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HIST/WMST 260: Sex and Reproduction in Nineteenth Century America: Before Margaret Sanger

This guide is a companion to Ms. Edwards' group assignment, Sex at Early Vassar, in the Spring 2015 semester.

Assignment from Ms. Edwards

The goal of this assignment is to explore aspects of sexuality, health education, and sex roles at Vassar College between the 1860s and roughly the 1920s. The project provides an opportunity to locate and analyze historical documents—in this case, sources that are “close to home” in several senses.  You will also have a chance to practice public speaking, an essential life skill. 

After you submit your top three topic preferences and the instructor creates groups, your tasks are to:

1. Attend the Library class session to familiarize yourself with research resources on this topic.

2. Meet with your group at least three times, to organize your research and report and discuss findings. Conduct your own part of the research, as agreed among your group members.  One meeting should be devoted to practicing your presentation.

3.  Assemble a bibliography of the sources you used and print a copy for the instructor, to turn in on your presentation day.

4.  Make an in-class presentation on your findings. In the presentation you must share evidence from at least four primary sources to support your analysis. All members of your group must participate in the presentation, which should be 8 to 10 minutes long. You may choose to present your sources in a Power Point or similar program if you wish but that is not required. 

NOTE:  Some sources will be in digital format.  Each group should explore at least a few print sources, as well; we will discuss the advantages of each format. In researching print materials, you may be using archival sources that are fragile and cannot be reproduced.  Be prepared to present a transcript or excerpt based on your notes. Please treat all archival materials—including catalogues, etc.,  that are shelved in the main collection, with the utmost care.  

No written paper is required for this project; you only need to submit a bibliography of the sources you consulted.  After the assignment is complete I will ask you to send me a private e-mail reporting on your role in the group.

Topic 1:  The role of Godey’s Lady’s Book in Vassar’s founding and naming:  How Godey’s described and promoted Vassar’s project for its readership, and how correspondence between the editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, and the Trustees over Vassar’s name.

Topic 2:  The controversy over higher education for young women: Dr. Edward H. Clarke's Sex in Education (1873) and responses to it, on education’s effect on the female reproductive system.  Special attention should be given to the impact on Vassar, and Vassar’s responses.

Topic 3:  Vassar policies and classroom curriculum relating to women’s social lives, health, and sexuality:  The evolution of Vassar’s social regulations and its health and hygiene policies and curriculum, as shown by official policies, curricular offerings, and perhaps campus architecture. 

Topic 4:  Early Vassar athletics and the female body.   What required and extra-curricular physical activites and athletics did early Vassar women take up, and how did they dress for them?  Which activities continued for a long time and which ceased?  How were those efforts received by the press?

Topic 5:  Same-sex relationships:  "Smashing" and its implications as revealed, for example, in early students’ diaries, letters, Miscellany News articles, and yearbooks.  If you wish, you may also explore official Vassar records, presidential papers, faculty papers, or other such sources.

Topic 6:  Heterosexual courtship and marriage:  Heterosexual relationships as revealed in student diaries, letters, Miscellany News articles, yearbooks.  If you wish, you may also explore official Vassar records, presidential papers, faculty papers, or other such sources.