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Educating the New Southern Woman:
Speech, Writing, and Race at the Public Women's Colleges, 1884-1945

David Gold and Catherine L. Hobbs


Southern Illinois University Press, 2014

From the end of Reconstruction through World War II, a network of public colleges for white women flourished throughout the South. Founded primarily as vocational colleges to educate women of modest economic means for life in the emerging "new" South, these schools soon transformed themselves into comprehensive liberal arts-industrial institutions, proving so popular that they became among the largest women's colleges in the nation. Educating the New Southern Woman examines rhetorical education at all eight of these colleges, providing a better understanding of not only how women learned to read, write, and speak in American colleges but also how they used their education in their lives beyond college.

With a collective enrollment and impact rivaling that of the Seven Sisters, the schools examined in this study—Mississippi State College for Women (1884), Georgia State College for Women (1889), North Carolina College for Women (1891), Winthrop College in South Carolina (1891), Alabama College for Women (1896), Texas State College for Women (1901), Florida State College for Women (1905), and Oklahoma College for Women (1908)—served as important centers of women's education in their states, together educating over a hundred thousand students before World War II and contributing to an emerging professional class of women in the South.

The experiences of students and educators at these institutions speak to important conversations among scholars in rhetoric, education, women's studies, and history. By examining these previously unexplored but important institutional sites, Educating the New Southern Woman provides a richer and more complex history of women's rhetorical education and experiences.

After tracing the establishment and evolution of these institutions against the cultural backdrop which shaped them, this work explores education in writing, speech arts, and public speaking at the colleges, setting faculty and departmental goals and methods in conversation with larger institutional, professional, and cultural contexts. It then turns to the various ways the colleges prepared women to succeed in available occupations, treats the unspoken but important role of race at these schools, and concludes by considering the legacy of the public women's colleges in relation to the history of women's education and contemporary challenges in the teaching of rhetoric and writing. Chapters include:

  • Introduction: Peculiar Institutions
  • 1. Making Modern Girls: The Ideals of the Southern Public Colleges for Women
  • 2. Effective Literacy: Writing Instruction and Student Writing
  • 3. Evolution of Expression: Speech Arts and Public Speaking
  • 4. Useful Careers: Professional Training for Women of the New South
  • 5. The Absent Presence of Race
  • Conclusion: A Continuing Legacy