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  • "High School Girls"Women's Higher Education at the Louisville Female High School
  • Amy Lueck (bio)

In our city, at least, the importance of female education is fully realized. All classes of our citizens look with a degree of pardonable pride upon this school, which is unexcelled by any similar institution in this or any other country. Girls are there given equal advantages with the boys, and fully qualify themselves to adorn any sphere of life, whether it be of the light graces of cultivated literature, or in that more solid learning which fits them to battle with adversity or to reason away unfounded and pernicious prejudices.

—Louisville Annual School Board Report 1872

As late as 1905, Emma Woerner (who would become the first principal of Louisville's J. M. Atherton High School for girls in 1924) was able to enter University of Kentucky as a junior based on her academic accomplishments at Louisville's Female High School; her high school and college curriculums overlapped significantly. And her case was not an aberration. Instead, Woerner's experience is residual from the nineteenth-century legacy of her school, when what a "high school" was and did was not yet obvious or consistent in the United States, and high schools like Louisville's overlapped politically and pedagogically with the work of U.S. colleges. In fact, when in 1872 the superintendent purported that Female High School provided an education "unexcelled by any institution in this or any other country," he would have included women's colleges among their ranks, as the distinctions between different institutions of higher education remained unclear until at least the 1880s and '90s. As late as 1903, Edwin Cornelius Broome of Columbia University explained, "the joints in our educational system, because of the unique position of the college and the public high school, have become dove-tailed." Broome went on to argue, "Secondary education, per se, however, stops the moment specialization begins; and that time may be, as it usually is, about the middle of the college course; or it may be, as it really should, at the close of the high school course," but his distinction between what "may be" and "usually is" versus what "should" be the distinction between secondary school and college is telling, revealing that the strict divide between high school and college was as yet a proposal rather than a widely accepted reality.1 [End Page 44]

Because of this institutional fluidity, nineteenth-century women gained access to significant higher education opportunities under the auspices of the urban, public high school (as well as at seminaries, academies, normal schools, and other variously named institutions) even when they did not matriculate into colleges proper. Women made great strides in all forms of higher education in the last half of the nineteenth century, but particularly in high schools and academies; while remaining underrepresented in colleges until 1978, women constituted a majority of graduates from high schools as early as 1870. This trend held true both nationally and in the local context of Louisville, where women outpaced men in high school graduation numbers eight to four in 1861 and by forty-two to twenty-nine by 1895. Still representing only a small minority of white women in the city, these early women high school graduates were envoys into higher education on behalf of their gender. Their high rates of matriculation and graduation were due at least in part to the impressive academic and professional opportunities granted to them at a time when other avenues to academic and professional advancement remained limited.2

Opened in 1856, Female High School was posited as a parallel institution to Male High School (still in operation today, now as a coeducational school), which served as the University of Louisville's "academical department"—akin to a college of arts and sciences—until some time in the late nineteenth century. In both the 1851 city charter and a report of the school board from that same year, these high schools were described as comprising the final, or highest, stage of the public education system: each ward would have one school, divided into male and female departments, and also into primary, secondary, and grammar...