Historical Dictionary of Women's Education in the United States
The Historical Dictionary of Women's Education in the United States by Linda Eisenmann and a staff of 104 historians is the most recent undertaking in the ongoing effort to define and explain women's education in the United States. The dictionary, a user-friendly text that covers a timespan from the colonial period to the present, provides a comprehensive reference tool for scholars, educators, students, and general readers who are interested in women's education and history. In a time when obfuscation is often the rule in academic writing, Eisenmann and her staff have created a dictionary that is remarkably readable and usable by all. The scope of the Historical Dictionary is as broad as its chronology, for it reaches into the fields of philosophy, history, political science, and psychology to accomplish its objective.
That the Historical Dictionary has an objective is certain, since dictionaries and encyclopedias invariably reflect a central idea underlying the inclusion and exclusion of materials. For example, in 1929, Thomas Woody undertook a task similar to Eisenmann's and created A History of Women's Education in the United States, a brilliant compilation of over four thousand bibliographic entries that has informed generations of educators and historians on this topic. The debt that many owe to this earlier work can be seen in Woody's inclusion in Eisenmann's dictionary. Woody chose to emphasize women's "intellectual emancipation" in his work, and his historical tour de force records womens' progress toward that end. Eisenmann works with a similar perspective, announced in her introduction to the Historical Dictionary: "The story of women's education in the United States is a continuous effort to move from the periphery to the mainstream in both formal institutions and informal opportunities" (p. 6). This statement provides the Historical Dictionary's theme and suggests that this work is an extension of Woody's. It shows how the "intellectual emancipation" recorded by Woody was a part of the ongoing process of institution-building in women's education.
Eisenmann writes that the Historical Dictionary used several criteria to select material: geographic, social, and socioeconomic diversity; traditional and alternative educational settings; and emphasis on issues, events, and themes rather than on individuals alone. The latter two criteria are met throughout, as the dictionary includes both formal and informal educational movements, programs, and settings with special emphasis on the issues themselves, rather than the individuals who promoted or worked within them. While there are entries on individuals, they are less biographical discussions than institutional studies of a given individual's role within larger contexts. For example, we learn of formal institutions such as the Seven Sisters colleges, but we also learn of less formal educational opportunities such as the General Federation of Women's Clubs. In keeping with the stated criteria, we learn more about M. Carey Thomas's contributions to women's ongoing "struggle to move from the periphery to the mainstream in both formal institutions and informal opportunities" (p. xi) than we do of her personal history.
However, the goal of geographic and social diversity is less admirably met. The majority of entries deal with upper- and middle-class educated women of the Northeast and African American women. The paucity of entries on issues and movements associated with other socioeconomic and ethnic groups is apparent, and few entries explore women's education and the issues associated with it in the South or West. Despite its stated criteria, the dictionary leans toward duality rather than diversity.
One especially helpful aspect of Eisenmann's work is the use of cross-referencing through bold format of selected words in the text. In each of the Historical Dictionary's 243 entries, other terms that are included in the work are highlighted. By cross-referencing these words or phrases, the reader can explore the social, biographical, and political contexts in which a movement, a program, an institution, or an individual operated. The entry for "suffrage," for example, highlights the terms "temperance," "Seneca Falls," "Declaration of Sentiments," "slavery," and "abolitionist." By referring to these entries, readers can further broaden their understanding of the issue and explore its larger social, historical, and political contexts.