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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Book review: Bound by a Mighty Vow

I'm interested in the history of American women's organizations and the nineteenth-century milieu from which many of them arose.  (I belong to several of them -- see my blog sidebar.) When I read a prepublication review of Diana Turk's book Bound by a Mighty Vow I made sure to order a copy for myself.  That was in 2004 -- and this afternoon, I read it (out on the patio, enjoying sunshine, cooler temperatures, and a pitcher of lemonade).  

The subtitle of the book is  "sisterhood and women's fraternities, 1870-1920." Turk uses Kappa Alpha Theta as the specific group in her study, but she acknowledges that Theta's early years were similar to other women's fraternities. 

Women's fraternities were founded for solidarity. In 1870, when Theta was founded, 11,000 women were enrolled in college--and more than 50,000 men.   Women's very presence on campus was suspect. Were they competitors or colleagues of male students?  They wanted to prove themselves the intellectual equals of the men.  (In 1873  Dr. Edward Clarke published Sex in Education: or, A Fair Chance for the Girls in which he argued that higher education damaged women's reproductive systems. The book had seventeen printings.  The forerunner of AAUW, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, commissioned its first research in 1885 to refute Clarke.) 

Academic achievement was the emphasis in the early years. Theta and other groups were very concerned that their chapters be chartered only at academically rigorous schools.  By the turn of the 20th century the direction changed to family connections and 'sociability.'  Anti-fraternity sentiment among university administrations led to a greater role for alumnae (and alumni, for the men's organizations).  A model prescribing "the ideal" fraternity woman began, with national standards imposed on local chapters.  The concept of fraternity education (what every member was expected to know) was introduced in the 'teens. 

I had wondered about NPC women and their involvement in the suffrage movement.  Turk answered my question:  women's fraternities by and large "adopted positions designed to attract the least amount of resistance or opposition from their membership" (p. 110)  even though they supported the idea of independent, strong women.   Many NPC women were suffragists because of their own convictions, not their fraternity affiliation.  (I suspect that that was the case for P.E.O. as well.)

I very much enjoyed this slice of women's history -- I'm sorry it took me so long to read it!

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