Women’s History Month: Landmarks of Higher Learning
In the 1800s, women had to fight to gain the same educational opportunities as men. FindingDulcinea highlights some of the institutions and educators that forged the path for women’s education.
When Mount Holyoke College founder Mary Lyon started teaching at age 17, she made 75 cents a week while her male colleagues earned as much as $3. Despite leaving school at the age of 13, Lyon had a reputation for being an excellent student and was offered her first teaching job at a summer school. Becoming a teacher instilled in her an interest to continue her own education. Satisfying that ambition was difficult, as there were limited educational opportunities for women. For 20 years she taught others while simultaneously educating herself, and in 1837 she founded Mount Holyoke College, a liberal arts institution for women.
Founded in 1833 (a few years before Mount Holyoke opened), Oberlin College was the first entirely coeducational college in the United States, allowing women as well as men to enroll. Although at first women studied in the specially designated Ladies Course, in 1841 three women graduated from the official Collegiate Department. A few years later, Oberlin was also the first institution to graduate an African-American woman. The Electronic Oberlin Group, an organization sponsored by the college, provides online exhibits about the town’s history, including this one about women’s education.
In 1872, Cornell became the first large eastern institution to admit women. Although women did not enroll until four years after the university was founded, Ezra Cornell always intended for women to attend the institution and was emphatic in his belief that women had the right to be educated. Unfortunately, the idea of women’s education was met with resistance over the years, even from Cornell faculty. However, negative attitudes did not derail women’s enthusiasm for school or extracurricular organizations.
After receiving numerous rejection letters, aspiring physician Elizabeth Blackwell was finally accepted to Geneva Medical College (now the SUNY Upstate Medical University). Dean Charles Lee did not wish to accept Blackwell, but he put a vote before his students and they voted “aye.” Surprisingly, their affirmative votes did not prevent them from discomfort when they saw a woman in their anatomy classes. In fact, Blackwell’s professor asked her to skip class on the day he taught reproductive anatomy: She refused. An online exhibit from the National Library of Medicine chronicles Blackwell’s experiences applying to and attending Geneva.
While Mount Holyoke and a few other colleges remain all female, a few women’s colleges dissolved, became coed or merged with men’s colleges when they began to accept women. Radcliffe College is one such example; it officially merged with Harvard in 1999, although the two schools shared an educational agenda as early as 1977. Today, the Radcliffe Institute is a center for advanced study that highlights women’s and gender issues.