The Education of Sara Howard – Part Three

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of the Education of Sara Howard series.

Today’s final installment in the Education of Sara Howard series moves beyond our hypothetical Sara’s college years to focus on the career choices a young woman of Sara’s social class in New York had available to her in the 1880s and 1890s. As indicated at the conclusion of Part Two, the life choices female college graduates faced in the years immediately following college during the late 19th century could be stressful, with many young women forced to make difficult choices between the family claim and the social claim, the choice between marriage and a career, and the limited number of professions open to women if they did decide to pursue a career. However, a determined minority — of which Sara was one — pushed beyond societal expectations and made choices women earlier in the century would never have dared dream about. These college graduates were known collectively, in America and abroad, as “the new women”, and this is their story.

The Post-College Years

In 1896, a manual for young women was published that discussed common problems faced by female college graduates in America. Entitled “After College, What?“, the manual explained that most young women faced a “blank nothingness” at the conclusion of their college degree that left them feeling a “deep and perplexing unhappiness” until they either got married or were able to find “something [useful] to do”. Having spent four years immersed in an environment that fostered the development of independence and autonomy that was not encouraged in the typical patriarchal family home, these young women completed their college degree with a yearning to go out into the world at large and fulfill their “social claim” — a calling to use their advanced education in the same way that their brothers could; as an independent citizen with a role beyond that of wife and mother. However, upon returning to the family home following graduation, the majority of women found their parents in direct opposition, asserting the “family claim”.

marion-talbotAlthough these middle- and upper-class families had permitted — and even encouraged — their daughter to pursue self-improvement in the form of advanced education, by the time their daughter reached her early-to-mid-20s, she was expected to turn her attention to domestic responsibilities, devoting herself to taking care of parents and siblings until she could find a suitable husband, and filling any spare hours with charity work and sewing circles. For many young women who had for the first time started to think of a world beyond the home being made possible by her four years away at college, these conditions were stifling. Their girlhood friends who saw marriage as the only possible step once they returned from finishing schools, trips abroad to the continent, and formal debuts, did not want to mix with the young college graduate “whose aims were so different from their own”, and the college women faced “what was almost social ostracism”. One young graduate lamented, “We college girls are made to feel that we are different, we feel our separation.” Another, Marion Talbot, who would eventually become Dean of Women at the University of Chicago in 1895 recalled of her own difficult years immediately post-college in the early 1880s, “Here, then, was Marion Talbot with a college degree and an absorbing desire to make herself and her education useful, but with as barren an outlook for such a future as one can imagine.”

However, not all parents during this period were unsupportive or asserted the family claim. As a result of her daughter’s negative experiences, Marion Talbot’s mother founded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae in 1882 for graduates from Oberlin, Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley Colleges, and Michigan, Wisconsin, Cornell, and Boston Universities to provide support that young women often lacked following graduation, and to help them through the anxiety and depression that frequently resulted from their feelings of isolation. In another example, Hilda Worthington Smith’s mother encouraged her daughter to volunteer for mission work following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College in 1910 as she felt that life as a homemaker was “too much to ask” of Hilda, and she went on to encourage her daughter to find a paying position a few years later. On the subject of her mother’s atypically supportive attitude toward entering the workforce, Hilda commented:

This I knew was a great concession, as several of her friends had warned her against letting me venture into the untried world of women’s work. Those women who did it were still thought very “advanced.” Any such excursions from home might lead to a daughter wanting her own apartment and becoming alienated from her family.

Mrs. Smith’s “advanced” views served her daughter well. Hilda went on to become Acting Dean and Dean of Bryn Mawr College from 1919 until 1922, and then Director of Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers from 1921 until 1933. Fortunately for the clever and independent Sara, it appears as though her parents views were as similarly “advanced” as Hilda’s mother’s, which we get a glimpse of in The Alienist, 78, when John Moore relates one of her post-college activities:

…right after Sara’s graduation from college, her family had gotten the idea that her education might be fully balanced by some firsthand experience of life in places other than Rhinebeck (where the Howards’ country estate was located) and Gramercy Park. So she put on a starched white blouse, a dreary black skirt, and a rather ridiculous boater and spent the summer assisting a visiting nurse in the Tenth Ward.

However, perhaps the most important thing to note, regardless of how supportive or unsupportive families were, is that for almost all of the young women who belonged to the pioneering generation of female college graduates in the late 19th century, parental attitudes and family ties were the key factor in the decisions they made about what to do following graduation. Although there were rare college graduates who decided to find a means of supporting themselves in order to live completely independently immediately following graduating in order to avoid the need to consider the family claim at all, these women were the exception rather than the rule — and given her supportive family and the influence they had on her decision to gain firsthand experience as a visiting nurse in the Tenth Ward, it seems safe to say that Sara would not have been one of them. | Continue reading →

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The Education of Sara Howard – Part Two

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of the Education of Sara Howard series.

Late last month, we began an examination of Sara Howard’s historical context in an effort to understand the kind of upbringing, education, and career choices a young woman born in a similar decade and socioeconomic group to Sara would have had available to her in the late 19th century. I termed this woman a “hypothetical” Sara, and today’s post will build upon on last month’s to discuss the pre-college and college educational opportunities our hypothetical Sara would have had during the 1870s and 1880s in New York.

The Pre-College Years

The Alienist, 90-1:

“… My father was an expert marksman. My mother, however, was an invalid, and I had no siblings. I therefore became my father’s hunting and trap-shooting partner.” All of which was perfectly true. Stephen Hamilton Howard had lived the life of a true country squire on his estate near Rhinebeck, and had trained his only child to ride, shoot, gamble, and drink with any Hudson Valley gentleman – which meant that Sara could do all those things well, and in volume.

As described in Part One, our hypothetical Sara was an only child born to an upper-class New York family in the mid-to-late-1860s. Given her father’s ownership of a Hudson Valley estate as well as a city home on Gramercy Park, it seems reasonable to assume that he would have shared some of the values common among old New York gentility such as the importance of “good looks, health, grace, and cleverness” in women. However, as the quote above describes, this particular father seemed to be determined to provide his only daughter with the same advantages he would have offered a son. Although this would have resulted in our hypothetical Sara receiving an education superior to that received by many girls during the same period who were frequently educated in “practical” subjects at home for most of their youth, statistically Sara’s was not an unusual upbringing for girls raised by educated parents in middle- and upper-class families in the Northeast—provided, of course, that their daughters were only children or had few brothers. Even though most of these parents still ultimately desired their daughter enter the respectable sphere of domesticity once she reached her early-to-mid-20s, a good education during her formative years reflected the family’s belief in the value of self-improvement and personal advancement (also see Part One). | Continue reading →

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The Education of Sara Howard – Part One

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of the Education of Sara Howard series.

Beyond the enigmatic Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the character that appears to intrigue readers of the Alienist books the most is the brave, independent, and feisty police secretary turned private investigator, Miss Sara Howard. Although we have yet to learn Sara’s complete background story, I thought it might be interesting to devote a blog series to examining her character more thoroughly based on the information we have been provided with thus far. Was the derringer-toting Sara Howard’s unique brand of feminism appropriate for the time period in which the books are set? What educational and career opportunities would a real Sara Howard have had during the late 19th century?

As we currently lack adequate detail about Sara’s background to overview her particular education and career choices as intended in the books, the present discussion will focus instead on what I am terming a “hypothetical” Sara. Specifically, throughout this blog series I will be examining the kind of upbringing, education, and career choices a young woman born in a similar decade and socioeconomic group to Sara would have had available to her in the late 19th century. Today’s post in the series will focus on our hypothetical Sara’s historical context, particularly the notion of the “woman’s sphere”, an ideology that pervaded upper- and middle-class American culture throughout the 19th century.

The Woman’s Sphere in 19th Century America

The Alienist, Chapter 5:

Back in the early seventies, when I was in my teens, [Sara’s] family moved into a house near ours on Gramercy Park, and I’d subsequently watched her spend her single-digit years turning that decorous neighborhood into her private rumpus room.

womans_sphereAs indicated by John Moore’s quote above, in order to fit the timeline put forward in the Alienist books, our hypothetical Sara Howard would have been born in approximately the mid- to late-1860s. This period immediately following the Civil War was a time of great upheaval for women’s roles in American society. During the latter half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, the idea that men and women should rightly function in two separate “spheres” was a core tenant of American thinking. Although women had been considered inherently inferior to men for centuries leading up to this point, with women holding no legal rights to property or legal standing in society, the agricultural nature of early America had made labor equality within most households a necessity. Despite holding subservient positions in the household, wives and daughters were considered an integral part of family farming and cottage industry businesses. They frequently learned crafts from husbands and fathers, and were often capable of carrying on alone if necessity required. However, societal changes resulting from the rise of the Industrial Revolution prompted a dramatic shift in the American home that changed women’s roles dramatically in the latter half of the 18th century.

Instead of households or small shops producing custom goods for small self-sustaining agricultural communities, mass production of goods through factories changed living and working conditions throughout the country. Money was now the primary means of obtaining basic commodities, and it became increasingly important for men in the household to take on the role of “bread winner” by working outside the home in the newly established commercial world to earn money for the family’s survival. With the rise of this new capitalism, a woman’s role in her household had evolved from equal contributor in the family business to that of a homemaker, and her most important responsibilities had been reduced to those requiring the “feminine” traits of patience, nurturing, and altruism: the raising of children and the care of her husband. The male sphere of the commercial world outside the home, on the other hand, was viewed as an aggressive, competitive domain that required men to act in less than virtuous ways in order to get ahead, and consequently the idealisation of women — or, more specifically, of wives and mothers — in writings of the day was prevalent. The image we have today of the docile, submissive, and loving Victorian wife who soothed her husband’s cares in the evening and instilled her children with good Christian moral values throughout the day originates from this period. | Continue reading →

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