Miss Schooled: American Fictions of Female Education in the Nineteenth Century
Alves, Jaime Osterman
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This dissertation argues that the emergence of schoolgirl culture in nineteenth- century America presented significant challenges to subsequent constructions of normative femininity. Seeking to understand how literary texts both shaped and reflected the century's debates over adolescent female education, I concentrate on fictional works and historical documents that feature descriptions of girls' formal educational experiences between the 1810s and the 1890s. In Elizabeth Stoddard's The Morgesons, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.'s Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny, selections from the Wreath of Cherokee Rosebuds (a student-written school newspaper), S. Alice Callahan's Wynema: A Child of the Forest, Frances E. W. Harper's Trial and Triumph and Iola Leroy, and other texts, I contend that the trope of the adolescent schoolgirl is a carrier of shifting cultural anxieties about how formal education would disrupt the customary maid-wife-mother cycle and turn young females off to prevailing gender roles. To assuage these anxieties and garner support for the controversial work of adolescent female education, schools incorporated into their curricula dominant ideals of femaleness from the contexts of family, the scientific-medical field, the press, and racial and community uplift movements, and delivered these ideals as "lessons" to girls from the white middle- and upper-classes, mixed racial and ethnic heritages, dispossessed Native American tribes, and working-class African-American families. In four chapters, I explore how nineteenth century Americans perceived of and represented the distinct life stage of female adolescence, and how they imagined the processes of institutional sex-role socialization that would involve schools and other organizations in the activity of molding adolescent girls into ideal American women. I have been most intrigued by narratives of female education that depict girls' exploitation of their opportunities at school to consider and respond to their cultures' idealizations of American womanhood. By tracing the figure of the schoolgirl at crossroads between educational and other institutions--in texts written by and about girls from a variety of racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds-- my study joins an emerging critical project to transcend the limitations of "separate spheres" inquiry and enrich our understanding of how girls negotiated complex gender roles in the nineteenth century.