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Edward Hammond Clarke and the Chance for Girls

Education was a hot topic in the 1870s: How much one needed and who should get it. Edward Hammond Clarke sought to put the debate into a new perspective – before too much education made everyone sick.

Edward Hammond Clarke (Harvard University Archives)

Edward Hammond Clarke (Harvard University Archives)

By the 1870s, there was an established consensus that for boys education should extend well beyond the simple reading and writing demanded in colonial days. Math, science, philosophy were all valued subjects.

For girls, the debate was still percolating. There were finishing schools for girls and schools that taught home economics. But girls were discouraged at many schools from studying science and math.

Connecticut’s Emma Willard had been fighting this trend as early as 1819 with publication of her
Plan for Improving Female Education. Willard opened a school for girls in Troy, N.Y. the following year. Catherine Beecher opened a school for girls in Hartford, Conn. in 1823. Public high schools opened for girls in Boston and New York in 1826.

Inevitably, greater education led to greater demands for equality in other areas. For example, while Willard never supported the women’s suffrage movement, the girls who graduated her school did. As more and more girls received a high school education, more began contemplating college.

For Edward Hammond Clarke, this ideas was not just disturbing, it was dangerous.

Clarke was a Harvard-trained physician who was well placed in Boston society. His patients included abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He was born in 1820 and received his Harvard degree in 1841. He took his medical training in Philadelphia. In 1872 the New England Women's Club, an organization of progressive Boston women, invited Clarke to speak. By now Clarke was a professor at the Harvard Medical College and at the peak of his profession. He was known for treating medical disorders successfully with the latest medications.

Clarke chose as the topic for his speech: the appropriate education for girls. The thrust of Clarke’s talk was that educating girls was fraught with peril. If girls during the ages of 13 to 17 spent too much time learning, the efforts they put into developing their brains would hinder the needed growth of their ovaries and uterus.

The state of womanhood was dire, Clarke observed in his practice, as disease ran rampant. Food and fashion were in part to blame, he acknowledged. Too much cake and pie contributed their part. Corsets and binding clothes were to blame for some problems, as well. But not all disease could be explained this way.

“Leucorrhoea, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, chronic and acute ovaritis, prolapsis utari, hysteria, neuralgia and the like are indirectly affected by food, clothing and exercise; they are directly and largely affected by the causes that will presently be pointed out and which arise from a neglect of the peculiarities of a woman’s organization,” Clarke said. “The regimen of a college arranged for boys, if imposed on girls, would foster it even more.”

Clarke’s theory was straightforward. “Brain work and stomach work interfere with each other if attempted together.”

This put girls at a particular disadvantage. Boys, he postulated, entered the world much more fully developed than girls. They would withstand the rigors of school and college and still turn into men with functioning reproductive organs. Girls simply couldn’t do both. What’s more, too much time in school doomed women to a lifetime of sickliness, or as he put it: “A youth of study and an old age of nerves.”

Clarke believed that boys in adolescence would withstand six hours of schooling a day and occasionally as much as eight. Girls should be limited to four and never exceed five.

More time spent studying contributed to the puny, unhealthy population Clarke was treating in his practice. The brain and the body were at war, and the brain was too often winning.

To buttress his observations, Clarke told of a trip he had recently taken to Halifax. There he noted that boys of 11 were as tall and broad-shouldered as a 16-year-old from Massachusetts. And the young girls? “Girls of 10 or 11 were there who looked almost like women – that is, like ideal women – simply because they looked so calm and undisturbed.”

At civic functions on his Canadian trip, Clarke noted, he was surrounded by healthy and happy men and women. The reason, he concluded, was that Halifax had no public schools.

Clarke’s presentation caused quite an uproar. He would research further and publish his theories in book form in 1873: Sex in Education: Or, A Fair Chance for the Girls. In the book, he added research from Europe that argued girls flourished when they dropped out of school as adolescents and pursued their studies more leisurely at home. Clarke visited the National Education Association in 1874 to deliver his findings.

Clarke’s thinking may have been driven in part by his own life. He was a studious but sickly youngster. He was too sick to attend his graduation exercises and suffered from maladies of his digestive system throughout his life, which ended in 1877 – just four years after he published his book on education for girls.

Nevertheless, his book had influence that lasted long after his death. The book was a best seller that went through 17 printings. The American Association of University Women, founded in 1883, spent decades funding research to debunk Clarke’s theories.

3 comments

  1. Andrea Stanley

    my mother went to Emma willard.they took me there for a visit when I was 12yrs old…it looked like a prison.

  2. Donna McDermott Trice

    I think Mr. Clarke blamed his education seeking mother for his poor health…🙄

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