By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
When 17th century women’s rights advocate Margaret Brent owned much of the land upon which Alexandria sits today, she might not have imagined that more than a century later, a parcel would become the site for the first all-girl’s school in Virginia.
In 1812, the first floor of the building at 218 N. Columbus St. was the location of the Free School for Girls, the first designated free school for females in the Commonwealth. It was funded by the Washington Society and Elizabeth Washington of Hayfield, Virginia, who dedicated her funds for girls only: “I confine this donation to my own sex, because I believe that human happiness has material dependence upon our moral and religious worth,” she said.
Beginning 26 years earlier, girls had attended the Alexandria Academy – at the ratio of four boys to one girl.
The colonies and then the nation initially made little provision for the education of women.
There were the “dame schools” of the 1700s, elementary classrooms taught by women, and seminaries, the primary alternative for women who wished to earn a higher degree for teacher training, but women and girls were generally believed to be intellectually inferior. Education in non-domestic subjects was thought to put at risk girls’ preparation for their “natural” role as wives and mothers. Only a small percentage of girls attended town schools or academies. When girls were admitted to town schools, they usually were welcomed only when boys did not attend, for example on holidays or during summer months.
Notwithstanding the seminary option, most female students were prevented from pursuing higher education until the 19th century. Before the gender desegregation of academia, only a small number of women, usually from wealthy or well-educated families, graduated from universities.
Through the mid-1960s, most American female students were guided via home economics and typing classes into four occupational choices: secretarial work, nursing, teaching or motherhood.
Many campuses began to change 50 years ago with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which protects students from discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal financial assistance. The Women’s Educational Equity Act followed in 1974.
Despite these two pieces of landmark legislation, barriers continued, predominantly for women of color. For example, even though Yale University began admitting women to its graduate school in 1892, the law school did not graduate its first African-American woman until almost 40 years later.
It was no better across the pond: Women who wanted to enroll in college in Great Britain were often called “blue stockings,” a derogatory term for an educated woman considered “unmarriage-able.” The term was based on the “Blue Stocking Society,” a group of intellectual women in the late 1700s.
The Little Theatre of Alexandria will dramatize the story of four women fighting for an education set against the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain in “Blue Stockings.” Shows start Feb. 26 and run until March 19.
Back in the United States, more women than men have attended college since the late 1970s. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of women enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities has steadily increased from 29% in 1947 to 57.1% in 2021. Women have surpassed men in the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees conferred annually. Today, the same is true regarding doctorate degrees. According to the American Council on Education, in 2016, three out of 10 college presidents were women.
Throughout our history, classrooms have been under the care of female teachers. The number of women who work in the education profession has risen: Currently, 77.5% of full-time Alexandria City Public Schools employees are women. From the school on Columbus Street to leadership on local school boards, administrations and in the classroom, Alexandria’s women have certainly graduated with honors.
The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that highlights influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebratesWomen@gmail.com.