Writing, Women, and the Worcester Normal School by Nicole O'Connell

Abstract: Worcester State University in Massachusetts was originally founded as the Worcester Normal School in 1874. Diaries written by members of the Worcester Normal School during the school’s first 30 years have been available for research in the university archives, but have not been extensively gone through until this project. These diaries share experiences of young women gaining agency in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries despite barriers of the “women’s sphere” of the time placing limitations on their perceived abilities. Worcester Normal School students were learning to be teachers and the diaries show how their writing and studies contributed to their increasing agency. Through their own words, the young women can be seen writing to engage in social issues, standing up for what they believe in, exploring their interests, and recognizing their growth as influential individuals.


One day, not very long after the establishment of the Worcester Normal School in 1874, a young woman took out a diary and jotted down a few sentences, reflecting upon recent developments. The following day, a different young woman wrote an additional entry. This practice went on for years. Diaries from the first three decades of the Worcester Normal School stayed in the school’s possession as the Massachusetts institution eventually evolved into Worcester State University. However, an air of mystery surrounds the diaries. They have been safely resting in the Worcester State University Archives, but are largely forgotten and have never been extensively gone through previous to this project. While the entries are authored by a multitude of writers (almost a different one every day), together they tell a story of young women growing up and gaining agency at the turn of the Twentieth Century. These early students, the majority of them young women, were living in the later years of the Victorian Era surrounded by notions of the “women’s sphere,” which doubted their capabilities. Yet, these young women were learning in classrooms of higher education and preparing themselves to become leaders of their own classrooms. As seen through their writing, the young women of the Worcester Normal School navigated societal disparity and their increasing agency at this fledgling school in a bustling city.

The Worcester Normal School was located in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts, and along with its central location within the city, the school was in a favorable locality for academic excellence. New England, and Massachusetts especially, had significant innovators and patrons of education in the United States, such as Horace Mann, an education reformer and supporter of public education from Massachusetts during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, New England boasted an abundance of colleges, permanent grammar schools, and public schools (Hinsdale, 3). The Worcester Normal School was state-funded and the fifth of its kind in Massachusetts. As a teacher-training school, it employed the technique of an apprenticeship program to place student learners in local children’s schools to sharpen their teaching skills. Teachers were in demand due to an increasing population, stricter child labor laws, and education reforms. The majority of students at the Worcester Normal School were young women, but a few young men attended each year as well (Remembering Massachusetts State Normal Schools, 100). Women students greatly outnumbered the men due to the prospects teaching provided women.

Teaching allowed women to have a profession. Of course, women who chose a different path did not just rest all day upon settees. Searching through census records from 1870 to 1900 for 20-year-old women in Worcester, a variety of jobs is discovered. Many women are recorded as being servants or clerks, but diversity is found within the titles of their positions. Worcester women of yore spent their days as workers in a boot shop, “tailoresses,” dressmakers, milliners, corset stitchers, corset trimmers, felt burlers, and candy sellers among other professions (United States Census Bureau). While teaching was not the only option available to young women, it was an appealing choice, and women outnumbered men in other normal schools as well (Baker, 37). By 1900, women formed 75% of teachers in the United States (Baker, 1).

Many women found teaching preferable, but women teachers’ salaries were not high. Administrators even encouraged the hiring of women educators as women did not need to be paid as much as men (Baker, 14). According to Elizabeth Whitemore Baker in The Social and Economic Condition of Women Teachers in the United States, Massachusetts had the greatest disparity in pay of women and men in the United States (24). During the early 1900s, Massachusetts women made around 60 dollars weekly while Massachusetts men made around 151 dollars weekly (Baker, 14). Baker explained this inequality could partially be due to women occupying lower positions within their professions (25). However, though not the most impressive, women’s salaries still offered freedom and independence. By earning a small sum every week, women did not have to be dependent upon their fathers, husbands, or other men in their lives. In fact, some married women could not even be teachers. There was prejudice against married women teachers and, often, a woman getting married was regarded as a resignation (Baker, 39).

Around 1884, women teachers in Massachusetts (excluding Boston) were earning an average of $6.33 weekly (Wright, 76-82). In other professions across Massachusetts, women were earning a weekly average of $5.12 as domestic servants, $4.00 as hat trimmers, and a mere $2.13 as “tailoresses” (Wright, 76-82). However, some of the professions once held by young Worcester women had the possibility of paying more than a teaching position; dressmakers outside of Boston made an average of $10.22 weekly and milliners could make $12.50 (Wright, 76-82). However, salaries from occupations involving manufacturing or selling would rely on a stability of consumers to pay; a teacher’s salary was more reliable. Furthermore, the weekly revenues these professions brought women are not the only aspect of their work to be considered. Teaching did not require the difficult kind of labor one would be subjected to toiling away all day inside a grimy and stifling factory. School environments also presented less health risks than factories as the latter were filled with dangerous malfunctioning machinery and hazardous air, while classrooms might just be filled with unruly children.

Teaching was also more fulfilling than other occupations. Critics wary of women entering the workforce justified women as teachers because it seemed an extension of their role in the women’s sphere. In their view, women were satisfying a maternal role by taking care of children (Baker, 34). Furthermore, by educating children, women could feel they were making more of a difference in society than if they were selling accessories in a shop or washing porcelain dishes all day long. Baker discussed how women were the face of the future considering their influence over the youth of the nation and women’s contribution to social amelioration (54). Students of the Worcester Normal School and women teachers elsewhere were being prepared to take part in this power. This contributed to a changing social order where Baker remarked, “women are being transferred from domestic labor to industrial work; are being transformed from parasitism to social functioning; from incapable inferiority to trained and capable leadership; and are themselves transforming the social structure and creating new social valuations” (52). Other than impacting society, women training to be teachers were also making an impact upon themselves. Opportunities to receive additional education after high school were not available to many women during this time, and the women who chose to become teachers felt they were improving themselves. A teacher’s social standing was high compared to other professions (Baker, 23), and gaining respect went hand-in-hand with gaining agency. Worcester Normal School attendees were not going to become wealthy by their endeavor into education, but students still saw the value present in their learning, as well as the agency and influence they would gain.

While the Worcester Normal School provided young women with an opportune path, the school was not a prestigious institution reserved for the wealthy. Students attended to gain practical skills and enter a profession, not as a kind of “finishing” school often expected of higher-class, refined young women at the time. Students paid a fee of two dollars to attend the Worcester Normal School, and students intending to teach in Massachusetts public schools received free tuition which was otherwise 30 dollars (Course Catalogue 1874-1885). This encouraged teachers to stay in the area they completed their education in, connecting them further with their local community. Students remaining in the state would gain agency because they would become better able to participate in local activities and make change. The low cost of attending the Worcester Normal School was less than nearby higher-education institutes for women around the same time. Venturing out from Worcester eastward and westward, Wellesley College, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College were more prestigious higher-education options for women. Around 1900, tuition for Wellesley College was 175 dollars, while Smith College and Mount Holyoke College charged 100 dollars each for tuition (Thomas, 336-337). These other Massachusetts schools were not normal schools and it was not always necessary for the women attending them to obtain a profession, meaning they would likely have the funds to attend a pricier institution. Wellesley College’s course catalogue for the 1876-1877 academic year did state a mission of offering a low tuition price for students of limited means who wanted to be teachers (113), but even in 1880, the tuition for Wellesley College was 60 dollars, twice the cost the Worcester Normal School’s tuition (Wellesley College Calendar 1880-1881, 117). The Worcester Normal School was not the fanciest option in the state, but it provided the young women who attended, who may not have been able to afford other local options, the opportunities to grow their base of knowledge and achieve more agency. This can be shown through the writings left behind by these young women.

The Worcester State University Archives holds class diaries, an apprenticeship diary, and other records, some of which are fragile and falling apart, but all of which provide information about the Worcester Normal School students. There are six class diaries from 1875 to 1880. These records were not personal journals, as the diary name seems to suggest, but rather, shared accounts between classes and students, with some entries thought to have been written by instructors. It appears as if the diaries were intended as a reflective exercise for the students. Due to the variety of entries, there did not seem to be strict guidelines for the writers to follow. Topics broadly range from the weather, visitors, academic lectures, holiday celebrations, a recipe for graham bread, to a drawing of a cherub painting a flower and a contemplation upon a prisoner’s execution the following day. The apprenticeship diary, containing entries from 1903 and 1904, includes the accounts of Worcester Normal School students reflecting upon their apprenticing experiences. These entries were more structured than the class diaries, but the apprentices still shared their opinionated feelings on different subjects, often relating to the power they suddenly had as classroom leaders.

These materials in the archives, especially the diary entries, show the experiences of the young women of the Worcester Normal School. However, as mentioned previously, these young women writers were not alone among the students. Co-education, in both lower and higher education, was a heated topic at the establishment of the Worcester Normal School. Considerations in the debate of co-education were not just upon the possibilities of distraction in shared lesson-spaces, but also whether women and men had the same mental capacities that would allow similar teachings to be beneficial. If women’s minds limited them from learning at the same rate as men, then women would either slow down the lessons, and thus impede upon men’s education, or women would become completely lost in learning and school would be useless for them. If women were not considered capable enough to be in the same classrooms as men, they would not receive the same schooling as men and could be in danger of receiving a reduced education and falling behind. The debate of co-education was part of a larger issue surrounding the disparity between women and men.

Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith, in his 1875 book, The Ways of Women in their Physical, Moral and Intellectual Relations, stated:

In every period of human history, women have been considered inferior to men. All laws for the regulation of society have invariably been so framed as to perpetuate the absurd idea, that they have neither capacity nor a right to participate in concerns of common interest, which tradition, custom, and the sovereign power exclusively confide to male members of the community. (473)

Smith was a medical doctor, an author, and a former mayor of Boston, placing him in sight of 1870s Worcesterites. Smith acknowledged the disparity and discrimination against women throughout his 500-page book and the prevailing ideas about women from the times are made clear.

These thoughts of inequality between women and men led to opposition of co-education. While Smith believed it was important for women to exercise their minds, he also believed a woman’s true position was a practical one, perhaps in a maternal or housekeeping kind of way, and not a learned one (92). This “true position” aligns with ideas of the women’s sphere. Smith was against too much education for women, especially in the Northern states, like Massachusetts because of the injury he believed it caused women’s bodies (92). Mabel Hawtrey in The Co-Education of the Sexes, published in 1896, also acknowledged the perceived limitations of a young woman’s mind. Though she was from England and not America, her book examined and reaffirmed arguments in the continued conflict of co-education. Her input also shows co-education and women’s perceived capabilities were not just an American issue, but an international one. Hawtrey did not believe co-education should be employed in schools and further suggested girls should not even know of their grades because competition causes a damaging amount of strain on girls’ “underdeveloped physiques” (104-105). Hawtrey believed girls were too sensitive to handle school like boys and should be separated from them. Both Hawtrey and Smith condemned increasing education for women because they believed women were not fit to handle the strain of being learned. While they may have believed they were looking out for women’s best interests, they were actually restricting women by discouraging education.

Thomas Foster, in his 1874 paper, “Co-Education of the Sexes,” also acknowledged the perceived weaknesses of women’s minds, but, unlike Smith and Hawtrey, he was supportive of co-education. Foster’s purpose in “Co-Education of the Sexes” was to attack E. H. Clark’s book, Sex in Education, in which Clark, like Hawtrey, believed women were not suited for school due to physiological differences from men. Foster supported co-education, not due to the belief that women were not having nervous breakdowns due to academic work, but he believed men’s dispositions were similar to women and they break down as well (13). Foster also stated that co-education helps make a woman independent while also making men more agreeable (15). This belief places importance on women receiving an education, however, it also shows women’s education as supporting men due to characteristics associated with the women’s sphere. While a woman will become more confident and increase her agency by going to school, she will also, with her nurturing nature, be a great help and comfort to men. Foster meant a woman’s presence in a schoolroom is partially to serve men while the woman’s own intention may have been to increase her knowledge and independence.

Charles Follen Folsom also participated in the conversation of co-education, but from a more medical standpoint. Folsom was a physician from Massachusetts in the nineteenth century who specialized in mental disorders. In his 1885 talk, “The Relation of Our Public Schools to the Disorders of the Nervous System,” he said Massachusetts was especially affected by nervous disorders due to the increased learning in the state (Folsom, 163); this is comparable to Smith’s attack upon the Northern states. Similar to Foster, Folsom explained men are affected as well as women, but Folsom placed emphasis on nervous disorders in women. Furthermore, Folsom believed women were seen as weaker due to the characteristics and attitudes toward them caused by the women’s sphere (181). Folsom also discussed difficulties women face that contribute to their struggles, stating that women, “must work harder, with greater worry and with more disappointments than men. There are more conditions necessary to avoid failures in women. Of course they break down earlier and oftener than men” (185). Because of their disadvantages, Folsom called for more training and opportunities for women, and this, he believed, would decrease nervous disorders. While some people saw a beneficial future in co-education, many notions of the time viewed women as too limited in their capabilities to be able to learn alongside men.

While gender inequality could be seen internationally, its presence, or at least a perceived separation between women and men, was also felt within the Worcester Normal School. The young women did not write about the inequality between women and men, but they did acknowledge differences present in society. One diary entry mentioned the students were encouraged to read from boys’ books, due to the classrooms they would be apprenticing and eventually teaching in would have both girl and boy students (December 30, 1880). This shows there were books for girls and books for boys, meaning certain topics were directed at each group and contributing to the separate spheres of women and men. Another record showing separate spheres was written by a young woman whose brother asked her, “which was the worst swear; ‘Gee Whiz’ or ‘Son of a sea cook!’ I told him I knew nothing about such words as those and he said ‘you would if you were a boy’” (Child Study Records). The writer almost seemed scandalized at this language, but her brother pointed out that the two of them were situated in different spheres; boys would well be acquainted with this “vulgar” language, but girls would not.

The young women students lived surrounded by ideas of the women’s sphere that undermined their agency, but their writings show their tenacity toward improvement. Worcester Normal School students wrote theses, and in order to produce the work they did, the students behind the theses were well-versed in their individual topics. One student wrote a thesis titled, “The Training of Girls” (Commencement Programs 1886-1896). This student realized there was a difference between the training of girls and the training of boys or else she would have probably written “The Training of Children” instead. Another student’s thesis was titled, “Defects in the Education of American Girls” (Commencement Programs 1886-1896). This title shows that the student was not only aware of a difference between the education of girls and boys, but of particular problems and deficiencies with the education of girls. Society doubted women’s abilities and this extended to writing, but by tackling these topics in their theses, the students of the Worcester Normal School did not seem to be intimidated or obstructed by society’s notions. While these students were not physicians like Folsom or authors of 500-page books like Smith, they still were able to use their knowledge of current topics to enter conversations about significant social issues like co-education.

Furthermore, the Worcester Normal School took an active role in showing women they could be in influential positions. Women were in places of power at the Worcester Normal School itself, acting as instructors. Additionally, Rebecca Jones was in charge of the Apprenticeship Program and responsible for many students learning the skills they needed to succeed as teachers. The apprentices also had their share of women instructors they could look up to as they apprenticed under women teachers at local middle and elementary schools. One apprentice wrote, “I have been especially pleased with Miss —’s manner while I have been at this school, and I think I have learned a great deal from her in regard to teaching, and also in regard to discipline” (November 17, 1903). Well-known influential women educators were also acknowledged within the Worcester Normal School. In 1876, Elizabeth Peabody, a Massachusetts native and supporter of establishing English-language kindergartens in America, accepted an invitation to speak at the school (January 20, 1876.1). In addition, theses from 1889 and 1890 included “Women as Educators” and “Women as Teachers,” respectively, showing the students’ interests toward women in positions like themselves (Commencement Programs 1886-1896).

Women writers were also acknowledged in the students’ writing, showing they made an impression upon the young women of the Worcester Normal School. Elizabeth Barret Browning, George Sand, George Eliot, and Mary Russell Mitford received mentions in the records (January 11, 1877; Commencement Programs 1886-1896; Course Catalogue 1893-1898; February, 1880). Local authors were also written about, including Margaret Fuller, Celia Thaxter, and Julia Ward Howe who actually spoke at the Worcester Normal School (April 7, 1876.1; Commencement Program 1897-1907; Remembering Massachusetts State Normal Schools). However, the woman writer who received the most attention was Louisa May Alcott.

Louisa May Alcott was a popular writer of the mid-late 1800s, and her writing was aimed at women and especially young women. She was another local author, and in 1876, her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, spoke at the Worcester Normal School. A student wrote of his visit: “I think what particularly interested me was what he said about his daughter Louisa, whom everyone knows as the author of that charming book ‘Little Women’. I think no one who has read this could fail to have an interest in its author” (April 7, 1876.2). The character of Jo in Little Women, mirroring Louisa May Alcott’s own experiences, was a young independent woman who became a writer. Both Jo and Louisa May Alcott have inspired many young women readers to do the same and this probably applied to some young women at the Worcester Normal School. Diarists also mention books written by Louisa May Alcott being added to the shelves and a photo of her being added to the school’s collection (April 14, 1876.2; May 20, 1876.2). In 1890, two years after Louisa May Alcott died, a young woman wrote her thesis on “Louisa Alcott’s Childhood,” showing this author’s lasting impact (Commencement Programs 1886-1896). The students were interested in women writers; they saw how these women used writing to achieve influence and may have been inspired to do the same.

Students at the Worcester Normal School stood up for what they believed in and made their voices heard, even if that meant going against authority. And at their school, the authority was Mr. Russell. E. H. Russell was the first president of the Worcester Normal School. References to him occur constantly throughout the diaries, where he is referred to as just, “Mr. Russell.” Yet, as much as the students seem to revere him, they did not always see eye-to-eye with him. Certain events show the agitation that could easily arise from the students at Mr. Russell’s actions. In one entry, it was written that Mr. Russell refused to allow students to attend a high school graduation because he considered school to be a business and, “not to be interrupted by whatever comes along” (June 22, 1880). Mr. Russell also established a committee on tardiness and absences, believing there were two groups of students in every school, “those who could and those who could not be trusted” (December 22, 1880). It is not difficult to infer which group the late and missing students belonged. At one point, students were given time to write letters to Mr. Russell, showing the young women were encouraged to utilize their agency through writing to bring up issues they wanted Mr. Russell to know (December 7, 1880). In December, nearing a holiday break, the students decided to utilize their growing agency and take action against authority. They presented Mr. Russell with a petition they had written, requesting a change in schedule so they would not have to go to school on Christmas Eve, a Friday. Mr. Russell denied the petition, but the efforts shown by the young women were preserved in the diary (December 16-17, 1880). While they may not have always gotten what they wanted, the Worcester Normal School students still took the initiative to voice their concerns.

As the students were going to be in charge of classrooms, they needed to gain the agency to teach, and the diaries show the students preparing to take charge. They knew what skills they needed; one student wrote that singing duets in music class is, “an excellent way of acquiring confidence which is certainly very essential in teaching” (April 19, 1876.2). The students were also aware of the significance of the path they had chosen. In awe of her future profession, a diarist wrote, “We all find life an infinitely higher and holier and nobler thing than our childhood fancied.” (March 13, 1877). Another student readying herself to teach hoped she and her classmates would be influential and take the initiative, and that there would be no end as to what they would accomplish (March 8, 1879).

After gaining the knowledge necessary to teach, the students started apprenticing as teachers. Instead of preparing their agency, they were thrust into utilizing it in the classroom. One student wrote about a time when she could not get order in the class. Exasperated, she stopped her lesson, told the class what to study, and sat at her desk. The class soon became quiet and attention returned to her. In her entry for the day, she wrote, “I made them feel that I had more authority; and I resolved to do this if it took till four o’clock” (May 22, 1903). Another apprentice, after a failure at teaching the seasons, tried again the next day, and it turned into a success. She wrote, “I am just as happy tonight as I was discouraged last night.” (September 29-30, 1903). As the apprentices became more confident in their new roles, others accepted their positions as well. One diarist wrote, “I opened the school this morning, and everybody seemed to take it as a matter of course. I open the school quite often. At first they seemed to think it very strange, looking around and smiling at each other. For the past two or three times there has been none of this” (May 7, 1903).

The young women of the Worcester Normal School were aware of barriers of the women’s sphere, but they do not lament the disparity in society; they were becoming teachers and working toward improving their situation. They were aware of issues in their time, and they were gaining power to confront them. As the students made their way through the Worcester Normal School, they learned, they wrote, they led their classrooms of children, and they gained agency.

In 1876, one writer shared an essay theme taken from a Coleridge quote: “language is the armory of the human mind” (January 20, 1876.1). This required composition must have spurred the students into recognizing the force they could employ and the power they could gain by effectively utilizing language. While the students may not have recognized their own influence of history they were making by scribbling in the class diaries, their words show the power they accumulated during their time at the Worcester Normal School. Even if they did not picture their diary writing as influential, their passages created history. Their own words, which would not have been known otherwise, were written down and recorded. Their thoughts and feelings that they bestowed upon the pages in ink over 140 years ago share much information. A scribbled down sentence about something that may not have meant much to the diarist at the time became significant. After graduating, the students took on classrooms and educated the following generations. Some graduates became principals of schools and presidents of clubs, some taught at colleges, some sought out further education, and many pursued their passions. A few graduates found themselves in other occupations than teaching, becoming physicians, librarians, editors, and even an architect, the knowledge they gained at the Worcester Normal School preparing them for all their future endeavors (Graduate Records, 274).

In 1879, one diarist wrote, “These schooldays are like the pages of a great book” (March 26, 1879). The schooldays written about do read as a great book, one that tells a narrative of young women gaining agency and ready to make an impact.

Works Cited

Baker, Elizabeth Whitemore. The Social and Economic Condition of Women Teachers in the United States. Chicago, IL, 1912.

Breitborde, Mary-Lou, and Kelly Kolodny, editors. Remembering Massachusetts State Normal Schools: Pioneers in Teacher Education. Institute for Massachusetts Studies, 2014.

“Catalogue and Circular of the State Normal School at Bridgewater, Mass. Eighty-Ninth Term, Spring and Summer Term.” Boston, 1877.

“Catalogue of the State Normal School at Westfield, Mass.” Westfield, 1876.

Child Study Records, 1900-1904. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Commencement Programs, 1876-1885. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Commencement Programs, 1886-1896. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Commencement Programs, 1897-1907. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Course Catalogue, 1874-1885. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Course Catalogue, 1893-1898. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Course Catalogue, 1899-1903. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Diary, 1875. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Diary, 1876.1. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Diary, 1876.2. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.

Diary, 1877. Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections.