- Educating the New Southern Woman: Speech, Writing, and Race at the Public Women’s Colleges, 1884–1945 by David Gold, Catherine L. Hobbs
Women’s participation in the public workforce of the American South came largely after the Civil War. As the region struggled toward economic recovery with fewer men available to work, women began supporting themselves by working in factories, offices, [End Page 118] schools, and small businesses. Southern states established public women’s colleges to prepare women for professional work. Founding these industrial and vocational women’s colleges helped the Southern states promote industrialism, which they needed to expand their economy and avoid dependence on the North. Simultaneously, it offered Southern white women more education and independence. The Southern public women’s colleges drew large numbers of students, offered a quality education that was comparable to national trends, employed instructors from some of the best universities in the country, and made a significant impact on the region.
In their book, Educating the New Southern Woman: Speech, Writing, and Race at the Public Women’s Colleges, 1884–1945, David Gold and Catherine L. Hobbs examine the rhetorical education provided for white women in the South at eight public women’s colleges. Their study spans from 1884, the year that the first of these schools was founded, to 1945, when single-sex education became less popular as coeducation increased after the war. Their insightful archival history sheds light on how white Southern women learned to read, write, and speak at public colleges by examining instruction in courses on rhetoric, written composition, public speaking, and elocution, as well as student participation in extracurricular activities like writing for the school newspaper, debate, oratory, and theater. They also overview, in chapter 4, what Southern women did with their rhetorical skills after they graduated and pursued careers in commerce, teaching, and home economics. Gold and Hobbs’s nuanced and detailed explanation of their archival research methods and cowriting process is a highlight of the book. Their arguments are based on rich and varied archival materials from their eight university sites, including course catalogues and syllabi, instructors’ lecture notes, assigned textbooks, and administrators’ records. They also compare the universities’ self-representations with students’ experiences by analyzing students’ writing in course essays, personal diaries, school newspapers, literary journals, yearbooks, and oral histories.
Although scholarly work has examined elite women’s nineteenth-century education in the American North, this study’s Southern focus demonstrates the value of regional perspectives in rhetorical scholarship and illustrates the diversity of women’s educational experiences in the nineteenth century. Compared to the expensive and private Northern colleges, such as the Seven Sisters, the Southern women’s colleges provided a much more affordable, vocational education and graduated students who [End Page 119] were more likely to work after graduation than their peers in the North. The eight public colleges eventually expanded into coeducational colleges, but they were all created by state legislatures to provide industrial and vocational education for women: Alabama College for Women, Florida State College for Women, Georgia State College for Women, Mississippi State College for Women, North Carolina College for Women, Oklahoma College for Women, Texas State College for Women, and Winthrop College.
In chapter 1, Gold and Hobbs situate these colleges in the context of the evolving gender ideals in the region. As the South transitioned into a new era, the ideals of Southern femininity also shifted and a new generation of women sought to perform the “non-dependence” of the “emancipated woman” (17), which challenged the traditional ideal of the submissive and passive Southern belle. Hobbs and Gold argue that the public women’s colleges navigated these diverging ideals by both using and challenging traditional ideals of femininity. The institutions “simultaneously reinforced and undermined” (7) the old South’s ideals of passive femininity by allowing students to accept the traditional ideals of the old South while also empowering students with choices and skills to change their lives...