Higher Education for Girls in North American College Fiction 1886-1912

Gunilla Lindgren

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


Twenty years after Vassar College welcomed the first American female undergraduates in 1865, the experiences of women college students began to be fictionalized in so-called college stories.

This thesis shows how higher education is presented in the novels, collections of short stories, and serialized stories for female readers published before the United States was involved in the First World War. The thirty years from the mid-1880s to 1915 were a dynamic period during which women's colleges gradually gained acceptance. The study examines aspects of college education that are given prominence in these tales, most of which are forgotten today. Special emphasis is placed on four novels which were all popular at the time: Helen Dawes Brown, Two College Girls; Caroline Macomber Fuller, Across the Campus; Julia Augusta Schwartz, Elinor's College Career; and Jean Webster, Daddy-Long-Legs. While men's college stories and series books intended for juvenile readers also come in for some attention, the thesis focuses on women's college fiction written by alumnae who had graduated from the 'Seven Sisters', the prestigious colleges in the north-east of the U.S.A.

Two dimensions are of fundamental importance. The first has to do with contemporaneous opinions as to what constituted appropriate behaviour and work for young women. A large number of articles and books have provided a variety of answers to the question why higher education for women was considered to be a threat to the American nation. These issues are very much to the fore in the college stories. The dichotomy of home and college is particularly striking: in these stories college is often seen to succeed where the home has somehow failed.

The other dimension is manifest in matters pertaining to academic education, campus life activities, and the ways in which college girls are seen to develop by means of their instruction, assignments, occupations, and interaction with their peers. In college stories, as in discussions about the benefits of a liberal-arts education in general, character development is a prominent feature. So, however, are references to the intellectual demands made on the girls and to the mental growth that many fictional characters are seen to experience in the course of their education.

Lord Alfred Tennyson's narrative poem The Princess contains ideas for and against higher education for women. Published before any academic institution for women existed in the Anglo-Saxon world, that influential work is used as a reference throughout my analyses. The thesis concludes that with the publication of Daddy-Long-Legs and the subsequent Dear Enemy, Jean Webster created a balance between the contradictory ideas that Tennyson had addressed - a balance that is not seen in any of the earlier stories.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • English Studies
  • [unknown], [unknown], Supervisor, External person
Award date2003 Nov 29
Publication statusPublished - 2003

Bibliographical note

Defence details

Date: 2003-11-29
Time: 10:15
Place: Room Hörsalen in the Humanities Building (Humanisthuset), Helgonabacken 14, Lund

External reviewer(s)

Name: Wikborg, Eleanor
Title: Prof.
Affiliation: Stockholms universitet


Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Languages and Literature


  • General and comparative literature
  • Vassar College
  • liberal-arts education for women
  • Jean Webster
  • Julia A. Schwartz
  • Caroline M. Fuller
  • Helen D. Brown
  • Alfred Tennyson's The Princess
  • education in literature
  • women's higher education in North America
  • women's education in fiction
  • college fiction
  • college girls
  • literature criticism
  • literary theory
  • Allmän och jämförande litteratur
  • litteraturkritik
  • litteraturteori
  • English language and literature
  • Engelska (språk och litteratur)


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