Imagine being the only representative of your gender at school. Pretty awkward, huh?
If you were born in 1842, education outside the home was fairly hard to come by.
If you were born a female in 1842…it was even more difficult.
If you were born a female in 1842 to an invalid mother…good luck to ya’!
This is the tale of Ellen Swallow Richards’ quest for higher education and a career, in a time when neither were common options for women. Heads up: I’m not a huge fan of her (more on that later), but her story does have some “hero” moments for me!
ONE DETERMINED GIRL
As soon as Ellen Swallow was old enough, she was pressed to run the family home, a job she proved more than capable of, winning awards at the county fair for her bead and embroidery work—at the ripe old age of thirteen!
Surprisingly, her domestic duties didn’t keep her from an education—she attended high school. And even more surprisingly, upon graduation she enjoyed a short period of independence: living and studying on her own, tutoring to support herself. That didn’t last; duty called her back to her mothers’ bedside.
Rather than prioritizing the quest for a husband back home, she wondered what she could do with her life, because as she wrote to a friend (here’s Hero Moment #1):
“…the young or old gentleman has not yet made his appearance who can entice me away from my free and independent life.”
So bold for the time! In an era when women had few rights, she was used to being in charge of her life. She wasn’t ready to submit to a nineteenth century marriage, which was so much more restrictive than marriage is today. But what would she do?
She needed a miracle.
And she got one.
A brewer from New York named Matthew Vassar thought women should be fully educated, so he started the first college for women.
At age 26 Ellen was admitted to Vassar College as a third year student. It was just what she needed. Her passion for learning caught the attention of Vassar professor, astronomer Maria Mitchell. After earning her Bachelor of Science degree, Mitchell encouraged Ellen to push the limits, to seek further education.
Hero Moment #2: Ellen Swallow had the audacity to apply to MIT!
Another “gasp!”…she applied to study chemistry. It was hard enough for women to be accepted in the study of observation-based sciences, where note-taking and evaluation were done at a distance and considered passive. But for a woman to expect to work in a laboratory, actively manipulating nature…it was all too much! No really, it was!
It took the boys at MIT weeks to decide if or how this woman could be admitted into their hallowed halls.
To their credit, they decided to admit Ellen Swallow to the chemistry program at MIT, making her the first female student at that institution.
To their discredit, she was to be a “special” student, allowed under certain conditions:
- No studying with male students
- No shared lab space with male students
- Regardless of what she achieved, she could not earn a graduate degree
- To ensure retention of her womanliness, she would mend, straighten and do secretarial tasks as needed
REALLY? The Boys were that threatened by a smart woman?
I’m sure her nineteenth century mind was just grateful to get in, and was willing to do whatever it took, even chores. In her words, she was “…useful in a general way, and they can’t say study spoils me for anything else.” Useful. She had to be useful. Can you see the steam coming out of my ears?
The Boys didn’t want to set a precedent for the admission of women, based on the experimental enrollment of this particular female, hence the “special” status. They probably figured she wouldn’t be able to hack it anyway. Wrong.
Hero Moment #3: In 1873 she received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from MIT. Take that!
Even though she was considered the top water scientist in the nation while still studying, upon graduation there was no paying work for her. She accepted an assistantship in the MIT chemistry lab, which gradually evolved into a paid teaching position.
But that wasn’t enough. Ellen Swallow wanted to be a scientist.
WHY I’M NOT A FAN
This should be Hero Moment #4…
Faced with no means to truly enter the scientific community, this woman founded her own field of expertise. Combining elements of chemistry, biology and engineering she formed a “science of right living” and called it Domestic Science.
She lost me there, but it gets worse.
She had devised the convention that kept most women stuck in the home, practicing the “science” of keeping a house. If it’s a science, housekeeping will be fulfilling! Yeah, nice try.
Domestic Science created more women’s work inside the home. It gave those suffrage-minded women more to do, and was used to teach immigrants “right living.”
Rather than open doors for other women, she was out for herself only. She was worthy of playing with the boys, but to her mind, most women weren’t. When MIT started admitting women in 1878, she disapproved, stating:
“…though it grieves me to say it…of one hundred young girls of sixteen who might enter if the opportunity was offered, ten would carry the course through.”
I do admire Ellen Swallow Richards’ tenacity. This nineteenth century woman fulfilled her goals of gaining a high-level education and career. I just wish she had more faith in the intellect of her fellow women.
Oh, by the way…obviously, she did get married! In 1875 she tied the knot with Robert Hallowell Richards, a mining professor at MIT. She used their home to perfect her theories of household efficiency. She also taught “sanitary chemistry” at MIT until her death in 1911.
Let’s talk about this! Do you feel housekeeping is scientific? Do you get a sense of fulfillment from cleaning and cooking? Some people do, and I’d love to have a spotless home, but sorry, it’s not high on my list! Where’s that magic wand… Tell me what you think in the comments below, and don’t forget to check out Facebook this week!
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. 1978. For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women. New York, NY. Anchor Books/Doubleday.
Ellen Swallow Richards and MIT, http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/exhibits/esr/esr-mit.html#corp, accessed July 31, 2016.
Vassar Encyclopedia: Ellen Swallow Richards, https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/ellen-swallow-richards.html, accessed July 31, 2016.