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HIST/WFQS 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

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 The project provides an opportunity to locate and analyze historical documents—in this case, sources that are “close to home” in several senses.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. 

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 portion of the research, as agreed among your group members.  The last 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 should 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 7-8 minutes long, with ten minutes as a firm cutoff. (Depending on the number of people in your group, that means 2-3 minutes each.) 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 with the utmost care. They are irreplaceable.  

No written paper is required for this project; you only need to submit the bibliography of the sources you consulted.  

Topic 1: 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 2:  Vassar policies and curriculum relating to 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 3:  Early Vassar athletics and the female body:  The required and extra-curricular physical activities and athletics early Vassar women took up; athletic dress; change in athletic activities between the 1860s and 1920s.

Topic 4:  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 5:  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.