It took until the late 1800's, and into the mid-1960's, for many colleges to transition to coeducation. In the Victorian Era men and women and men were viewed as having vast intellectual and emotional differences. The idea of coeducation posed a serious threat to this way of thinking. Some of the worries people had about women being educated among men include:
- Women would suffer nervous breakdowns if they were to compete in a man’s world.
- They would be corrupted and lose their purity.
- Their reproductive systems may be harmed.
- A learned woman might be an unfit mother and wife.
- Education would masculinize women.
- If men and women associated together in college they may begin to find each other less attractive. (9)
Dr. Edward Clarke stated, “A woman’s body could only handle a limited number of developmental tasks at one time – that girls who spent to much energy developing their minds during puberty would end up with undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems” (10).
Many of the early coeducational institutions arose in the Midwest. Iowa and Wisconsin were among the first states to open coed colleges and universities in 1855 and 1863 respectively. Most of the other states in the Midwest and west also accepted the idea of coeducation and followed in the practice, while states in the east remained slow to change.
In the East, where coeducation was a slower process, “coordinate” colleges began opening. Coordinate colleges were female institutions which were affiliated with established men’s colleges. These included Radcliffe at Harvard, Barnard at Columbia, and Pembroke at Brown.
Radcliffe College began as “Harvard Annex” in 1879. Although the Annex was formed in very close proximity to Harvard College, the two remained distinct. The Annex was transformed into Radcliffe College in 1894 by Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, who served as Radcliffe’s first president. Coeducational classes were started in 1943, during World War II. But it wasn’t until 1963, 327 years after Harvard opened, that women were able to receive degrees at Harvard.
Even after women were allowed admission in coeducational institutions they still faced many challenges. Many of the classes were segregated and some classes that were offered for men were not offered for women. Also, women were rarely allowed to participate in extracurricular activities such as musical groups, debate societies or other clubs. At the University of Wisconsin, women were forced to wait to be seated until all of the male members of the class were in place. At the University of Missouri women were only allowed to enter the library at times when there were no males present.