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Historical Exploration of Women's Education Recognized

National Association Honors UCR Education Professor’s Book

Margaret Nash’s treatise on the early American education of women garners critic’s choice honors From the American Educational Studies Association

(November 8, 2005)

Margaret Nash

Margaret Nash

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — www.ucr.eduMargaret Nash, an assistant professor of education at UC Riverside, writes that in the early 1800s, girls studied technical subjects like biology, botany and chemistry, while boys prepared for college with subjects like Greek and Latin. That and other interesting facts can be found in “Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840,” a book that recently earned a 2005 “Critics Choice Award” from the American Educational Studies Association.

A committee of AESA members annually selects a number of titles it regards as outstanding books that may be of interest to those in educational studies. The titles are designated Critics’ Choice Award winners to recognize and increase awareness of recent scholarship deemed outstanding in its field and of potential interest to members of the Association.

Nash’s subject developed while she researched her dissertation at the University of Wisconsin — Madison, where she received a Ph.D. in educational policy studies in 2000.

Published in April by Palgrave, a division of Macmillan publishing, Nash's book shakes up popularly held notions of women’s higher education in the early years of the American republic.

“Part of the history of women’s education is the assumption that things have gotten better for women over time, when that’s not necessarily the case,” Nash said. “In the early 19th Century, for instance, it was girls who were most likely to study chemistry, botany and biology because the boys were taking college preparatory courses focusing on the classics, Greek and Latin.”

During that period, the justification and rationale behind educating women was to produce well-rounded, cultured and civilized people.

“Education wasn’t as gendered as it was class conscious,” Nash said. “Education was a way of staking out who the white middle class were going to be, and what they were expected to know.”

Other ways that Nash’s research veers from our modern assumptions of women’s education during the period include:

  • Some things we associate with modern reforms were actually introduced much earlier. For instance, as early as the 1820s, educational reformers emphasized the need to teach critical thinking rather than rote memorization.

  • There was a great push to educate the whole child from mental, spiritual and physical perspectives.

  • The 1780s and ‘90s were a time of women’s radicalism, where opinion pieces and letters to newspapers advocated such things as taking the term “obey” out of matrimonial vows because of its undemocratic sentiment, and demanding economic options to marriage for women.

  • Many during this period also questioned the notion of feminine fragility, with calls for strength and vigor in women to serve as equal partners with men.

The research for “Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840” may have sparked the genesis for Nash’s next book.

“I’d like to chronicle what changed after 1840,” she said. “So much happened between 1840 and 1875, including the rise of a women’s movement, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War, all leading to new ways of thinking about gender, race, and citizenship. I’m curious about how the cultural meanings of education also may have changed in this period.”

One thing has remained constant, according to Nash — public education has always been an area of dispute, a forum for public discussion about what the priorities of the nation should be.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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