Sisterhood and "The Education of Woman"

Gisela Hegeler

Gisela, c. 1888

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Peru High School commencement program (1886)


Letter by Mary to Gisela, 28 May 1886

By the time Mary was in her late 20s, she had received a wealth of education. Her resume consisted in apprenticing at the zinc factory, a strong high school education, receiving an engineering degree at the University of Michigan, and specializing in mining at the Freiburg Mining Academy. These were impressive accomplishments for any person, but especially for a woman of the nineteenth century. In addition to the educational experiences providing her with technical training in her disciplines, they gave her an insider’s perspective on the role of women in a male-dominated society.

Her insights gained in this regard she shared with her younger sister Gisela upon her graduation from high school in 1886. Gisela had sent a letter to Mary in Germany soliciting her older sister’s wisdom on the topic of the education of women. Gisela would publicly present on that topic during high school commencement on June 24th. While all the students of the graduating class presented an essay, Gisela was selected to deliver hers as the valedictory. Her essay, under Mary’s guidance, would thus serve as the parting words to the graduates—7 out of 9 of whom were women—at the forefront of their adult careers.

Mary responded to Gisela on 28 May 1886. Her advice as expressed in her letter is practical and realistic. Women should not overwhelm themselves with attempting to learn “too much” or waste their time on “trifles,” she says. Rather, they should gain some skills in business affairs and domestic work and acquire a vocation in order to support themselves. In addition to this practical advice, when it comes to the higher education of women, Mary seems focused on the mood or state of mind appropriate for a woman in pursuit of her education rather than on advocating any precise curriculum of study. Without naming any particulars, she states that a woman “should take up one or two special, perhaps not similar subjects,” and should have “some vocation to fall back upon.” Yet, she emphasizes that learning should be done “thoroughly and deeply,” be accompanied by a “strong, intense desire,” such that whatever is done is “well done, thoroughly done,” “not to be splintered, and incomplete.” It is somewhat surprising that given Mary’s clear passion for the natural sciences and engineering she does not advocate for these. However, she seems to suggest that the more important concern is that women have the freedom to seek an education in the first place and to seek it well, regardless of what that education ultimately turns out to be. She uses the words “independence” and “independent” three times in her short letter, and she describes the achievement of a life of self-independence as the final end of an education well spent. That is, independence is not something pre-given but hard won. As long as a woman passionately and fully commits herself to her education that “always gives an independence of ideas and thought to be gained in no other way.”

In 1892 Gisela sadly died from tuberculosis at the young age of 22 years. As attested by numerous letters, Mary had a deep love for her sister, and their relationship brought out Mary’s nurturing personality. She had told Gisela that a woman “should not forget [that her] greatest happiness is in her home, her family; and seek to develop herself as perfectly as possible for that.” When she wrote these lines while abroad in Europe, Mary was perhaps a little homesick. Nonetheless, her words were sincere, and despite Gisela’s passing, Mary would find an alternative outlet for her familial piety and nurturing self in the years to come.

Sisterhood and "The Education of Woman"