June 17, 1904: International Council of Women Hears Arguments on Women’s Access to Higher Education

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column where we tackle women’s history headline by headline.


It’s been quite a day here in Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall, as delegates of Women’s National Councils from as far away as New Zealand assembled for an International Council of Women, the first such gathering since they last met in London five years ago.

Today, Martha Carey Thomas had the opportunity to address some of the current myths about women and education, then Susan B. Anthony, Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, and Carrie Chapman Catt told women around the world about the benefits which have resulted in the four U.S. States with equal suffrage.

Martha Carey Thomas, President of Bryn Mawr since 1894.
Martha Carey Thomas, President of Bryn Mawr since 1894.

The myth that higher education is unhealthy or too difficult for women was demolished by Thomas, the current and second President of Bryn Mawr College. Speaking on “The University Education of Women in the United States,” she challenged theories such as that of Paul Broca, who believed that the brains of women were too small to intellectually compete with those of men. Then she attacked the popular notion that women were too weak for the rigors of college life by citing statistics showing that more men than women broke down from overwork in American colleges.

Thomas also noted that contrary to the assumptions of many, college women were just as interested in marriage as those who did not go to college. She then went on to attack the theory of Edward Clarke, who said that studying diverts blood from a woman’s reproductive organs to her brain, and can render her infertile. Thomas cited statistics showing that college educated wives actually had a higher number of children.

Catt said that the improvement in the character of the legislators in the four States where women can now vote (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho) has been observed by everyone. As an example of specific legislation, she said that in Colorado, where women were enfranchised by male voters approving a Statewide suffrage referendum in 1893, the past 11 years have seen lawmakers pass the best laws in the world in regard to the protection of children. She then went on to address a popular myth in regard to the emancipation of women. Though opponents of woman suffrage allege that it is destructive to the family, Catt noted that the divorce rate in Wyoming, where women have had the vote longer than anywhere else, is lower than in other Western States where only men are eligible to vote.

The gathering is proving to be a great success, and has enabled many international friendships to be made, as well as campaign strategies to be shared. So, such events should occur on a regular basis until worldwide suffrage – and then total equality for women – is achieved.

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