“She Is Not Thoroughly Practical”: High School Alumnae Shaping Domestic Science in the Progressive Era

“She Is Not Thoroughly Practical”: High School Alumnae Shaping Domestic Science in the Progressive Era

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Amy J. Lueck

Amy J. Lueck is Assistant Professor of English at Santa Clara University, where her research and teaching focus on histories of rhetorical instruction and practice, women’s rhetorics, feminist historiography, and public memory. Her book, A Shared History: Writing in the High School, College, and University, 1856-1886 (SIU Press 2020), brings together several of these research threads, interrogating the ostensible high school-college divide and the role it has played in shaping writing instruction in the U.S. Her work has previously appeared in journals such as College EnglishRhetoric Review, Composition Studies, and Kairos.

Abstract: This article traces the role of Progressive Era high school alumnae clubs in reconstructing the pedagogies and culture of the public high school to reflect their own needs as alumnae, marshaling in a “domesticated” curriculum for women. Focusing on a case study of a large, single-sex, urban high school and alumnae club in the South, I analyze the rhetorical strategies women used to make the case for domestic sciences and follow the uptake of this curriculum and the club’s values within the high school by the beginning of the twentieth century, as the work of the club was increasingly pit against traditional academics. This case study provides insights into the broader history of women’s clubs, women’s education, domestic sciences, and their intersection in Progressive Era education reform.

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In a democratic time and a democratic place, before a democratic audience, it seems to me fitting that I should select a democratic subject, so I have chosen one which to my mind represents the flower of democracy—‘The High School Girl.’…The High School girl of Louisville is fortunate in having an elder sister to look up to and to advise with in educational, literary and civic matters. She is further assisted in her community training by her elder sister—the alumnae girl.

—Anna J. Hamilton, Female High School alumna (1899)

Speaking at the 1899 dedication of a new Louisville Girls High School (LGHS) building, notable alumna Anna J. Hamilton introduced her audience to what were becoming two key figures in her city: the high school girl and the alumna woman. While Hamilton’s focus was nominally on the former, whom she calls the “flower of democracy,” her shift instead to emphasize the alumnae club and to effectively criticize the high school girl as “not thoroughly practical” in the remainder of her speech reveals an interesting and complicated relationship between these groups which, while close and genealogically connected, had different and even competing interests and needs. The relationship and tensions between high school students and graduates informed and complicated the club’s curricular reform efforts at the turn of the century, revealing much about the function of women’s clubs and the broader pedagogical reforms shaping women’s educational experiences at the turn of the century, particularly domestic sciences.

In this article, I focus on LGHS’s Alumnae Club to ask: How did women’s high school alumnae clubs’ successful rhetorical appeals contribute to the reformation of high school curricula, particularly in regards to domestic sciences? This project brings American high schools into the rhetorical analysis of Progressive Era women’s club work, recognizing the role of the high school in promoting the cultures of service and the rhetorical skills that undergirded the club movement, and, in turn, recognizing the influence of club work on high school curricula and reform.

While Anne Ruggles Gere, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Shirley Wilson Logan, and others have documented the important role of women’s clubs as part of women’s extracurricular learning, providing a space for women’s rhetorical education when more formal outlets were often closed to them, the culture of women’s clubs also became a more formal part of the turn-of-the-century high school experience. In the high school alumnae club, extracurricular and curricular spaces overlapped as students brought club work into the school and graduates used their rhetorical training from high school and the support of the alumnae club to effect curricular change for subsequent students (see Blair; Scott; Beard).

Historians of writing, education, and women’s clubs have each addressed the important work of alumnae clubs for college and normal school students in the past (Bordelon; Farnham; Jeansonne and Bridwell-Bowles; Gordon; Ritter; Scott; Solomon). As L. Jill Lamberton explains, these clubs did more than “simply engag[e] in intellectual formation or rehears[e] new knowledge;” they “changed institutional culture and social expectations through their extracurricular writing practices” (562). The same can be said of extracurricular club work at the high school. Yet little work has been done on high school alumni and alumnae clubs to date. This omission is likely because high school clubs were often not as established and robust as Louisville’s, and they were also often not single-sex organizations (complicating their relationship to the larger women’s club movement that has otherwise been more broadly studied). Among the list of federated women’s clubs from the first decades of the twentieth century, only a small number are identifiable as alumnae clubs, let alone high school alumnae clubs. And the dissociation of these clubs from larger networks or organizations (such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs) means that their activities and records may not have been structured and preserved in ways that make them readily available for researchers to study today. Nonetheless, alumnae (and alumni) clubs were pervasive in American high schools, and they are important to recover because they represent a rich site of women’s education and rhetorical practice, merging formal school learning (of “girls”) with informal club-based learning (of “women”) in the students’ home communities. Thus, Louisville’s records—scant as they themselves may be—provide a rare glimpse into the work of a local high school and women’s group in shaping the curriculum available in their community—thereby suggesting potential insights into the experiences of other communities and students as well.

Studying these alumnae clubs is also important for feminist rhetoricians because the high school, more broadly, is a valuable site of research for understanding the history of women’s education. With women in the majority among their graduates from the 1870s until well into the twentieth century, high schools have been an important site of advanced literacy and learning for American women, providing educational opportunities akin to and even, at times, exceeding those of colleges and normal schools in the nineteenth century (Graves xvii). Further, of course, a great deal more women attended high school than college, with women’s high school graduation rates outpacing that of colleges by more than 4 to 1 in 1870 and more than 20 to 1 by 1900 (with both groups expanding exponentially over the intervening decades) (Snyder). The experiences and perspectives of these students are valuable to understanding the history of formal and informal rhetoric and literacy instruction.

Here, I analyze alumnae club members’ rhetorical efforts to reconstruct the culture and pedagogies of the public high school for these students by supporting domestic science instruction. I focus on the early years of the Progressive Era—a term I use as a rough chronological marker of the years spanning from the1890s through the 1920s; I refer to Progressive Era reforms as those heterogeneous reforms initiated during this time, rather than to indicate a singular or coherent ideological reform movement. As historian Daniel T. Rodgers argues, and as this study supports, the political and ideological currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are too complex and internally contradictory to be cast as a singular “movement” (114). Still, the designation of the “Progressive Era” remains useful for marking a period of sweeping ideological, organizational, and pedagogical reforms in the US, of which high school curricular reform represents a prime example.1

Focusing on the early years of the Progressive Era, prior to the widespread adoption of domestic sciences in high schools, I unearth the tensions and contradictions inherent in these reform efforts by analyzing the public commentary of Alumnae Club leaders. I begin by introducing the club and the domestic sciences school it established and ran from 1898 to at least 1910, at which point domestic sciences were adopted by the high school. To better understand the impetus behind this reform, I provide an outline of its relation to the broader manual education movement, both locally and nationally. I then briefly analyze a notable speech by alumna Anne Hamilton, whose language lays bare some of the pitfalls of domestic science discourse in relation to broader educational goals and trends. I argue that the position of reformers such as Hamilton as alumnae (responding to their own needs as women rather than as students) and as clubwomen (espousing the broader values of the club movement) contributed to increased vocationalism in their conception of domestic sciences for the schools. I conclude by briefly following the adoption of domestic sciences curriculum in the high school and the concomitant social circulation of the club’s values of extracurricular learning and service in the school’s yearbooks by the beginning of the twentieth century, just as domestic sciences blossomed into a national movement. By the first decade of the twentieth century, club work and domestic sciences were increasingly pit against traditional academics of the school, creating a complicated legacy of gendered academic culture in their wake.2

The Establishment of the Alumnae Club

Opened in 1856 as Female High School (alongside Male High School of the same city), the school that came to be called Louisville Girls High School (LGHS) was the first—and for a long time the only—public high school for young women in Louisville, Kentucky. Considered the women’s equivalent of the collegiate courses offered to men through the Male High School, the women’s school instructed students in advanced rhetoric and composition studies alongside the Latin, sciences and mathematics courses that made up what was called an English curriculum (see Lueck). This course of study was framed as integral to the development of learners who would need practical knowledge to contribute to their jobs, communities, homes, and families. But even with its “practical” and “democratic” ethos, LGHS was tacitly an elite institution, available exclusively to white women, largely of the middle and upper classes, and never more than 10% of the high-school-age population until well into the twentieth century3. Students of the school were not insensible to the privilege that their education represented, particularly for women of the time, and they established an alumnae club to further extend their own educations and to benefit other women in their community who may be less fortunate4.

As an early trailblazer among high school clubs, though, the new club’s role and identity was not immediately clear, and there were few models to follow. According to later reminiscences in the school’s literary annual, there had even been initial resistance to the idea of supporting a formal alumnae club for a public high school: though some girls had been holding meetings, the suggestion of “a more formal organization with dues…was received with horror and much talk was indulged in, to the effect that it was not proper for the Alumnae of a public school to ask its members to pay dues” (The Record 23). In short, the idea of paying dues for club membership chafed with the girls’ sense of the democratic values of a free public high school. The prospect of paying dues may have also highlighted existing concerns about social class among students, which were reflected also in the rules of the school board around the time of the club’s establishment.5

For whatever reasons, the young women eventually resolved that it was important and valuable to support the club, dues and all. Established in 1878 under the direction of Principal George A. Chase and then united as a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and a founding member of The State Federation of Women’s Clubs of Kentucky in 1894, LGHS Alumnae Club was formally incorporated in 1898 with a purpose that was both inward looking (towards their shared LGHS experiences) and outward looking (towards their further education and service): “The united efforts on the part of those acknowledging a common Alma Mater, for self-improvement, for the progress of the organization, and for the best and highest interests of the community” (The Record 23). Alumna Anna Hamilton underscored the explicitly educational mission of the club in providing a “further means for the higher education and culture of its members and of the High School girls to bring to them the college and the university, since only a small per cent. of our graduates can avail themselves of the advantages of college life,” and providing the broader community with “the advantage of this same culture development” (Hamilton 11). In this way, the experience of the high school alumnae club paralleled that of college clubs that served to extend the higher learning of their members, as described by Scott: “While women all over the country were busily engaged in trying to make up for their lack of formal education, a small group of women college graduates created an organization for mutual support to carry on the education college had begun” (Scott 121).

The LGHS club supported the higher learning of high school students, alumnae, and the community through various programs. They hosted lecture series and debates on intellectual, cultural, literary, and political topics throughout the year—including a discussion on “Is Woman Shirking Her Duties?,” “The Study of Music Abroad,” and other topics—bringing together students, alumnae and others under the mantle of advanced education (Reports [1895] 82). By the turn of the century, the club was a major force among Louisville’s women’s clubs and a leader in the extension of literacy through the promotion of such public lectures, reading groups, and scholarships, along with other civic, environmental, and educational projects.

The club was also centrally involved in the work of the high school. From at least 1864, the club was regularly featured as part of the commencement ceremonies and other special high school events, and reports of their activities were published along with the annual school board reports for the high school and district. The Superintendent introduced these reports in 1895 by averring that the club’s work had “exercised a wholesome influence upon the school and community” (Reports [1895] 81). The club was even featured regularly in the student yearbook from its first publication in 1908. A full page spread of that first issue pictures the Alumnae Club officers framed by elaborate decorative sketches that far outdid the presentation of the graduates themselves, evidencing the conception of alumnae as a valued part of the school community (see Figure 1). By 1910, the club boasted 215 members, making it among the five largest women’s clubs in Louisville, though membership declined in the years following, down to 137 members in 1916, back up slightly to 186 members in 1918 and 1919, and declining thereafter (Winslow)6.

The inaugural 1908 issue of The Record, LGHS's yearbook, features portraits of the Alumnae Club leaders.

Fig. 1. Alumnae Club leaders in inaugural 1908 issue of The Record, LGHS’s yearbook. From the author’s collection.

Domestic Sciences as Manual Education

The Alumnae Club used their intimate relationship to the high school to further one particular educational reform initiative that many clubwomen held dear: domestic science7. Domestic science was an outgrowth of the broader manual education movement, which had circulated in the educational discourse of the Louisville public schools throughout the century, and which culminated there in the opening of a prestigious Manual Training High School for boys in 1892. Inspired by emerging scientific methods and challenging traditional approaches to learning (such as recitations), manual education, as the name suggests, encouraged students to use their hands to discover and engage the world around them. Advocates saw hands-on learning as a way to integrate mind, body, and spirit in a more holistic approach to learning, and so the movement promoted using your hands and body to learn, not developing particular skills or preparing for specific jobs. Indeed, against fears that manual education would limit students’ future prospects to specific manual careers, advocates in Louisville resolutely insisted that “a full course [of manual training] will better qualify a boy [or girl] for any business he may want to follow in after life” (Reports [1895] 89). In alumna Anna Hamilton’s words, the purpose was “not to fit for a certain trade, but to develop the senses, cultivate habits of exactness and precision and to awaken and give exercise to the creative facilities” (12).

Many women’s clubs across the country were invested in manual education as a key issue in education reform as well. Gesturing towards its popularity as a flagship issue for clubwomen, manual education (or manual training) is mentioned in 14 state profiles of women’s club activities in Croly’s The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America in 1898, and is numbered among the primary focuses of federated women’s clubs nationwide.

The manual education movement was the precursor to domestic sciences, which was simply gender-specific manual education8. As historian John L. Rury describes, domestic sciences and home economics courses—established in public schools from the late 1870s—were, like manual training more broadly, also not about what we would call “vocationalism,” but instead were grounded in this earlier, more capacious notion of manual education: “Contrary to the impression given by advocates of home economics later, these early courses were not intended to give women training for the home. Instruction in the domestic arts was simply viewed as another context in which young women could learn manual dexterity and practical lessons about science” (23). For example, Liz Rohan describes the “problem method” of domestic arts and sciences courses as emphasizing the “relationship between thinking and doing” that de-emphasized skills and promoted invention strategies such as a deep knowledge of design as precursors to significant projects (86). As Rohan demonstrates in her analysis of domestic arts curricula, “domestic arts [and sciences] educators made efforts to fuse the development of skill with the acquisition of liberal arts knowledge” (92).

Women saw particular success in advocating for domestic sciences instruction from within their clubs, “establishing courses and departments of domestic science in educational institutions, from vocational schools to the university” (Beard 12). Citing the beginnings of this movement to early sewing and cooking classes in the 1870s, Mary Ritter Beard explains:

Women have been supporters of this movement from the beginning and the Federation of Clubs early took an aggressive position in favor of such addition [sic] to the school curricula. “What you would have appear in the life of the people, that you must put into the schools,” is the idea they had in mind. (11)

Domestic sciences “fit with Progressive ideals aligning work and school and also with the persisting hegemony locating women’s work in the home” (Rohan 88). At the same time, with the strong Progressive Era connections between “the betterment of the home and society,” the idea of domestic sciences moved easily into other realms, such as the work of “municipal housekeeping” for which clubwomen became known, and “graduates of home economics programs did forge their way into the paid workforce” as well (Rohan 88; also see Stage 29). Thus, the interest of the Alumnae Club in domestic science would have reflected a wide range of associations and values that are by no means confined to work in the home9.

Alumnae Club president Mrs. J. Marshall Chatterson got the idea of offering domestic sciences courses at a meeting of clubwomen held in Denver, and by November 1898 fundraisers were underway to support their own alumnae-run school dedicated to these courses (“Kitchen Gardens”; Murphy). The school, which was reportedly the first of its kind established by a woman’s club in the United States, offered classes on the care of the house, laundry, kitchen, dining-room and table, practical sewing, and plain and fancy cooking, targeted to a range of audiences from “society women” and “society girls” to children “in poorer walks of life in order to prepare them for intelligent domestic service in any capacity” (1908 Record; Murphy; “Out Go the Lights”). In offering these courses, the clubwomen argued that domestic science would appeal to all classes of women, and hailed domestic instruction for both homemakers and servants alike as a “solution of the much-vexed servant problem” (Murphy). The school was reportedly popular among a wide range of women, and was well supported by business owners and other prominent members of the community10. 

Building on this success, the clubwomen next desired to incorporate domestic sciences into the formal curriculum of the existing Girls High School, or even to expand their own school into a “sister institution” to the city’s Manual Training High School for boys (Murphy). Indeed, Scott observes that it was a common trend for women’s clubs to lead the way in identifying and addressing public problems or needs before turning the work over to municipal organizations in this way (125; see also Beard 11). A paper by the club president, Mrs. Chatterson, read at the Women’s Club Federation meeting in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1899 explains their goals in this regard: 

This science should be taught in the public schools. The daughters of rich and poor alike should have a thorough training in cooking, sewing and common hygiene. Then the petty trials that burden woman’s life would vanish like snow before the sunbeam. The relation of women’s clubs to household science has been to broaden and enlarge her views. The necessity for an understanding of new civic and industrial conditions has led to increasing interest in all social and economic problems with the science that teaches us how to live. Within the last five years departments of domestic science have been added to the clubs in the General Federation. When club women, schools and colleges work together for so worthy an end, progress is assured and the conquest of public sentiment is at hand. The reign of waste and indigestion, let us hope, will be speedily ended. (“Second Day’s Session”)

Calling for cooperation among the clubs, schools, and colleges aligns these institutions as partners in education and social betterment, a move that was common among women’s clubs and reflective of the Progressive Era more broadly. But this alignment of school with civic and professional practice—the idea, as Mary Ritter had said, that what you like to see in life, you must put into the schools—introduced its own problems. The problem perpetually and increasingly faced by advocates of manual education, generally, and domestic sciences, specifically, was separating the educative function from the vocational or job preparation role of such programs. That is, though advocates insisted that manual training was about developing the full individual—“mind and muscle,” as early manual advocates put it—and not about job preparation, the specter of vocationalism was never far from the conversation in many Progressive Era curricular reforms. We can observe this slippage in commentary celebrating that domestic science students were “now gaining information which will be valuable to each member all her life” (“Learning How to Cook”)—highlighting (quite understandably) the link between today’s learning and tomorrow’s needs. But the emphasis on “information” rather a broader sense of intellectual development and the almost unavoidable slippage into narrowly imagined future applications pulled reformers ever further afield from the ideals of the manual training movement at every turn11.

But what role did the Alumnae Club play in this transformation from liberal arts to vocational approaches, from education to training? What was the nature of this reform effort for these women, and what rhetorical appeals did they make in support of it? In her 1899 speech at the dedication of a new LGHS building, Hamilton explained what this reform meant to her and her colleagues, and how they saw it as further extending women’s educational opportunities in Louisville. I analyze Hamilton’s speech in relation to the larger discourse of manual education and domestic sciences to shed light on the complexity of this educational reform initiative and the role of the women’s clubs in defining and supporting it. Analyzing the discourse of the Alumnae Club below, I argue that the particular position of these women as clubwomen contributed to the slippage of domestic sciences “from a female version of general liberal arts and science education to skills-oriented vocational training” in the twentieth century (Apple 80).

Anna J. Hamilton: “She is Not Thoroughly Practical”

Anna Hamilton was a graduate of what was then called Louisville Female High School in 1878, the same year Professor Chase, the principal of that school, first helped to arrange an Alumnae Club for graduates. Upon graduation, Hamilton went into teaching, accepting a position in the city’s Third Ward school, where she taught until about 1890, before moving into the position of Commercial Chair and then Principal of the normal school until about 1896. Hamilton returned to her alma mater, LGHS, as head of the English department in 1897, during which time she had also begun serving her first term as president of the Alumnae Club, from 1896-98.

By the time Hamilton took over as president, club work had developed as a powerful force for social engagement and change for women in Louisville and around the country. Hamilton herself twice served as president of the Alumnae club of her high school, and she also served as director of the Woman’s Club of Louisville, president of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, vice president of the Jail Matron’s Board, vice president of the advisory board of the Juvenile Court, and member of the library committee for the World’s Fair. These clubs, Anne Firor Scott explains, “provided an alternative career ladder, one that was open to women when few others were” (177).  Scott continues: “As long as women had virtually no access to the professions or business the leadership of voluntary associations was of an extremely high caliber. All the ability that in the male half of the population was scattered in dozens of directions was, in the female half, concentrated in religious and secular voluntary associations” (180). In this way, just as the high school prepared Hamilton for her significant role as a teacher and citizen, the school’s Alumnae Club prepared her for her equally significant work as a clubwoman—identities and roles which overlapped.12

Through appeals to temporal and spatial alignment between the high school girl and alumnae woman, the alumnae club worked to establish solidarity with and influence over the high school. We see these moves in Hamilton’s speech when she applies the intellectual and figurative genealogy of the “elder sister” to describe the alumnae’s relation to the high school girl, before extending it to encompass more literally biological connections as well, asserting that “Two generations have been trained in this school, and it is now not an uncommon thing to see mother and daughter sit side by side in the Alumnae Club” (Hamilton 14). While rhetorically effective, these appeals also enabled a slippage in the identities and therefore the needs of the students and the needs of the graduates, confounding what the mother or “elder sister” needed in later life with what the high school girl herself might need as a student. This is particularly true in relation to the club’s advocacy of domestic science instruction.

By the turn of the century, LGHS alumnae like Hamilton were using their curricular and extracurricular training and the platform of the Alumnae Club to advocate for domestic sciences curriculum in the high school, which Hamilton explains in her 1899 speech. An advocate of a capacious vision of manual training to develop and exercise all the senses, Hamilton explicitly stated, as mentioned above, that its purpose was “not to fit for a certain trade, but to develop the senses, cultivate habits of exactness and precision and to awaken and give exercise to the creative facilities” (12). Instead, it was an answer to what she saw as the limits of “intellectual and aesthetic training,” as only “one-sided training.”

“Our High School girl, alas! Is not well-rounded,” she complained. “She is not thoroughly practical. What she needs to makes her the woman she should be is manual training” (12). This complaint echoes the arguments made by advocates of the boys’ Manual High School in the previous decade, who had contended that the traditional high school “teach[es] boys to earn a living by their wits, and their wits are educated at the expense and to the exclusion of their muscle” (Reports [1895] 89).

Though advocating this broad, non-vocational version of manual education, though, Hamilton herself almost immediately slips into a vocational framing in her discussion, focused not on the development of students’ faculties but instead on their future applications. The current curriculum, she says, is equipped for the “merest minority” and “arranged to meet the requirements of professional life” (12). Already moving into a discussion of appropriate careers and applications that she otherwise disavowed, her critique here is not really that the curriculum is inappropriately vocational by being focused on professional life but that it is focused on the wrong vocation. Instead, Hamilton’s argument forwards home and civic service as the appropriate sphere for woman: “If the hand has been trained only to wield the pen and to be dexterous with crayon and brush, then she is ill prepared for woman’s sphere about which we hear so much” (12). Thus, the “woman’s sphere” of domestic and civic—rather than professional—action is held up as the appropriate vocational goal for students.

Speaking from experience within this “woman’s sphere,” the “elder High School girl,” Hamilton explains, “has discovered that she needs a practical training as does also her younger sister. So she has arranged for a course of lectures on home economies, embracing home furnishings and decorations, plain sewing and hygeinic [sic] cooking” (12). That is, the alumnae’s interest in domestic sciences originated from their own interests first—from the position of worker, citizen and, often, homemaker—not those of the student and learner, per se. This makes sense, of course: the alumnae women were creating programming that reflected their own needs and perspectives, using the club as a platform for that personal and professional development. Plus, the Progressive Era ideology further celebrated the alignment of school and work. But by focusing on the work of the home and club that they were facing in their own lives, the alumnae clubwomen were participating in the process of transforming manual education into vocational training in the high school, focusing not on the broader educative value of “habits of exactness and precision” indicative of the early manual education movement but instead training for housework, in particular. 

Indeed, the effectiveness of the appeal for domestic science may have resulted from confusion about the term itself. Sarah Stage explains that, because home economics could be “whatever anyone wished it to be—conservative or reform, traditional or innovative, scientific or domestic,” advocates “proved willing to trade on traditional views of woman’s place” in order to advance women’s opportunities—“to use traditional terms to cloak untraditional activities” (Stage 9). Hamilton’s speech undoubtedly represents such an admixture of goals and ideals.

But one concern that rises above the rest, to which domestic sciences is most clearly linked in Hamilton’s speech and elsewhere, is the “practical” interests of the Alumnae woman, which are increasingly recognized to be divorced from traditional academics. In this way, Hamilton specifically goes on to argue that “The art of furnishing a home in a sanitary and economical manner is more valuable than Byzantine or Phoenician art, and the chemistry of cooking is more fascinating and more necessary than the study of Browning”—not just proposing an addition but instead pitting the supposedly “practical” against the intellectual and cultural education of the school (emphasis mine, 13). In moments like this, Hamilton’s speech is indicative of the lapse in the discourse surrounding the home economics movement as it developed: that what was once intended to enrich education comes to be set at odds with academics, difficult if not impossible to distinguish from vocational training. What was once conceived as a curricular complement becomes a competition among subjects—an either-or proposition—even within the confines of one speech.

In the words of historian Karen Graves, we see Hamilton here advancing the development of the domesticated citizen over the female scholar by the turn of the century, which came to be evidenced in sex-specific differentiation of course offerings in the twentieth century. As Graves illustrates in a case study of the St. Louis high schools, “Once society accepted that schooling ought to differ among students so as to prepare each for her or his place in the social order, educators across the United States maintained that sex differences were an important factor in determining one’s appropriate course of study.” The differentiation of the curriculum (reinforced by extracurricular activity) “led to academic decline…, altering girls’ high-school experiences, and it served to restrict girls’ access to certain kinds of knowledge, most notably mathematics and science” (xviii). In this way, the advanced intellectual curriculum that had arguably created the engaged, political clubwomen and educators in the Alumnae Club—such as Hamilton herself—was displaced in favor of a more “practical” curriculum increasingly focused on the work of the home. 

By 1908, the graduates of LGHS were no longer learning from one uniform academic curriculum, with training in the rhetorical and pedagogical skills to develop as teachers and active civic participants, as Hamilton had. Instead, their curriculum by that time had been divided into increasingly specialized tracks, including commercial or business programs, a normal (or teacher training) program, and an academic program, which were all separately managed, sometimes administered in separate school buildings. LGHS also later did take on responsibility for domestic sciences programming from the Alumnae Club, offering a system of electives that included home economics by 1911, and by 1913, school leaders in Louisville (and across the country) were calling for a transformation of manual and domestic science instruction into overtly vocational programs (Voegtle 1-2; First Report, 79). Later still, domestic sciences would become further institutionalized into the curriculum on a national level, overseen by legislation such as the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 and the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917. LGHS offered a full four-year home economics course of study by 1924 (Voegtle 1-2).

The changes wrought to LGHS’s curriculum and culture had lasting effects for the school, which continued to develop gendered vocational offerings and even merged with the boys’ manual training high school by 1950. A later teacher and alumnae club leader would characterize the 1899 dedication ceremonies of the high school and the speeches given there (such as Hamilton’s) as marking “a new epoch in [the school’s] career, which was the beginning of increased efficiency, attractiveness and usefulness” (8). That writer remarked that Hamilton’s “prophetic language” about manual education had been “fully verified” by the time of the author’s writing in the 1930s (Girls High School 8).13 And this new pedagogical and civic epoch—which, for many commentators, came to characterize the Progressive Era more broadly—had implications for women’s writing and speaking at the high school into the twentieth century.

The Complicated Legacy of the Alumnae Club Reforms

The story I have presented here traces the fate of one high school’s Alumnae Club as they worked to reform public education in their city. In its early days, the work of the Alumnae Club had been almost indistinguishable from the work of the high school itself, pointing up the significance of such clubs in the history of women’s higher learning as they extended and shaped existing educational opportunities. But the club’s critiques of the high school in time contributed to the attenuation of academic opportunity for women students, both in terms of changed curricular offerings and the alteration of the academic culture of the school. The key here is the (inadvertent) emphasis on vocationalism. Insofar as traditional academics did not lead to many viable career paths for women, appeals to vocationalism undercut the apparent value of these subjects for students as the Progressive Era value of school and work alignment prevailed.

Encouraged to see school as a means to an end and perhaps uncertain about their access to a broader range of careers outside the home, students were no longer encouraged to see their traditional high school subjects as preparing them for meaningful engagement with and contribution to the world around them. Their club work, however, did prepare them in this way. Thus, the values and practices of club work were increasingly divorced from the academic goals that the club’s early mission had embraced, and what emerged in place of these academic subjects, in part, was the club itself, as the social and civic work they engaged there remained one of few viable professional and cultural outlets for women. Thus, in time, a club dedicated to supporting and extending academic opportunity for women became pitted against traditional academics, presenting women with a choice between engaging meaningful civic work and pursuing traditional academic success.

As the Alumnae Club and its high school counterpart, the Alethean Literary Club, became more socially and civically engaged, they increasingly pitted this engagement against more traditional academic experiences in the school. A story written by an anonymous student and published in the 1908 student annual under the title “A Tale for High School Girls” illustrates this tension well. Its narrative evidences changing ideas about gender and schooling among students, which, though not directly addressing home economics curricula, does reflect the culture of the “domesticated citizen” and the values of the club movement, including its emphasis on “practicality” and the particular notions of citizenship that influenced many Progressive Era curricular reforms.

The story begins with a flirtatious, youthful rivalry between a schoolboy and schoolgirl, Tommy and Peggy. Meeting in the street, Tommy teases Peggy for her bright red curls. But young Peggy deflects the criticism of her appearance with a boast about her academic accomplishments, which are a point of pride and identity for her in her early years: “I reckon I can spell heaps better’n you can, and I’d heaps rather know lots than be just pretty,” is young Peggy’s rejoinder (“A Tale”).

As Peggy enters high school, then, she has plans to “walk off with the honors all through High School, make a triumphant entry at Vassar, absorb a large amount of learning, and in the end become a ‘big Mathematics teacher’”—in short, to “consecrate herself to the goddess of wisdom, and become a paragon of learning” (np). Meanwhile, though, she discovers the high school’s Alethean literary club—which, perhaps surprisingly to modern readers, is a more social than academic club, and which serves as the feeder to the work of the Alumnae Club. The club presents a conflict for Peggy, who finds she needs to balance her academic goals with her club goals. She learns this through watching the fate of her friend Julia, who is not invited to join Alethean because, although “she’s smart,” the girls believe she is “bound to be narrow-minded, and unentertaining, when she gives every minute of her time to lessons and improving her mind” (np). Julia is a symbol of the old sense of propriety and academic values that are transforming in the Progressive Era high school. In contrast to the ill-fated Julia, Peggy begins to neglect her studies in favor of participating in club work at school: “She worked to make the Alethean more attractive and interesting than ever. She didn’t criticize. She was enthusiastic about her school affairs. And she was enjoying life in the fullest” (np). 

One day her father intercedes in this development, reminding Peggy of her academic goals and prowess. But Peggy insists that she “couldn’t do any good studying for first honor,” and instead she is learning more in her own way through her school activities, through which she “did more for the betterment of the school than in that long ago Freshman year of unmissed Latin lessons. She still stood high in her school, but in a different way” (np). For Peggy, the idea of social engagement and “doing good” has been fully severed from the idea of academics.

Some years later, just before graduation, Peggy meets Tommy once again on the street, and the students revisit their old rivalry and banter, with Peggy averring that she can still spell better than him. Significantly, though, Tommy gets the last line of story, underscoring the moral of the tale (and, perhaps notably, his own authority to name it): 

I’m glad you’ve made up your mind that knowing lots isn’t the only thing after all….I tell you, they’re the sort of people, girls and boys, that make a school, or a city, or even a nation—that make life. It doesn’t pay to be narrow. It takes just that sort to get the most out of life for themselves, and other people, too. I certainly am glad that there is one girl who has decided not to get the first honor, and spare us from a commencement essay. (1908 np)

In this narrative moment, it is not the academic goals of the school but the broader (and vaguer) citizenship goals of the extracurricular (and club) experience that are celebrated and affirmed. Peggy’s youthful ambition is dismissed as outdated and “narrow-minded,” recognizing the real work of women as not in Vassar or in front of the math classroom but in “how much you learn to know other people, accept their view of things, and understand, sympathize with them” (np). In short, a club for extending higher academic opportunities to women is no longer the needful thing, and instead young women are invited to frame their educations specifically in terms of the domestic and social roles that they will play in their community and in their homes. One cannot help but hear echoes of Hamilton’s speech about “one-sided education,” and the call to leverage domestic sciences and club work to become “what nature intended her to be—a perfect woman” (12).

But if attention to the “practical” subjects at high schools across the country undercut academics, as Graves argues and Louisville’s history supports, the case of LGHS also demonstrates the influence of graduates over their own alma mater, accomplished through their organized action as a club. This is a story of women using an intellectual and academic club to advocate for their own educational advancement and reform, embracing domestic science as an enriching intellectual and practical area of study of which they found themselves needful. In short, it evidences the rhetorical effectiveness of these women towards a cause in which they believed. Though its legacy might be complicated from our present perspective, this story reveals women intervening in higher learning to shape it to their own needs and experiences, heralding an era of domesticated citizens that were, nonetheless, soon to actually be citizens, and—through such club work—equipping themselves to define and pursue their own interests as such.


  1. Further complexities within Progressive-era education reform include the tension between what David Labaree terms “administrative” and “pedagogical” progressives—the former shaping many of the actual policies in American schools from the turn of the century onward, while the latter has dominated the ways we speak of schooling (and also, notably, the ways we characterize what the Progressive Era itself meant, writ large). I use the term Progressive Era as a shorthand throughout this piece without further exploring these contradictions and complexities, though they are important to note.
  2. Other work on domestic science in the field (such as that of Maureen Goggin and Liz Rohan) has usefully highlighted the ways domestic science constituted its own rhetorical literacies and professional opportunities. I do not argue with this claim. In what follows, however, I do hope to show how a certain version of domestic sciences—a specifically vocational approach—produced some of the less inspiring educational outcomes often bemoaned in relation to domestic sciences and manual education in the twentieth century. As I hope to demonstrate, those pedagogies and values of vocationalism are not a necessary aspect of domestic sciences, and are actually characteristic of gendered differentiated education more broadly.
  3. The low enrollments were, in part, due to the fact that there were no compulsory school attendance laws in the state until the 1920s (see Kleber 212).
  4. Like the segregated school itself, this sense of community would also have been largely limited to white women. In this way, the LGHS Alumnae Club is unfortunately in line with the trends among white women’s clubs, which remained unwelcoming to women of color through much of their history (Scott 127).
  5. Specifically, in 1873, the school board added a disciplinary rule that “The pupils of the Female High School are expected to dress in a plain, neat style; the wearing of costly dresses and jewelry is highly disapproved by the Board of Trustees, and should be discouraged by the Faculty. It is hoped that hereafter there will be less ostentatious display of dress at the public examinations and the Annual Commencement of the school” (1873 29). This rule was noticed and ridiculed on a national level, first by the New York Evening Post and then the Boston Globe, before being reprinted in the local Courier Journal (“Girls’ Clothes” 12 August 1873). Changes in the school rules also reflect a growing awareness of students as gendered, and with gendered needs, as indicated by another new rule added at that time that “any pupil may be excused from recitation in any subject upon application of the parent or guardian and a certificate of the family physician stating that the health of the pupil is so delicate as to necessitate a withdrawal from school unless such an excuse be granted” (27). Such a rule, exclusive to the women’s high school, suggests a changing understanding of students increasingly reflective of feminine ideals of True Womanhood—pit against their ability to engage in the exertions of academic effort. In this context, the formation of a club to support the extension of literary and cultural opportunities among students might have taken on additional import, as women’s bodies and activities were becoming increasingly visible at the high school.
  6. Data drawn from several volumes of Winslow’s Official Register of Women’s Clubs: 1910-1911, p. 86; 1916, p. 88; 1918, p. 113; and 1919, p. 130.
  7. As Liz Rohan observes, “[n]aming and describing the categories of home economics is difficult” (83). I use the term “domestic sciences” throughout this piece because it is the term used by the Alumnae Club members and because it is generally presented as an umbrella term for this area of study. I use the term “home economics” or other terms when source material does so.
  8. Manual training was linked also to the kindergarten movement, and the work of the Alumnae Club’s domestic science school and “kitchen garden” is explicitly described as a kindergarten: “The students are taught in the same way that kindergarteners receive their instruction, with toys and gifts to illustrate each subject given consideration” (“Some of the Purposes”). The relationship speaks further to the broader educational atmosphere undergirding early domestic science instruction.
  9. For a complimentary argument on the complicated gains and losses of domestic science instruction, see Jordynn Jack, Science on the Homefront.
  10. Consumerism and consumer culture was a major aspect of the sense of the “home” being imagined in this program from its beginning. For example, according to several news reports and advertisements, the sale of gas ranges supported the work of the club, in part; in turn, the retailer of those ranges gave free tickets to the domestic science lectures to those who purchase a new gas range.
  11. The impulse towards practical applications of education is gendered, raced, and classed, reflective of changing demographics in the public schools; as such, the vocational transformation of the domestic science is also linked to changes in audience. As Rima D. Apple explains, “changing demographics, developments in pedagogical theory, and political circumstances transformed home economics from a female version of general liberal arts and science education to skills-oriented vocational training” (80). In this way, a report in 1900 celebrates: “Probably the most interesting work, from a philanthropic standpoint, is that which is now being done by a large colored class organized in connection with Presbyterian mission work” (“Alumnae Club’s School of Domestic Science”). As another report further explained, “The popular sentiment throughout the city as to the introduction of sewing as a part of the curriculum for girls in the colored district schools of Louisville is that cooking and the rudiments of domestic science are needed far more than the higher mathematics by the average colored child’” (“School Chat”).
  12. Hamilton was acknowledged to be a noteworthy person in her own time. Her active professional travels and activities were tracked regularly in the local newspaper and she was also profiled in Frances Willard’s Women of the Century collection.
  13.  Some of the same language of practicality and efficiency describes Hamilton’s approach to her own English courses when she served as a teacher in the school, when her composition instruction was described as “mak[ing] the work as practical as possible…aiming at rapidity and correctness in expression” (Reports [1896] 119).

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