Annie Smith Peck, c. 1892

Annie Smith Peck, c. 1892

Girl Risen

and Girls Rising

Annie taught high school in the 1870s, but soon realized that she would earn thirty to fifty percent less than men with the same qualifications would. Thinking that attaining the same education as her brothers would increase her pay, she wrote to her father and asked if he would allow her to attend the University of Michigan, which had just opened its doors to women in 1870.

Annie received responses from both her father and her brother John, who explained that a college education was too much education for a woman, but she might benefit from a private tutoring to improve her reputation, since it wasn’t befitting for her to associate with boys in school. They further argued that even if it was appropriate for her to go, it was now too late to attend university at the age of twenty-three and graduate at the very old age of twenty-seven.

On top of her father and brother’s reasoning, many people saw higher education for women as something that was hazardous to their health. This “fact” had been scientifically “proven” by Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke, in Sex in Education, a treatise against coeducation, which became a best seller at the time. Clarke explained that women who seek higher education are committing a “slow suicide” by using energy on the brain, which takes energy away from the reproductive system. In essence, educating women would render America a motherless society.

Annie was outraged that her father would deny her the same education as her brothers. She responded to him in a long letter with the following highlights:

“Private instruction for reputation is almost valueless. Why did John not pursue such a course for himself? Why you should recommend for me a course so different from that which you pursue, or recommend to your boys is what I can see no reason for except the example of our great grandfathers and times are changing rapidly in that respect. I have wanted it for years and simply hesitated on account of age but 27 does not seem as old now as it did.”

As for taking away energy away from her reproductive system, Annie added, “Years ago I made up my mind that I would never marry and consequently that it would be desirable for me to get my living in the best possible way and to set about it as any boy would do.”

After threatening to borrow money for her own education, her father finally agreed to allow her to attend the University of Michigan, where she excelled and went on to earn a Masters degree as well. Annie’s education never did enable her to earn the same as men in her field, but it did chart the course for her to become a well-known scholar and authority on North-South American relations as well as a respected voice in the ever-growing debate on women’s rights.

From our American perspective, times have changed just as Annie predicted they would. Since 2000, women have represented about 57% of enrollments at U.S. colleges. However, when we view women’s education on a global scale, we find that there are 33 million fewer girls than boys in primary school (Education First).

Senna, a young Girl Rising from Peru.

Senna, a young Girl Rising from Peru.

I realize that Annie, a woman from an upper-class background in mid-nineteenth century America, is not a reasonable comparison to vulnerable young girls in countries such as Pakistan and India. Annie was an exception to the rule in so many aspects during her time (in 1870 only 0.7% of the female population even went to college). However, the problem of uneducated women remains, and it endures on even larger social and economic levels:

Girls with 8 years of education are 4 times less likely to be married as children. (National Academies Press).

14 million girls under 18 will be married this year; 38 thousand today; 13 girls in the last 30 seconds (UNFPA).

The #1 cause of death for girls ages 15-19 is childbirth (World Health Organization).

We now know that higher education for women as something that is not dangerous to women’s health!

We also know that educating girls is good for the economy. For instance, if India enrolled 1% more girls in secondary school, their GDP would rise by $5.5 billion (CIA World Factbook, Global Campaign for Education and RESULTS Education Fund). Indeed, a girl with an extra year of education can earn 20% more as an adult (The World Bank).

If you are interested in considering up close just how much education can change a girl’s life, you might go to see Girl Rising, a revolutionary film, directed by Academy Award nominee Richard Robbins, which tells the stories of amazing girls from around the world, narrated by actors such as Meryl Streep, Selena Gomez, Anne Hathaway, and Alicia Keys. In the words of Freida Pinto, this film proves that “if you educate girls, you will change the world.”

Annie Peck knew it more than 100 years ago. And the young women highlighted in the film also know that education will change their lives.

Girl Rising is playing April 19th – 25th at Regal Cinemas, or you can check it out at another theater near you:

Girl Rising Trailer:

2 thoughts on “Girl Risen and Girls Rising

  1. Russell Potter

    Hi Hannah — great post! I’ve tried reaching you recently but don’t seem to have the right e-mail address — I wanted to send just a quick Peck-related note — there’s a project at my college for creating an online interpretative tour of the Old North Burial Ground, and of course Annie’s marks gets special attention. It’s just in the start-up stage, but I thought you’d be interested in what they have so far:

    I’m sure they’d be delighted to hear from you and that you could help improve their site!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s