Document 3

Author: Adelia Field Johnston

Title: “Oberlin College” essay. Transcribed in The Education of American Girls, Anna C. Brackett, ed. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, N.Y. 1878.

Date: 1878

Location: Oberlin College Archive, Adelia A. Field Johnston Papers, Series IV. Writings and Notebooks, 1862-1994, Record Group 30/19.

Document Type: Printed Document, Signed with a Representation of the Author’s Signature


Source: Oberlin College Archives, Adelia A. Field Johnston Papers. Series V. Photographs, 1862-1994 (span). RG 30/19.
Source: Oberlin College Archives, Adelia A. Field Johnston Papers. Series V. Photographs, 1862-1994 (span). RG 30/19.

In 1873, Boston physician Edward H. Clarke published a book entitled Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls. The book argued first that a health crisis among American women caused them to be far more ill and infirm than women in Europe, and second, that attempting to educate women alongside men was the cause of the crisis. Clarke believed that women’s bodies required more energy than men’s while their reproductive systems developed, which he believed occurred approximately from age fourteen until the mid-twenties. According to him, the mental exertion required by school, as well as the physical exertion needed to develop the reproductive system, would prove too much of a demand on young girls’ bodies and would cause either the reproductive system or the brain to be irreparably damaged by the strain. At one point he writes of a woman who supposedly died because she tried to work as hard as a man did: “Believing that woman can do what man can, for she held that faith, she strove with noble but ignorant bravery to compass man’s intellectual attainment in a man’s way, and died in the effort.”1 Clarke believed that the remedy to this was forcing girls to rest and undertake no learning or school work during the week they were menstruating. This, of course, was both impractical and impossible in a traditional school setting, and it is this impossibility that caused Clarke to rail against coeducation. As he stated, “boys must study and work in a boy’s way, and girls in a girl’s way.”2  He felt very strongly that “forcing” girls to adhere to the same kind of continuous work schedule as boys was both damaging to them and to the American people as whole, even insinuating that it would cause both women and men to become androgynous and infertile.

This book, Sex in Education, became something of an instant best-seller, and Clarke’s views had many supporters. Though Clarke phrased his points eloquently, he failed to provide anything other than the barest anecdotal data to support them. This lack of proper research, as well as Clarke’s conclusions, raised the ire of many people, including Johnston. The following document is an excerpt from an essay she wrote in response to Clarke’s book. Johnston uses her personal experience as both a female student and teacher at a coeducational institution to prove her point, and easily finds the holes in Clarke’s argument. However, it is curious, and worth noting, that she, along with most other writers and physicians of the time, accedes to Clarke’s assertion that American women were unusually sickly, even though Clarke provides no more evidence of this than he does to support his claims about the harmful nature of coeducation.

Johnston was an educator throughout her life and had always strongly believed in the coeducational mission of Oberlin. In an interesting contrast to the vagueness of her lecture on “the Woman Question,” this essay shows how passionate and forthright she was when defending her beliefs. It also underscores the fact that even this late in the nineteenth century, there was still a great deal of opposition to the notion of women receiving an education equal to that of men. Clarke’s fears about the consequences of women’s continued coeducation, which Johnston mentions in the ninth paragraph, also reveal the ways in which racism permeated discussions about the education of women.



_______________ [sic]

Dr. Clarke’s experience and success as a physician give him a right to speak, and that with the tone of authority. He has spoken, and in such clear and unmistakable words that all must hear, the startling truth, that American women are sickly women; that proofs of this fact are not confined to any class or condition, but that “everywhere, on the luxurious couches of Beacon Street, in the palaces of Fifth Avenue, among the classes of our private, common, and Normal schools, among the female graduates of our colleges, behind the counters of Washington Street, on Broadway, in our factories, workshops and homes,”3 pale, weak women4 are the rule, and not the exception. This is the one permanent impression which the book makes. It is for this reason that we are thankful. It matters not that the presenting of this fact was not the author’s main object. It matters still less, that he failed in his object; for, if his theory had been a true theory, and he had succeeded in convincing the world of its truthfulness, he would have benefited but a small class of our American people. Only a few women, comparatively, are found in our colleges and higher schools of learning.5

Man often means one thing while God means another. Luther6 meant to reform the Roman Church– God meant to reform the world. Dr. Clarke meant, as he tells us in his preface, to excite discussion, and stimulate investigation, with regard to the relation of sex to education; but he has excited a discussion, and stimulated an investigation, that, unless Ephraim is wholly joined to his idols,7  will not stop until a reform has been wrought in our whole social system. Not only in our colleges and universities, but in our lower grades of schools; and–- as he has taught us that the head is not all, but the body a good deal– in our food, in our times of downsitting and uprising, in our hours of retiring, in the ventilation of our churches, public halls and private homes. We are at last to understand, what it is so hard for an American to understand, that to wait is sometimes as much a duty as to work.

Dr. Clarke meant to prove, that co-education, in the popular signification of that term, for physiological reasons, is an impossibility. He succeeded, as he thinks, theoretically, but failed, as he confesses, practically, for the want of sufficient data.8 What he indirectly proved was of much more vital importance, because it affects the whole nation; that, for physiological reasons, American women, and consequently the American people, cannot live at this high-pressure rate, which means death.9 The universal interest which his book has awakened, the rapidly following reviews and criticisms, the numerous essays which have since been published, on the same and kindred subjects, show that thinking minds were already working their way to definite conclusions and expression on this now most important of all subjects– how to give back to the American woman the bloom and physical strength, the elasticity and fresh old age which are hers by the right of inheritance. No one will deny Dr. Clarke’s statement, that, with the best of opportunities, she does not in these respects compare favorably with her trans-Atlantic sisters. But we are not willing to admit that the strength of the German fräulein10and English damsel must be purchase at so great a sacrifice as the giving up of all systematic study, and consequently of all higher intellectual development.

The “sacred number three,”11 which we are told “dominates the human frame,”12  dominates also the whole being.There is the physical, the moral, and the mental; and we are not to cast such a reflection upon the Author of our being, as to suppose that the proper development of the one must be at the expense of the other. If God demands more of woman’s physical nature than of man’s, he has wisely provided for it, within that nature. Faith in his benevolence leads us to this conclusion. It is just as true, that where much will be required, much has been given, as that where much has been given, much will be required. When woman learns the laws which govern her physical nature, and has the courage to live in accordance with those laws, it will be found that she has strength to be a woman, a Christian and a scholar. It is just as true in her case as in man’s, that proper brain activity stimulates physical activity.

There are many sickly girls to be found in our schools, but they are often sickly when they come to us; often, too, under the seeming garb of health, the seeds of disease are already germinating, and it is time, not study, which brings them to the surface.

When mothers are able to send us strong, healthy girls, with simple habits and unperverted tastes, we will return to them and the world strong, healthy women, fitted, physically and mentally, for woman’s work.13

It is continuous education, not co-education, which Dr. Clarke really condemns; but every teacher knows that continuity of effort is essential to sound mental development, and that this off-and-on method, which he seems to recommend, would destroy all order in the school, and make all work in the class-room impossible. If, then, his theory– that for physiological reasons girls cannot endure continuous study– is the true theory, not only our colleges and universities ought to remain closed against women, but all our schools for girls over fourteen years of age ought to be closed also, and the pupils sent home, to receive such instruction as they can from private teachers, at such times as their bodies can afford to lend time to their heads.

We say ought, and we mean what we say; for we are not “so professionally committed to a dangerous experiment” as to insist upon it, if once convinced that it is dangerous; neither are we “urgent reformers, who care less for human suffering and human life, than for the trial of a theory.”14 Dr. Clarke believes, “if the causes which have brought about the present ill-health of American women continue for the next half century, and increase in the same ratio as they have for the last fifty years, that we shall cease to be an American people.”15 We believe it, too; but we do not believe, as he does, that the chief causes of this ill-health are to be laid at the doors of our seminaries and colleges. We believe that more girls are benefited than are injured by the regimen of a well-regulated school, and our belief is founded upon years of observation. The number is not small, of girls, who have come to us pale, nervous and laboring under many of the ills of which Dr. Clarke speaks,16 to whom the regularity which must be observed in a large school, but, most of all, the stimulus of systematic brain-work upon the body, has proved most sanitary.

The mother of one young lady placed her under our care a year and a half ago, saying, as she did so: “My daughter has always been frail. I greatly fear she will not be able to endure regular school work. Send her home at any time, if convinced that her health suffers from school discipline.” While her health has been steadily improving, she has been able to gain an enviable position in her class. One of her professors said that he had never heard more finished recitations than hers. This is only one instance, where we might give many, of the quickening influence of brain-work upon the body, and we have often heard the same testimony given by other teachers.

Of course, we do not claim that sick girls ought to study, any more than sick boys, or that there are, at the present time, as many girls who can endure hard study, either spasmodic or continuous, as boys. We accept the fact, that American women are sickly women; we only protest against the false theory that makes our higher schools responsible for the fact.

Transcribed by Maggie Gossiaux.

1Edward H. Clarke, Sex in Education; Or, A Fair Chance for the Girls. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1873. 104.

2Edward H. Clarke, Sex in Education, 18.

3Edward H. Clarke, Sex in Education, 62.

4Clarke actually describes them as “numberless pale, weak, neuralgic, dyspeptic, hysterical, menorraghic, dysmenorrhoeic girls and women” (Clarke, Sex in Education, 62).

5Based on the data from the 1870 census, the states and territories that reported in had a combined total of 3,079,765 white women attending school, out of a total white female population of 18,977,478, meaning that Clarke’s advice was only pertaining to a maximum of 16.23% of white US women. The information on what level of schooling women were engaging in, or on their ages while they were undertaking said education, is not available (“US Demography 1790 to Present.” Social Explorer. web address, accessed 29 July 2015).

6 Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a Catholic monk who called for reform within the Church to end what he felt were sinful practices. Though he initially only wanted to reform the Church, his grievances, expressed in his “95 Theses,” were extremely poorly received by the Catholic officials, who swiftly denounced them. Luther, as well as a number of other reformers and critics of the Church, ended up leaving the Catholic faith and founding various Protestant denominations in what is now called the “Protestant Reformation.”

7Hosea 4:17. Ephraim, is the name of one of the sons of Joseph, and gives his name to one of the tribes of Israel in Egypt. The verse “Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone” has been interpreted as God’s warning to leave Israel to the fate she will earn in her current state of moral decay, in the hopes that she might see her impending doom. In context, here Johnston is saying that unless American’s are wholly wedded to their current way of life, and the destruction of women’s health that has come with it, they will hopefully see their own peril and act to prevent further harm. (“Hosea 4:17 Commentaries: Ephraim Is Joined to Idols; Let Him Alone.” web access, accessed 10 July 2015).

8Though Clarke makes numerous claims in his book on the detrimental effect of continuous education on women’s health, he supports his statements entirely with anecdotal evidence, rather than any sort of collected data, and, unsurprisingly to a modern reader, his linkages between the health problems of women and their coeducational experiences are thin and unsupported by any real data or analysis. Johnston, along with many other proponents of higher education for women, provided actual data gleaned from surveys of women who had attended college in their rebuttals to Clarke. This, and the data that principals of various co-educational colleges provided, show no correlation whatsoever between health problems in women and coeducation (Clarke, Sex in Education; Suzanne Gould, “College Doesn’t Make You Infertile: AAUW’s 1885 Research.” AAUW: Empowering Women Since 1881. web address, accessed 29 July 2015).

Johnston, and the Howe book, as well as the American association of women college graduates study).

9Clarke blames the stress of a constant work-load and constant studying, as well as simply a fast-paced life in general, for the health problems faced by women. Johnston refutes his belief that gender makes women more susceptible to illness due to intense and fast paced learning, or heavy workloads, but accepts his conclusion that Americans in general have unhealthy lifestyles (Clarke, Sex in Education).

10an unmarried German woman.

11Referring here to the Christian notion of the Holy Trinity, comprised of God the Father, his son Jesus, and the Holy Ghost.

12Clarke believed that the human anatomy is comprised of three systems (nutritive, nervous, reproductive), with the reproductive system being the only one in which men and women are distinctly different. He claims that, if improperly cared for (i.e. due to strenuous learning), a woman’s reproductive system will turn against her and cause weakness and diseases both mental and physical (Clarke, Sex in Education, 32-33).

13Though Johnston herself had a career and was a childless widow, when she says women’s work here, she likely refers to marriage and childbearing. A large part of Clarke’s argument centers around the fact that sickly women have sickly children, and educating women in the current co-ed manner places the very future of the “white” American race in jeopardy (it should be noted that here “white” explicitly excludes newer waves of immigrants, especially the Irish, towards whom Clarke seemed to have particular animosity. At one point he states that if the health of American women did not improve “The stream of life that is to flow into the future will be Celtic rather than American: it will come from the collieries, and not from the peerage”). Thus, Johnston here indicates that educated women can still be good wives and mothers to healthy children (Clarke, Sex in Education, 140; Former Student File, Johnston, Adelia A.F. Box 539. Oberlin College Archives).

14Clarke, Sex in Education, 145-146.

15The quote in the fifth edition is actually more offensive; it reads: “If these causes should continue for the next half-century, and increase in the same ratio as they have for the last fifty years, it requires no prophet to foretell that the wives who are to be mothers in our republic must be drawn from trans-atlantic homes. The sons of the New World will have to re-act, on a magnificent scale, the old story of unwived Rome and the Sabines” (Clarke, Sex in Education, 63).

16>Dr. Clarke specifically believed that forcing women to think or learn too much during their menstrual cycle (what he calls the catamenial week) could impede the healthy development of the female reproductive system. According to him, this manifested in various conditions, including menorrhagia (heavy menstrual bleeding), amenorrhea (lack of menstruation), and dysmenorrhea (extremely painful menstruation), as well as problems with under-developed uteruses, and infertility. He also believed that the strain tended to make girls more nervous of temperament and resulted in headaches and a general lack of well-being. Clarke also argued that even if the reproductive system developed normally, the strain put on the body from trying to learn and develop that system at the same time could cause all sorts of other adverse physical effects, particularly among the nerves and the brain, though he believes these may not manifest until years later. (Clarke, Sex in Education).