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Colleges For Women

Colleges for girls began rising across the country in the mid 1800’s. While many female colleges were built from scratch, some girl’s schools like Mt. Holyoke female seminary were turned into colleges. Others girls' schools chose to remain finishing schools and served as an alternative to college. For many newly established women’s colleges, the goal was to offer women a serious collegiate education similar to that of men’s colleges, but others remained more conservative and still did not offer women the same level of curriculum. The more serious women’s colleges required their students to pass rigorous admissions tests and held them to a high standard of curricular achievement. 

The first college to admit women was Oberlin college which was chartered in 1833. Oberlin was founded by a group of abolitionists and from its beginning admitted both African Americans and women. Being located in Oberlin, Ohio the college serves as an example of greater opportunities in the west. Although the college admitted women, their courses were still restricted. They were not allowed to participate in certain courses that were meant just for men. The “Ladies Course” emphasized motherhood over careers. Facing both sexism and racism the first black woman to receive a degree, Mary Jane Patterson, did not graduate until 1862, despite the fact that around 140 black women had studied at the school between the years 1835-1865. 

Georgia Female College in Macon, Georgia was the first school for women to use the term “college.” The school was founded in 1836, and is still open under the name it adopted in 1843, Wesleyan College. The college offered a year long preparatory program for women whose previous study was not enough for enrollment in the college. 

Although Mount Holyoke was not officially labeled a “college” until 1893, the school met all the academic standards of a college. Chartered by the state in 1836, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary opened in 1837 with approximately 80 students – and some 400 applicants were turned away in 1838 for lack of space. Mary Lyon’s ideas set Mount Holyoke apart from the other seminaries of the time. She designed the school so that middle-class girls would be able to afford it because she knew that would have a greater influence on changing standards for female education. She required her students to participate in domestic work to keep the cost of tuition low. Students had to be at least 17 years of age and pass entrance exams. It also demonstrated that women wanted a serious education, similar to that of men’s colleges. Her emphasis on math and science was particularly unusual for a women’s school. Students at Mount Holyoke were required to take 7 courses in math and science, which was unheard of at the time. Lyon’s students also went on learning field trips and attended lectures of famous scientists. She personally taught chemistry and inspired her students to become researchers and science teachers. Another unusual activity was exercise: Lyon strongly believed in exercise and required her students to walk and participate in calisthenics on a daily basis.

Vassar College was founded by Mathew Vassar in 1861. Vassar was the first college to maintain academic quality and a curriculum which was comparable to that of men’s colleges. Most of the college’s administrators were male but the majority of the professors were female. Vassar’s students were from America’s wealthiest families due to the high tuition rates. The culture at Vassar reflected the elite background of its students and in turn the school did not offer scholarships because it was thought that poor students would not live up to the high standards. The school served as a pioneer for high quality women’s education but unfortunately was only available to the nation’s most elite women. 

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Mary Caroline Rudd, graduate of Oberlin college in 1841
Mary Caroline Rudd graduated from Oberlin College in 1841

Georgia Female College
Georgia Female College, 1842

Mount Holyoke students c. 1890's
Mount Holyoke
students c. 1890's.
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Vassar, 1862
Vassar, 1862
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(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum, 2007