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Upper Education for Women Threatens her “Task of Life”
Despite the institution's role as a pioneering force in women's education, the architecture of Mt. Holyoke Seminary (College) suggested that designers still subscribed to traditional ideas regarding femininity. Pictured above are MHC students, probably from the class of 1896.Courtesy MHC Archives (14)

Throughout much of the nineteenth and just into the twentieth centuries, the home was considered women’s domain. Women were defined according to their reproductive roles as mothers and “being at home was the first essential step in becoming successful” in this position (27). Feminist writer and women’s rights activist, Ida Tarbell, wrote that “for the normal woman the fulfillment of life is the making of the thing we best describe as home” where she cared for her family and received guests from her social circle (26). Society in the Victorian and later Edwardian eras stressed the idea that women belonged in a domestic atmosphere as a performance of the duty of their sex.

As it was believed that women’s lives should revolve around the home and family, if women began to look for roles outside the home, or at least roles less devoted solely to the domestic sphere, society would resist this shift. Education played a large part in instigating this change of focus. Tarbell claimed that higher education led women to acquire “an intuition of truth akin to inspiration,” a competitiveness that only men were supposed to possess (26; 27). However, such women who aspired to life beyond the domestic, risked society regarding her “as one who shirked the task of life,” motherhood (26). This same resistance towards motivated female minds was one of the factors that served as an impetus behind the construction of the ‘cottage system’ at women’s colleges, including Mt. Holyoke, in the late nineteenth century. For it was feared that the seminary system at Mt. Holyoke had failed to preserve students’ femininity in a domestic atmosphere, but left them “affected, unsocial“ with “visionary notions“. College historian, Helen Horowitz, says that the single large dwelling and separation from family contributed to pupils “developing an autonomous life, unregulated by authorities,” thus less like a family and not the domestic atmosphere the architects of the seminary system hoped to preserve (4).

The idea of women being relegated to the domestic sphere prevailed throughout the nineteenth century. This was also the time when Mt. Holyoke Seminary expanded its single-building system and added or made a point of maintaining architectural details of the building that made it appear more domestic. Likewise, ideas regarding women’s domesticity continued into the 1890s and 1900s with the Edwardian era and the construction of dormitories in the ‘Cottage System’ at the newly re-titled, Mount Holyoke College.


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