historian who in recent years published two books on the need for the scientific community to approach research on America no longer from an insular position but within a broad international context (Rethinking American History in a Global Age, 2002, and A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in a Global Age, 2006). He is currently Professor of the Humanities and History at New York University. Wilson Smith, a historian, is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis. In 1961, Smith  teamed up with Richard Hofstadter to edit a two-volume anthology, American Higher Education: A Documentary History. The present work is a sequel. This new anthology, American Education Transformed, presents 172 documents covering the period between 1940 and 2005.

An introduction provides an overview on the transformational process the American university went through during the post-World War II period. Prior to the war, colleges and universities had been smaller in size and much less complex; they were very local institutions attended by a homogeneous student population. The transformations were profound. They affected all aspects of higher education: educational goals, institutional structures and curricula, admission policies, ethnic and economic composition of student bodies, expanding social and gender membership in the professions, and finally growing dependence on federal funding and foundation financial aids. After World War II, universities became fully incorporated into the society. As knowledge became the engine of economic development, they became more accessible to a much more diverse population.

The documents presented portray this expansion and complexification, addressing all the aspects we have just mentioned. They are grouped into twelve topical sections, each one preceded by a short presentation of the context within the theme under study. In turn, each document is introduced by a short biographical text presenting its author, followed by a brief bibliography of his/her previous works and additional readings for further study. Some of the documents are well known (e.g. The Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision, the 1978 Bakke decision or the 1964 Port Huron Statement by the SDS), while others are less so (e.g. and at random, Peter Galison's 1987 article "How Experiments End" or Robert Weisbuch's "Six Proposals to Revive the Humanities", 1999) but all are relevant. Then we find essential documents, such as Vannevar Bush's 1945 Report to President Roosevelt, "Science, the Endless Frontier", and seminal articles such as Lionel Trilling's 1974 "The Last Decade" or Adrienne Rich's 1979 "Taking Women Students Seriously". These few examples show the breadth these documents cover.

As with any anthology, Bender and Smith had to make choices and they make clear they set aside some issues such as student life, athletics, and budgets. Some may find this a regrettable omission. As stated in their introduction, the editors intended this collection of documents as

a contribution to the history of American higher education since 1945. But along with two volumes of documents that preceded it, this volume is designed for a larger and more public role. It is intended to provide a foundation for continuing the national discourse on higher education that will shape the next half century. [9]

No doubt, they have achieved their goal and this book will become a reference for students and scholars alike as well as for public reformers.





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