- Historic Sites
The founders of the first women’s colleges weren’t necessarily crusaders or even educators; one savored a vision of himself as the second Great Emancipator, and another was motivated chiefly by hatred of her brother
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
The final No was common knowledge all over Boston. Mrs. Agassiz, realizing that discretion hadn’t been effective, was now ready to try aggression. She discussed the matter fully and freely with her friend Mrs. John E. Gray, who was married to the Royall Professor at Harvard Law School. Professor Gray was most sympathetic, though he had not been at all involved in the controversy until that moment. He did, however, promise to see what he could do. There might be some obscure legal point that could be useful. There clearly had to be an alliance of some sort between the institutions, but why a betrothal? Why not a guardianship? Professor Gray had recently been researching the more exquisite nuances of English law, and he had unearthed the stipulation that all colleges must have “visitors”—qualified outsiders who function as academic watchdogs, making sure that proper standards are upheld. The visitors are selected by the college needing them, and there seemed to be no precedent for refusal. The Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women need only appoint Harvard as its visitor, and Harvard would be legally and morally obliged to serve. There would be no need, under such an arrangement, for any money to change hands. As a visitee of Harvard the society would naturally receive an appropriate degree—not, perhaps, the degree but something at least equivalent. To deny it would indicate that the women had not received the proper instruction, and that would reflect very badly upon the great visitor. Mrs. Agassiz was triumphant—and immensely grateful to Professor John Gray. The originality of the plan seems to have emboldened her. “The form of our diploma should be carefully studied,” she said. “It should not be differentiated from the A.B. of Harvard as a ‘ladies’ degree.’ ”
A memorandum of agreement between the president and fellows of Harvard College and the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women was immediately drafted. The name of the party of the second part, however, proved so cumbersome and awkward that it was decided to use the designation x instead. The Annex was too undignified and informal, and the party of the first part had always resented it. No one wanted to delay the proceedings until a more permanent name could be found; x would do. The provisions were simple and to the point. The role of visitor was made as clear as possible, and so was the fact that “diplomas of x would be countersigned by the President of Harvard and would bear its seal.” It wasn’t an intimate relationship by any means, but it was a beginning. A few unreasonable men on the board may have felt that they had been betrayed by one of their own, but Harvard didn’t wrangle with Harvard in public, and the agreement was signed.
The opposition temporarily retired and consoled itself with the thought that the Massachusetts legislature could still refuse to charter the venture. It almost did, on the grounds that the college was too poorly endowed to maintain the necessary standards of excellence. Mrs. Agassiz, now almost seventy-five years old but tactful and eloquent as ever, persuaded them otherwise. “If our endowment is small,” she said to the assembly, “the active and cordial cooperation of the professors and teachers of Harvard is better than money for us.” The legislators, many of whom were Harvard men themselves, could hardly disagree, and x was chartered on March 23, 1894.
T he year 1975 seems the right time for a valedictory to more than a century of separate education—the perfect time for a respectful, if occasionally ambivalent, farewell to those institutions founded, in the quaint nineteenth-century phrase, “peculiarly for the education of women.” Even the Seven Sisters, splendid paradigms of lofty ideals, uncompromising standards, and solid endowments, have become an endangered species. In 1975 it no longer matters very much which women’s college was the first; the interesting question is which will be the last .
Vassar made its decision to become coeducational in 1970, and Radcliffe women have been Harvard persons since 1963, receiving all rights and privileges pertaining thereto. Barnard and Columbia have decided upon a contemporary liaison with separate checking accounts but shared amenities, and Bryn Mawr and Haverford are testing a similar and apparently satisfactory arrangement. The Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley campuses have remained essentially female, although for some time they have harbored male exchange students, who leave only in time to collect their degrees from their home colleges. Yale, Princeton, Williams, and Wesleyan are admitting increasing numbers of girls each year; Dartmouth, the very bastion of New England machismo, welcomed its first class of women in 1974, and the odds on Amherst are shortening by the hour .
By now the early returns from the newly mixed campuses have begun to accumulate. True co-education, like true socialism, doesn’t necessarily arrive with the revolution, and some women, expecting Utopia, found Siberia instead. After the first jew lean years applications to the holdouts among the Seven Sisters—Smith, Wellesley, and Mount Holyoke—are again increasing as some very strong and liberated young women discover where they can enjoy all the power and the glory instead of just a grudging percentage .
The most recent referendums have now been tabulated, and Smith, Wellesley, and Mount Holyoke have voted—-for the time being at least—to hold the line. They will remain predominantly—if not in the language of their founders, “peculiarly”for the education of women .