Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Katherine McKenna


This dissertation examines the experiences of women studying at six institutions of higher education from 1890 to 1920. The universities include Queen’s University in Kingston, The University of Western Ontario in London, the University of Toronto and its affiliates Victoria University, University College, and Trinity College in Toronto. While pioneering women who attended universities in the 1880s were opposed by people who believed a belief that women’s intellects were inferior to men’s, women in this study faced the belief that by engaging in the “masculine” pursuit of higher education they risked their future as wives and mothers and thus jeopardized their femininity.

This dissertation challenges the historiographical assertion that female students who attended university after the pioneer womens were less engaged academically and faced fewer barriers on campus than their predecessors. In fact, it argues that female students from 1890 to 1920 faced more supervision on campus than their foremothers and universities adapted to increased numbers of female students by hiring Deans of Women, physicians, and nurses to oversee students’ physical and moral health. As the medical literature still maintained that an education could render women infertile, parents, administrators and students carefully guarded women’s health on campus. In order to combat a dangerous education, some schools required students to perform physical activities and to act under the supervision ofbe supervised by doctors and nurses. Women’s inferior status was mapped onto campus and female students faced complex rules about where they were permitted to walk and stand on campus, and how they could interact with male students. In fact, they had greater freedom on city streets than they did on university campus, unless they acted in the traditionally feminine role asof the dates of male students.

As a result of the complex rules that dictated how they could socialize with male students on campus, women lived in homosocial worlds. They relied upon their female friends and spent the vast majority of time in female boarding houses and residences. Many women engaged in romantic female friendships typical of the nineteenth century and in “lesbian-like” ways including fake marriages between friends, sleeping in each other’s beds, and dancing together. Romantic friendships were encouraged by university administrators who closely supervised interactions between men and women. Heterosexual relationships were difficult for female students to navigate, as women required a male escort to participate in most campus social events. While men were eager to form romantic relationships with their female peers, men and women struggled to create companionate relationships as women engaged in traditionally masculine higher education and careers.

Despite the opposition and supervision women faced on campus, the majority of students relished their time at university. They were able to step out of the feminine roles of performing domestic labour and were permitted to put their own desires and ambition before the needs of family. In order to justify their presence at university before a presumed retreat into the private sphere as wives and mothers, proponents of women’s higher education argued that it was beneficial for Canadian society at large to create “well-rounded girls” who would be wonderful mothers. Yet, given greater employment options than uneducated women, more than half of the graduates did not marry and return to the private sphere. Many graduates volunteered with alumnae associations for the rest of their lives to retain their connection to universities and ensure young women continued to have the opportunities they relished.