Stepping Out: Women Go to College
Until the 1830s, college was not a widely available option for women. Troy Female Seminary, founded in 1814 by Emma Willard, was one of the earliest schools to provide women with an educational equivalent to men’s college. Mississippi College was one of the first co-educational colleges to admit women in 1831, followed by Oberlin College in 1837.
Women’s roles expanded during the Civil War; they oversaw households, businesses, schools, and community affairs while men were away. This began a shift in attitude, and after the war, higher education became accessible to more women. The Land-Grant College Act of 1862 created public colleges accessible to women, and Vassar, Smith, and Bryn Mawr were all founded as private women’s colleges to prepare women for teaching and community work.
Viola Stow (1841-1912)
Viola Stow was born in 1841 near East Enterprise, Switzerland County, Indiana, a rural farming community near the Ohio River. She was the third of four children and only daughter of Uzziel and Catharine Stow. Stow’s parents valued education, and as a young girl she studied at the community school in Stowtown. The school was maintained by local residents, but the community often had difficulty retaining teachers. This led to sporadic instruction during Stow’s youth.
At age 15, Stow began a three-year course of study at Elizabethtown Female Seminary in Ohio, a boarding school 16 miles from Cincinnati. The school’s mission was to cultivate “earnest and independent thought,” to teach habits of “order, economy, punctuality and industry,” and to qualify women to “enter any Sphere that Providence may assign.”
Stow’s friends were all from rural farming communities in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. She and the other girls from Switzerland county travelled upriver by steamboat to reach the school, where they lived during the school term.
The young women found the seminary’s rules severe. They were afraid to be caught talking during the strictly enforced quiet study time. In their correspondence, several students refer to their school as a “nunnery.” They sometimes found it a lonely place, lacking the company of young men and society. Stow’s older brother’s occasional visits to the seminary were always highly anticipated.
Stow expressed some envy of her brothers and the difference in their school experiences. She expected that her older brother was “enjoying himself finely” at school in Cincinnati. She told her younger brother that she was glad he was next in line for “edification,” assuring him that boys are given more privileges than girls, so he wouldn’t have a hard time at school.
Stow began to see the school in a more positive light as graduation approached. She wanted to be a teacher but expected her mother and older brother to oppose her aspirations. She taught in her hometown for several school terms in the early 1860s but quit teaching after her marriage in 1862.
Several of Stow’s schoolfriends also embarked on teaching careers. Stow’s cousin, Julia Stow, briefly taught in Marble Hill, Indiana, while Maggie Brown moved farther away to teach music in Loda, Illinois. Melissa Jackson was a teacher in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, before pursuing better pay near the Ohio River in Boone County, Kentucky, which she describes in the letter.
Elizabethtown Female Seminary
Elizabethtown Female Seminary's mission included qualifying women to "enter any Sphere that Providence may assign." Elizabethtown Seminary’s curriculum was designed to be challenging. Science and math were given priority, and subjects included natural history, botany, physiology, astronomy, geology, mineralogy, chemistry, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Viola was often nervous before examinations and dedicated many hours to study.
She and the other students were assigned daily domestic tasks such as preparing meals and doing dishes. Some students also made pies or cakes. It could take up to 2 hours to wash dishes after a single meal.