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Abstract

In 1911, William De La Mater of Peoria, Illinois wrote to Marion Talbot, the Dean of Women at the University of Chicago, asking for the educator’s advice regarding his daughter Mabel’s future. “I ask myself this question,” De La Mater wrote. “Which is the nobler work for women, devotion thru life to a family, or to a calling that is generally poorly paid and oftentimes little appreciated?” De La Mater’s query is only one example of confusion surrounding the educational possibilities for women. The period between 1870 and 1930 is marked by a degree of anxiety among Americans faced with academic decisions. Parents, academic administrators, and students themselves sought models of female scholarship, using comparison to open up imaginable possibilities. By looking towards other institutions, educators attempted to build educational models off of what had come before. Students compared their own colleges to those around them, creating identity for their new institutions where none had existed before. The ever-present need for comparison was fuelled by confusion and anxiety: what is the right path forward as it pertains to women’s education? Answers, it seemed to many, could be found by looking to the left, and then to the right.

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