The following is a Woman of Courage profile produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.


Early College Women:

Determined to be Educated


When the Women's Rights Convention was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY, one of the complaints documented in the Declaration of Sentiments was that "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpation's on the part of man toward women, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. ...He had denied her the facilities of a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her." One of outcomes of the convention was a demand for higher education.

The conveners of the Convention were justified in their complaint. Women did not have access to higher education before 1848. While a few women might attend a female seminary or academy, they were not allowed into colleges and universities. What the Seneca Falls signers wanted was access to coeducation, they were not interested in a separate and unequal education. This was, like so much of what the Declaration of Sentiments espoused, a more radical approach.

In fact, women did begin to go to college after the Civil War, and for the most part they went to coeducational institutions. The newly established mid-western land grant colleges opened as coeducational facilities, while the more established institutions of the northeast resisted the move to coeducation. Several, in fact, opened women's colleges as adjuncts to the traditional male college to avoid havung to admit women undergraduates. The "Seven Sister" colleges were examples of this kind of institution.

By 1890, 70% of all women in college were enrolled in coeducational colleges. This is not to say that women in college were a significant part of the population. In 1870 only .7% of the female population went to college. This percentage rose slowly, by 1900 the rate was 2.8% and it was only 7.6% by 1920.

But for those pioneering women who did go to college, they loved the experience and the opportunity to create a new model for women, although they faced many critics. Some of the harshest were medical personal who felt that "...a girl could study and learn, but she could not do all this and retain uninjured health, and a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system," according to Dr. Edward Clark in his widely respected Sex and Education published in 1873.

This scientific reasoning added fuel to the arguments of those who did not want women to go to college for social reasons. Henry Adams, writing about women’s intellectual ambitions for higher education, commented on “...the pathetic impossibility of improving those poor little, hard, thin, wiry, one-stringed instruments which they call their minds.” In 1885 he complained bitterly in a letter of protest to the American Historical Association when he found a woman historian listed in the program of a AHA meeting.

There was a genuine fear that a good education would make a women unfit for marriage and motherhood. And in fact, 50-60% of the first generation of college women did not marry or significantly delayed marriage. They turned their energies to social reform and careers. Society offered them two choices - marriage or work, and many of them chose work. This fear persisted for a long time in some minds. In the 1920’s when Eleanor Roosevelt’s daughter Anna enrolled for one year in Cornell’s School of Agriculture, her grandmother complained that “Girls who went to college were very apt to be ‘old maids’ and become ‘bookworms.’...a dire threat to any girl’s chance of attracting a husband.”

Faced with the negative medical opinion, early college women had to prove that college life would not injure their health. They were helped in this by the forerunner of the American Association of University Women, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. In 1885 the ACA published a study which concluded that "...it is sufficient to say that female graduates...do not seem to show, ...any marked difference in general health for the average health ... of women engaged in other kinds of work, or in fact, of women generally..."

A majority of the collegiate women surveyed had reported improved health as a result of their exposure to sports and exercise. Women's basketball was a booming sport in the late 1890's on college campuses, as was women's participation in tennis, volleyball, tetherball, outing clubs and other activities like bicycling. One of the new joys of sports was less restrictive clothing. [See the profile of Mary Edwards Walker, a proponent of dress reform for women.]

In St. Lawrence County, women were admitted to all the early public and private institutions, at least at first. St. Lawrence Academy in Potsdam, NY was founded in 1816 and began receiving state aid in 1836 from the Board of Regents to instruct classes of common-school teachers. It was merged with the newly chartered Potsdam Normal School in 1868, one of the first four such state schools to train teachers. Among the many Normal School graduates were pioneer women educators who each helped establish the "Potsdam Tradition" of encouraging individual students to develop their potential.

St. Lawrence University opened as a coeducational institution in 1856 in Canton, NY. Evert’s History of St. Lawrence County remarked that “Women are admitted to all classes and courses upon exactly the same terms with men. The degree work is conferred upon those who fulfill the requisites of graduation.” The first graduating class consisted of two men; the second of two women. Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained a Universalist minister in the United States, graduated from St. Lawrence Seminary, a department of the university, in 1863.

The Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial School of Technology opened on March 19, 1896 in Potsdam, the tribute of Fredericka, Lavinia, and Elizabeth Clarkson to their brother, Thomas, who had been killed in a sandstone quarry accident. The first college catalog stated that "both sexes are admitted on an equal footing to the privilege of the school."

Like many colleges of the day that admitted women, the new "Domestic Science" course work Clarkson offered to women was designed to make them better wives and mothers. The first graduates of the two-year "Home Economics" program were Melita M. Heyward, Mary E. Sanford, and Helen M. Strong, who went on to teach Home EC in public schools. In 1907 the Board of Trustees voted to discontinue the Department of Home Economics and there were no female students at Clarkson until after WW II, when a few women came to do graduate work. Women undergraduates did not reappear on the campus until 1963.

The forerunner of SUNY Canton opened in 1906 as the first New York State School of Agriculture to provide "practical instruction in agriculture and all allied subjects" to undergraduates. The first class had five students who were housed and instructed on the St. Lawrence University campus. In 1907 the school offered a course in Manual Training and Domestic Science for women (the same year that Clarkson phased out its program). In those days, tuition at state schools was free. Lena Bray earned $83 a month as the instructor of Domestic Economy while her male counterpart, Francis S. Collier, earned $100 to instruct Farm Engineering.

Like many other of the demands of the Declaration of Sentiments, opening the doors of higher education happened much sooner for women than the right to vote. Early college women became able spokeswomen and organizers of the suffrage movement which finally succeeded in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment. [See the profiles of Carrie Chapman Catt and Marion Sanger Frank for more on suffrage and the League of Women Voters in St. Lawrence County.]

- Special thanks to Maggie Lowe, Assistant Professor of History, SUNY Potsdam, for sharing her research into early college women for this Profile. You can learn more about local women's history topics in the Women's History Round Table series.


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