Education: Women's Colleges


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Graduating Class of Wesleyan Female Institute, Murfreesboro, N.C., 1854

Graduating Class of Wesleyan Female Institute,
Murfreesboro, N.C., 1854

Southern states had been home to many women's colleges since before the turn of the 20th century, and the number and size of these programs grew steadily into the early 1900s. For Southern families who could afford to send their daughter to a women's college, the education she received there was thought to help refine her character and better prepare her for her roles and responsibilities as a wife and mother.

Almost all women's colleges required at least some study in subjects traditionally deemed acceptable for female study, such as music and dancing. However, most women's colleges also offered study in Latin, geography, mathematics, literature, or the sciences, and many also required some component of physical activity. These curricula provided a broader, more comprehensive education for young women, closer to the courses of study for men at the time. The South also boasted several successful institutions that prepared young women to work as schoolteachers. The Woman's College of the University of North Carolina, located in Greensboro, and Winthrop in South Carolina were examples of such well-regarded teacher training programs that got their start in the late 1800s.

Mary Primrose Turner, 1914 and Mary Turner Willis, 1939


Mary Primrose Turner (left), Salem College, 1914,
and her daughter Mary Turner Lane (right),
Salem College, 1939.

"Education for women was
justified" - Mary Turner Lane

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Mary Turner Lane described her mother's time at Salem College in North Carolina. Her mother graduated in 1914 with a degree in music, which was a traditional major for women at the time. Even if a woman was educated, she was expected to use her education for a different purpose, namely, for the improvement of her family. An educated woman, it was thought, would be better able to raise her children and instill in them good principles, knowledge, and values. A popular saying of the time in support of education for women contended that "when you educate a man, you educate an individual; when you educate a woman, you educate a family."