- Higher Education for Women in Postwar America, 1945-1965
The genesis of Linda Eisenmann's broad survey of higher education for women from 1945 to 1965 can be traced to her attempt to understand the history and ongoing relevance of Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, where she was the assistant director, as it approached its thirty-fifth anniversary in 1995. The institute's founding in 1960 by Radcliffe President Mary (Polly) Bunting was prescient in its recognition of the need for assistance to and encouragement of women scholars whose careers had been interrupted or derailed because of family commitments. But Eisenmann soon realized that the institute was also part of a legacy of activism and advocacy, albeit a narrow one, [End Page 145] surrounding women's educational needs and contributions that had been quietly making progress since World War II. Even though this advocacy lacked the punch and force of later feminist activism, Eisenmann convincingly demonstrates that these early efforts were important in their own right. She also argues that they must be understood on their own terms; that is, within the context of what was educationally possible and intellectually feasible in the 1950s rather than measured against the more radical and strident activism of a later period. In restoring this overlooked chapter to the history of higher education and women, Eisenmann also makes an important contribution to our understanding of postwar American society.
In her introduction Eisenmann poses what she calls "two interpretive challenges and one revisionist task" (p. 3). The first interpretive challenge concerns why women were nearly invisible to postwar educational leaders and policymakers, despite making up almost one-third of college students. Early chapters concentrate on what she identifies as four ideologies—patriotic duty, economic participation, cultural role, and psychological needs—that shaped and limited the expectations of female students and the institutions in which they were enrolled. Readers will glean much useful information here about the changing undergraduate population, the differential impact of the G.I. Bill on male and female students, and the huge impact of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 on institutions of higher education, among other topics. Eisenmann does not, however, describe the actual experiences of female undergraduates on campuses during the postwar period. Another limit, one imposed by the parameters of the topic, is that the story tends to focus primarily on the needs of white, middle-class students, precisely because that was the demographic nature of the female college population in 1945–1965.
Eisenmann's second interpretive challenge concerns the nature of the advocacy for women and women's issues. In the immediate postwar period, when activists were unwilling to associate themselves with feminism and when little if any general support existed for a major reexamination of women's roles and lives, educational activists by necessity and choice spoke in muted tones that downplayed basic political and institutional change in favor of an emphasis on individual choice. Through close examination of organizations and groups such as the Commission on the Education of Women (supported by the American Council on Education), the American Association of University Women, the National Association of Deans of Women, and the President's Commission on the Status ofWomen during the Kennedy administration, Eisenmann analyzes what she calls the "adaptive activism of postwar advocates for women" (p. 2). She puts forth a similar theme when she surveys the emergence of women's continuing education programs in the early 1960s.
The revisionist aspect of her narrative is her attempt to place this activism within the specific context of postwar America, restoring the contributions of a generation of educational activists to the historical record and arguing that their activism was an important bridge to later change. Even though this earlier activism seems tame to modern readers, Eisenmann urges us not to ignore or dismiss it. These advocates laid the groundwork for later initiatives by collecting data and research on women. They also [End Page 146] built networks, organizations, and initiatives that countered somewhat the lack of attention generally given to questions of gender and education...