February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Ten years ago it was possible to mention the Seven Sisters almost anywhere in America and expect instant recognition. These prestigious eastern women’s colleges had a national, and often international, reputation; and alumnae were handed an image with their freshman registration forms that could be made to last a lifetime. Radcliffe was academically rigorous; Bryn Mawr, intense; Smith, athletic; Barnard, sophisticated; Wellesley, blonde and literary; Vassar, radical; and Mount Holyoke, refreshingly wholesome. Now, however, the images are blurring as, in one way or another, the Sisters adopt varying relationships with the men. Dropping all reference to gender, the Seven have quietly renamed themselves The Seven College Conference.
Elaine Kendall has recently completed Peculiar Institutions: The History of the Seven Sisters Colleges , from which we have adapted on the following pages her engaging story of how some of them—the first five of the Seven—came to be founded and who did the founding. Her book will be published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons later this year.
With the exception of the first founder, Mary Lyon of Mount Hoiyoke, who was a teacher, the pioneers in women’s higher education were an assorted and often improbable lot. The others—Matthew Vassar, Sophia Smith, Henry Durant of Wellesley, Joseph Taylor of Bryn Mawr, Annie Nathan of Barnard, and the small Cambridge group who launched what would become Radcliffe by arranging for certain Harvard professors to teach women after hours—were perhaps the most unlikely collection of people ever to create a set of closely related institutions.
Unfortunately the legend of Mary Lyon’s heroic efforts in the i83o’s to get Mount Holyoke underway, though inspiring, is somewhat short on glamour or mystery. One might expect the founder of the first women’s college in America to have been a more fiery personage, someone who would have chained herself to lampposts for women’s rights or lain down across the Springfield trolley tracks or even been touched by a faint hint of scandal.
Mary Lyon, however, was simply not such a person. She was modest, dedicated, devout, and personally beloved even by those who considered the higher education of women to be both misguided and perilous. She was even quite witty in a gentle and inoffensive Victorian way. Moreover, she was no mere philanthropist or benefactor but the entire creative force behind the college and its hardworking principal until her early death, in 1847. Her first biographer, great admirer, and the eventual president of Amherst, Edward Hitchcock, subtitled his life of Mary Lyon The Power of Christian Benevolence . He varnished his subject with so heavy a coating of sanctity that her real qualities have been somewhat obscured. Hitchcock meant well, but neither Miss Lyon nor Mount Holyoke has ever fully recovered from his treatment. Subsequent writers have gone to considerable trouble to de-emphasize her piety and bring her character into focus, but it’s been an uphill job. She was an original, vital, and extraordinary woman, and none of the other six founders resembled her in the least, though they freely borrowed a great many of her advanced ideas.
Mary Lyon’s own education was acquired by the haphazard means available to a New England girl in the years just after the American Revolution. The district primary school serving her corner of Massachusetts seems to have been more liberal than some and actually permitted little girls inside the building. After exhausting the limited possibilities there Mary boarded with families in larger towns, helping with the housework in return for her keep and a chance to continue her studies. By the time she was twenty, she was earning seventy-five cents a week as a teacher, saving as much as she could and hoping to attend one of the few recently opened female seminaries. These were tiny, tentative, and very experimental institutions run in most cases by clergymen and their wives. The reverend gentleman took care of the spirit, and his lady looked after everything else. Mary Lyon attended two or three such schools before she found herself at the Reverend Joseph Emerson’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Emerson had begun this school after working out a plan for the education of his own fiancée. He wanted a wife who would be neither a “slave” nor a “toy”; and having succeeded nicely with one young woman, he enlarged his sphere of operations and took in a few dozen others. “Be not frightened of the sound of philosophy!” he wrote. “Metaphysics! Speculation! Human Reason! Logic! Theory! System! Disputation! They can never harm you so long as you keep clear of error and sin.” This enlightened man died after his novel school had been open for only a few years, and there was no way of carrying on without him. Saddened, impressed, and thoroughly convinced that the education of women would always be a short-lived and sporadic phenomenon unless their schools were financially endowed, Mary Lyon began her long crusade to establish a permanent institution—one that would outlast its founders. She had apparently learned “Politics!” from the Reverend Mr. Emerson as well as “Metaphysics! Theory! and System!” because she decided at once that the venture should avoid any taint of feminism. “It is desirable,” Mary Lyon said, that the plans relating to the subjecl should not seem to originate with us, but with benevolent gentlemen . If the object should excite attention, there is danger that many good men will fear the effect on society of so much female influence and what they will call female greatness.
Though Mount Holyoke was to be of a very different order from those female seminaries already in existence, Mary Lyon deliberately avoided calling her project a college. That word would have terrified and alienated the “benevolent gentlemen” she so desperately needed. “Seminary,” with its familiar connotations of spiritual uplift and ladylike accomplishment, was Miss Lyon’s concession to her era, and it gave her a twenty-five-year head start.
Women’s rights was a most sensitive subject in the i83o’s, and there was a great deal of free-floating anxiety about what would happen if ever the future wives and mothers of America were to taste the heady pleasures of real learning. A few ephemeral academies tucked inconspicuously away in the Berkshire Hills didn’t pose much of a threat, but a large, centrally located, permanent endowed institution was something else again. There were fears that it would draw the daughters of New England like a giant magnet, pulling them away from hearth and home, undermining the very foundation of society—which appears to be precisely what Mary Lyon had in mind. “My heart has so yearned,” she wrote, “over the adult female youth in the common walks of life, that it has sometimes seemed as if there were a fire shut up in my bones.”
But Miss Lyon, camouflaged in prim bonnet and ruffled fichu, judiciously kept the fire damped in public, and little by pathetically little she assembled the necessary funds. There were few single large gifts but simply a slow accretion of tiny contributions, the smallest of which was six cents and the largest rarely more than a few hundred dollars. Miss Lyon travelled up and down the countryside talking sweetly and reasonably to sewing circles, missionary societies, and town meetings, graciously accepting whatever she was given. One ladies’ group promised her feathers for future pillows; another donated scraps for quilts. She thanked them and persisted. In 1834 the Massachusetts General Association of Congregational Churches voted a rather belated endorsement of “Christian education among women.” A state charter was immediately applied for and granted. The campaign, now sanctioned by both church and state, was intensified. On October 3, 1836, as Mount Hoiyoke’s cornerstone was finally laid, Mary Lyon sounded considerably less restrained than usual: “The stones and brick and mortar speak a language which vibrates through my very soul. Surely the Lord hath remembered our low estate.”
Additional funds, however, did not exactly pour into the seminary coffers, and Miss Lyon’s fund-raising tours became longer and more arduous. She was criticized for travelling by stage-coach and train without an escort, and the green velvet bag with which she took up her collections became an overfamiliar and not always welcome sight. The perfect Victorian lady began to lose patience and occasionally showed it. “My heart is sick; my soul pained with this empty gentility, this genteel nothingness,” she once said, with rare frankness.
As construction advanced and bills mounted, Miss Lyon began to publicize her educational theories; and there was considerable objection to those, too, especially to her novel idea of keeping tuition costs down by having students share household chores. That notion, in an era when any sort of advanced education for women was the luxury of the very rich, seemed both radical and repulsive to many. “Servile labor” was one of the kinder phrases applied to it. It was widely assumed that no gentlewoman would ever attend Mount Holyoke. “She wishes to consider us as neither servants nor boarders, but daughters” wrote one of the early students, but the public at large was hard to convince. Mary Lyon did her best to assure potential supporters that the housework would be discontinued if it became too onerous and promised that it was merely a temporary economy; but the system continued to arouse serious misgivings in parents and students alike. Miss Lyon was strongly urged to abandon the domestic chores entirely or at least revise her sensible program and have the girls grow grapes or raise silkworms instead. (These were two ladylike activities that had recently become very fashionable, and it was thought that they might be profitable as well.) The founder of Mount Holyoke, however, remained adamant, and there were no mulberry bushes or vineyards in South Hadley when the college finally opened in 1837.
Incoming students were tested for proficiency in grammar, modern geography, American history, and arithmetic. They were also expected to have familiarized themselves with WaH.v on the Mind, a rather forbidding theological treatise far less penetrable than it sounds. One year’s room, board, and tuition at the new seminary cost sixty-four dollars, a mere fraction of the sum that prosperous fathers had been spending on china-painting lessons, French tutoring, or dancing masters for their daughters. The advantages of the new venture became suddenly and dramatically apparent to canny New Englanders. The seminary was overbooked from the very beginning. At the end of the first year Mary Lyon was somewhat surprised to discover that the school had actually turned a rather sizable profit. She promptly reduced the yearly rates to sixty dollars, which left just the right amount of money for operating expenses with no embarrassing surplus. Objections to the domestic duties began to wane, and Mary Lyon noted with considerable satisfaction that “the vivacity and apparent vigor of our young ladies near the close of the winter term of twenty weeks, and at the examination, was noticed as unusual by gentlemen of discrimination.” That, in the i83o’s, was what counted, but even so almost twenty-five years would elapse before the next great experiment.
Unlike Mary Lyon, Matthew Vassar was a founder to pique the most jaded imagination. A pious Poughkeepsie brewer, his vision of immortality was more or less fixed upon a hospital, though from time to time he thought of endowing a library, a boys’ school, an orphanage, and, briefly, a home for indigent females in which they would be trained as domestic servants. Each of these causes bloomed for a while in his affections but quickly faded. Offseason he spoke glumly of giving the bulk of his fortune to the Baptist Church, a safe solution but one that depressed him. In rare surges of family feeling he would talk of leaving his entire fortune to his nephews, Matthew, Jr., and Guy. The younger men naturally thought this a splendid notion and encouraged him heartily. Their bounding enthusiasm, however, aroused certain misgivings in the old gentleman’s mind, and he decided against this arrangement.
During most of Vassar’s long and uneventful life he showed so little interest in women that even some of his closest associates were unaware that he was married. Like many self-made men of his time, he had succeeded wonderfully without any higher learning whatever and was fond of proclaiming that fact. Childless, narrowminded, provincial, and somewhat misogynistic, he was the last man anyone would have expected to found a women’s college. The shadowy Mrs. Vassar, to whom he remained bound in wedlock for fifty years, neither inspired nor encouraged his ultimate project. In fact there is no evidence that she ever even visited it. When Vassar abruptly announced at the age of sixty-three that he was leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars for the higher education of females, the decision seemed totally outlandish, coming as it did from a man who turned apoplectic whenever the sensitive subject of women’s rights and possible suffrage arose. Matthew, Jr., and Guywere convinced that so astonishing a change of heart could never have happened without an agent provocateur , and they were right.
In the mid-1850’s an obscure schoolmaster named Milo P. Jewett appeared in Poughkeepsie and inquired about properties that might be suitable for an academy. There weren’t many. The only one that seemed at all appropriate was a vacant schoolhouse owned by the senior Matthew Vassar. Jewett put a down payment upon the building at once, even though it was far more modest than the colonnaded establishment he claimed to have left behind in Marion, Alabama. That, he told Mr. Vassar, had been one of the largest and finest female institutes in the world, but growing tensions in the South had made terrible inroads upon his enrollment. Mr. Jewett was originally from Vermont, and by 1855 or so southern planters were no longer sending their daughters to Yankee schoolmasters with abolitionist leanings.
Once Jewett met Matthew Vassar, he was convinced that Providence had led him to Poughkeepsie. Their friendship quickly deepened in the Baptist Church, where Jewett found many opportunities to discuss theology with his new acquaintance. One topic they both found especially stimulating was what Jewett called “the duty of the rich man to use his property for the glory of God.” At that time the hospital project was Vassar’s current favorite, and he lost no time in asking Jewett’s sage advice about it. As a disinterested observer Jewett could be refreshingly candid. The hospital idea did not seem at all wise to him. Quite the contrary. “Great hospitals,” said Jewett, “are for great cities” and not for insignificant towns like Poughkeepsie. He could hardly imagine a “more unwise use of money.”
“Mr. Vassar expressed great surprise at this unexpected disapproval of his plans,” Jewett wrote later, but Vassar soon “became dissatisfied with the provisions of his will.” The proposed hospital joined the growing collection of discarded beneficiaries, and Jewett immediately proceeded to elaborate upon his alternate plan. He just happened to have some pertinent material in writing. One of these documents was called “Facts and Reflections Respecting the Founding of a College for Young Ladies.” The facts may have been a bit shaky, but the reflections showed evidence of careful research into the nature of Matthew Vassar. “From its towers lifted to the sky, it will reflect the luster of your munificence so long as the sun shall shine in the heavens.” That made heady reading for a country brewer who had been thinking about an infirmary. The present, Jewett emphasized, is the time for action, “at least as far as to making a final testamentary arrangement on the subject.” The sooner Vassar acted, the better. No one knew what would happen to the stock market in case of civil war. Jewett himself, growing no younger, was burning to realize his dream at once. In return for the new will Jewett offered Vassar nothing less than immortality. To you, Providence offers the high privilege, the peculiar honor, of actually establishing and putting into operation the first grand permanent endowed female college ever opened in the United States.
It would be a monument to Vassar “more lasting than the pyramids,” Jewett said.
Vassar was dazzled, transformed by these words from an ordinary prosperous businessman into the Poughkeepsie Pharaoh. He liked the role immediately and fancied himself perfectly cast. This brilliant newcomer understood him far better than his unimaginative and self-seeking nephews or his dreary wife ever had. He would be a pioneer educator and uplifter of half of humanity, a great emancipator at least on a par with the President of the United States. Vassar tried out his new concept of himself in his private diary: “The Founder of Vassar College and President Lincoln—two noble emancipationists, one of women.”
Jewett, of course, had his own dream of glory, and it was much more explicit, if slightly less grandiose, than Matthew Vassar’s. He wanted only to be president of the first grand, permanent endowed female college. Purveying trivial airs and graces to planters’ daughters, though profitable, had never really fulfilled him; it was a waste of his Dartmouth B.A. and his advanced degree in divinity. During the long and steamy Alabama afternoons Jewett must have envisioned another sort of women’s academy altogether. He had, in fact, become obsessed with it. In this glorious and hypothetical institution graceful young ladies would bend their pretty heads over logarithm tables and study the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. From time to time they would lift their eyes heavenward to note the position of the stars in their courses, perceiving the faint but unmistakable music of the spheres. They would be ennobled and transported far beyond the mundane realm of French knots and china painting, and so would MiIo P. Jewett, their mentor and guide on this marvelous journey of the spirit.
Jewett assured Matthew Vassar that it all could be done for four hundred thousand dollars, the estimated size of Vassar’s personal fortune. During the following months Vassar’s enthusiasm for the college plan advanced and receded like the tides. He was tempted, but he saw objections, risks, and hazards. The old man was vain and susceptible, but he hadn’t become so rich by being either gullible or impulsive. Moreover, the nephews objected strenuously to the college idea and to Jewett himself, whom they called an incubus and worse. Vassar wavered and reneged, but finally he acceded to Jewett’s demands, bravely destroying all former wills and allocating not only the basic four hundred thousand dollars to the women’s-college project but the rest of his estate as well, property that had not been mentioned in the original discussion.
It was a total and unqualified triumph for Milo P. Jewett except, as he now realized, for one small thing: Vassar had written a will, which meant that he would have to die before the college could get under way. Jewett would have preferred a gift. A gift, in fact, was what he had had in mind all along. Though Matthew Vassar was considerably older than Jewett, the brewer was sturdy and rosy and, judging from all outward appearances, nowhere near the end that so preoccupied him. Jewett, on the other hand, was frail, thin, and white-haired. He had to have his college at once if he was to be in fit condition to lead it. An eventual college, fifteen or even twenty years in the future, would be worse than none. Jewett’s persuasive powers, already somewhat taxed, were now stretched to the utmost. He changed his tactics and marshalled a whole new set of arguments. If civil war came, the male population would be decimated. Young women, deprived of husbands and fathers, would have to support themselves. A fate worse than death awaited those who lacked education and marketable skills. A will could be contested by spiteful nephews, but an outright gift could not. Moreover, if Vassar gave the money at once, he could personally oversee the construction and make sure that the funds were well spent. Jewett urged the childless Vassar to think of the happiness to be derived from hearing students hail him as “friend and benefactor.”
Vassar weighed the possibilities, balancing the delightful against the disturbing. He couldn’t imagine himself alive and well without his money. Presiding over its disbursement wasn’t the same thing as having it in the bank. There was a world of difference between the late Matthew Vassar, philanthropist and uplifter of half the human race, and Matthew Vassar, Esquire, doling out every one of his dollars to carpenters, bricklayers, teachers, and janitors. The nephews sensed a certain weakening of resolve at this point and intensified their anti-Jewett campaign. The old man changed his mind again. There would be no college. Matthew Vassar, Jr., gleefully relayed the news to Jewett.
Distraught and incredulous, the would-be president of Vassar Female College, borrowing rather freely from Shakespeare, composed his masterpiece of rhetoric: Oh, what a fall was there, my countrymen! Your advisors have razed your magnificent 120 gun ship down to a barge. You give up your coach and six for a wheelbarrow! Your monument which would have been more enduring than the Pyramids is given up for a pine slab at the head of your grave.
Jewett signed his four-page letter “with a heavy heart and trembling hand” and sent it over by messenger. Vassar, whose resistance had been weakened by years of constant importuning, capitulated for the third time. He apologized to Jewett, cursed his nephews, and promised to turn over the necessary funds at once. He and Jewett signed an agreement in the office of a local lawyer. There was an awkward moment later on when Vassar discovered that he would have to turn over the money to a board of trustees. He had not, it seemed, entirely realized what trustees did or what they were for, but upon being assured that it was customary, Vassar reluctantly made over the sum and Jewett “ran to the post office.”
At that safe juncture Jewett relaxed his vigilance. It had been a long grind, and he was utterly exhausted. He told Matthew Vassar that he was going to Europe in order to investigate the state of women’s education abroad and set sail. (Pressed later for his findings, Jewett said that they could “not be imprinted upon paper, but would be transferred by spiritual photography to the minds and hearts and lives of future generations.”)
Intrigue began as soon as Jewett was safely incommunicado on the North Atlantic. Matthew Vassar immediately began receiving urgent advisory letters from another ex-New Englander turned southern schoolmaster—one Charles A. Raymond. Though this man’s academic credentials were not quite as impeccable as Jewett’s, in all other respects the two were eerily similar. Vassar was impressed. The stalwart brewer seems to have had a fatal weakness for refugee schoolmasters, and Raymond’s suggestions grew steadily bolder. There were a few things that Raymond would change if it were his college. He would, for instance, prefer to see a women’s university. There was surely enough money? And land? Matthew Vassar introduced Raymond and Jewett by transatlantic mail, and soon the two of them were corresponding with each other and quarrelling bitterly. The founder remained in the middle, buffeted by letters and pleas from both men. Jewett returned from Europe four months sooner than he had planned. The struggle for the mind and heart of Matthew Vassar could not be conducted from a distance, and Jewett had every reason to think he was losing. He was right. Desperation made him injudicious, and he wrote a peevish letter to six of the trustees, which he concluded with the statement that “Mr. Vassar grows more fickle and childish every day.”
That was the end of Jewett. 1 he letter was shown to Mr. Vassar, who reacted with appropriate emotion, and Jewett’s resignation was requested. Charles A. Raymond was informed of the contretemps and instantly offered to serve in Jewett’s place. That, however, was not to be. The trustees wanted nothing more to do with vagrant schoolmasters. Instead they quickly chose one of their own number to be head of Vassar Female College when it opened in 1865. This man’s name was John Howard Raymond, and he was installed in office after he had proved that he was no relation to Charles A. and that their identical surnames were pure coincidence.
After Mary Lyon the founders of the Seven Sisters proceed in a descending spiral of unlikelihood, with Sophia Smith perhaps the most enigmatic of the entire group. Fortunately the college named for her managed to erase most traces of her eccentric personality early in its history, and the Smith image has evolved quite independently of its odd benefactor. Perhaps it helped that Sophia died five years before the college opened in 1875.
Miss Smith was an unworldly Massachusetts spinster of few ambitions, no pretensions, and an assortment of afflictions. Although her brothers and sisters were all rather remarkable in one way or another, Sophia herself was shy, plain, deaf, and, as she grew older, increasingly suspicious and melancholy. Although the family was prosperous by the standards of the time, the males were almost pathologically miserly. The Smiths carried respectable New England frugality to extremes. Sophia Smith’s bachelor brother Austin, for whom she kept house, was fond of boasting that he had neither offered nor given away “a meal of victuals” in his entire lifetime. He charged each of his sisters a shilling in fare to ride in the family carriage, and he wore the same suit for twenty years. Being a consistent sort of person, Austin Smith attempted to convince the town fathers that they should run the village of Hatfield as parsimoniously as he managed his own home. The municipal extravagance he thought most absurd and unnecessary was free general education, and he is known to have introduced a resolution that would have forbidden the public schools to offer any instruction beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. He didn’t really believe that most youngsters deserved even that but was grudgingly willing to make allowances for the changing times. However, when Hatfield considered the ultimate folly of building a high school, Austin Smith left town in a fury. He went to New York to increase his fortune, attracted there not only for business reasons but also because he had heard nothing about taxation for advanced education from that direction. He did astonishingly well in the city and was able to save almost every penny he earned. His neighbors in the small village of Hatfield had sometimes been able to humiliate him into small expenditures, but New York was pleasantly anonymous. It suited him perfectly. Austin Smith knew no one, joined nothing, and was apparently content with his narrow and solitary life. The money accumulated without hindrance until he suddenly became seriously ill and died before drafting a final will. Like many misers, he had been a compulsive testator, convinced that no beneficiary, public or private, would ever treat his money with the proper respect. In fact will making appears to have been his only diversion, but since notarizing the various rough versions would have cost money, Austin didn’t bother; and when he died, his timid and bewildered sister Sophia unexpectedly inherited all of his money.
To the astonishment of the community of Hatfield, which had always assumed that Sophia shared her brother’s notions of economy, she built the grandest mansion in town, making sure that it contained every luxurious feature that her late brother had most loathed and abominated. Sophia Smith put in mirrors, bay windows, marble mantels, black walnut furniture, and a grand piano. That last would have been something of a curiosity in any Hatfield household, but it was particularly conspicuous in the home of the deaf and lonely Miss Smith and caused considerable comment and speculation. Uncaring (and probably unhearing), Miss Smith moved into this magnificent edifice with a maid and lived there for three uneasy years, worrying constantly about how best to dispose of the balance of Austin’s fortune.
None of the usual expenditures of the wealthy seem to have occurred to her. The church would have been a natural choice for so religious a woman, but since Austin had publicly vowed that “the Lord won’t get a cent of my money,” Sophia hesitated. Perhaps building and furnishing the house had temporarily satisfied her need for revenge upon her brother. In any case, after much soul-searching and agonizing she came to favor the idea of endowing a school for deafmutes. Within weeks, however, another philanthropist pre-empted her plan and broke ground for exactly the sort of institution she had in mind. Since there were only a few hundred deaf-mutes in the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a second school seemed superfluous.
Her pastor, John Greene, a young and eager Amherst graduate, tried valiantly to interest her in Mount Hoiyoke Seminary. Mary Lyon had actually been a distant relative of the Smiths, and the Reverend Mr. Greene naturally thought that the seminary just over the mountain would be a logical choice. It was flourishing and by 1870 or so considered a great asset to the neighborhood. Moreover, John Greene’s charming and intelligent wife had been educated there, and she agreed that no more worthy cause existed. Since Sophia Smith stubbornly refused to take the ten-mile trip to South Hadley even to see the place, a delegation of Mount Holyoke teachers came to call upon her. On that occasion she abruptly became more deaf than ever, convincing the ambassadors that further visits would serve no purpose. They left without ever really stating their case, positive that Miss Smith would enter the next world with her wealth undiminished by so much as the price of a cup of tea.
Mr. Greene himself finally conceded defeat and proposed a plan he thought almost as worthwhile. Amherst College, he was sure, would be able to make excellent use of a bequest. It was just as conveniently located, and the education of ministers was a completely accepted necessity, not a risky experiment like the higher education of women. Miss Smith, however, rejected the Amherst proposal out of hand. She had never been to the town of Amherst either and would not think of going there. She had always believed that Amherst professors were a subversive group secretly bent upon controlling western Massachusetts, and she was not about to offer them either aid or comfort.
The Reverend Mr. Greene was a patient and sympathetic man, but he had already spent a disproportionate amount of his time shouting about money to his parishioner, slighting his other pastoral duties and neglecting his growing family. He tried to resign as Sophia Smith’s financial counselor, but she wouldn’t allow that either. An estate advisory service was considered an important part of a nineteenthcentury minister’s duty, and he was reminded ofthat fact whenever he spoke of other responsibilities. Their relationship cooled considerably, but the demands upon his time continued.
As a compromise Miss Smith eventually agreed to consider some alternative proposals if Greene would write them out in detail. Since he had already invested three years in futile conversations with this quixotic woman, he seems to have felt that there was little to lose by putting his suggestions on paper. His letters were polite but rather terse. He now addressed Miss Smith as “Madam” and tried another approach entirely: One of the finest opportunities ever offered a person in this world is now offered to you in another enterprise. You may become to all time a Benefactress to the race. I refer to the endowment of a Womans’ College. … You can now, by a codicil to your will, appropriate the sum designed for a deaf mute institution to this object and have your name attached to the first Womans’ College in New England.
(Mount Holyoke was still technically a seminary, and although Greene knew all about Vassar, Poughkeepsie was not New England.) The minister presented his proposal as attractively as he could. He was still intensely interested in women’s education, and he realized that Miss Smith’s vanity could only be served by a charity bearing her own name. She was still antisocial and excruciatingly shy, but wealth had long since relieved her of her earlier modesty. The Greenes reasoned that since Mount Holyoke already had a name, it would have to be another place altogether. They wondered why they hadn’t perceived this obvious fact before. There was one potential problem, but the chance had to be taken. Miss Smith’s college and Mount Holyoke would be a mere ten miles apart and might eventually find themselves in competition for students, faculty members, and even prestige. Greene kept his misgivings to himself, however, and Sophia Smith seemed quite receptive to the thought of a college, though she did insist upon certain conditions. One important proviso was that no Amherst professor be consulted about anything whatever. Another of her express desires was that all students be housed in one-story cottages, because Miss Smith believed that stairs were damaging to the female reproductive system. (This capricious proviso fortunately was not included in the final version of Miss Smith’s will.) And of course the place was to be called Sophia Smith College. At the suggestion that it be just plain Smith she grew furious and threatened to withdraw all support. She would have much preferred the town of Hatfield to Northampton as a site but gave in when it was pointed out to her that land was higher, drier, and cheaper in Northampton and that the college would have more room to expand. Ample space would be necessary if no buildings were to exceed a single story. After these matters were all arranged to her near satisfaction, she signed the will. The women’s-college idea had had one great point in its favor all along. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could have been further from her brother Austin’s desire.
When the main hall of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was finally completed in 1875, astonished reporters, overcome by its magnificence, called it a palace and a fairyland. The project had taken four years, but it had been conducted with such discretion that no one was prepared for the sudden materialization of a brick structure 480 feet long, 80 feet high, and even further extended by a pair of 166-foot wings at the sides. Though the basic design was a double Latin cross, so many embellishments had been added that the fundamental shape was hard to find. The building was an anthology of architectural styles through the ages, with towers, bays, spires, pavilions, and verandahs projecting from every elevation. Urbane representatives of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly , sent out to cover the routine opening of a new female seminary, found themselves gasping like backwoods plowboys, and their dispatches showed it. Inside they encountered a four-story central hall roofed with glass. Sunshine streamed down to a ground-floor conservatory filled with jungle plants and surrounded by arches, in each of which stood a lifesized classical statue, blindingly white but chastely draped. The whole glorious fantasy was set in a lavishly landscaped park and situated so that it would be reflected in Lake Waban. On fair and breezy days there seemed to be multiple castles in constant motion. Wellesley immediately made every other New England college look like a textile mill.
There was considerable worried speculation about the influence of all that gorgeousness upon tender young female minds and a great deal of simple bafflement. Although it was immediately announced that Wellesley students would be expected to share in domestic chores just as at Mount Hoiyoke and that the religious requirements at the new seminary would be much more stringent, the public was only slightly reassured, and people continued to wonder what sort of institution the founder really had in mind. There were inevitable comparisons to the Garden of Eden, the last days of Pompeii, and the Taj Mahal. Being New Englanders, the neighbors naturally feared the worst.
The college building, however, was no more or less florid than the man who made it possible. Had Henry Durant been born a century later, there would have been a large vocabulary with which to explain him, but in his own pre-Freudian era there was only a limited choice. “Flamboyant,” “prodigal,” “unsavory,” and “scurrilous” turn up often in accounts of his early life. So does “brilliant,” but almost always modified by one of the other adjectives. Durant began his career as an attorney, but not quite the sort that Victorian Boston understood or approved. He became quickly notorious as a criminal lawyer, and his services were much in demand by grand larcenists, embezzlers, and even murderers. Henry Durant accepted cases that no other Boylston Street barrister would touch, and he usually won them by tactics to which his colleagues would not stoop. Though his practice was lucrative, it wasn’t quite respectable, and Durant made little public effort to compensate. He was not, for example, either a pillar of the Unitarian Church or a great benefactor of Harvard; and his behavior outside the courtroom seems to have been every bit as abrasive, inconsistent, and theatrical as his manner inside it.
In addition to his legal work Durant had many business investments, and his personal fortune accumulated at a most un-Bostonian rate. Eventually he began to indulge a latent aesthetic passion and filled his house and grounds with job lots of books, paintings, sculpture, and specimen shrubs from all over the world. His taste in these areas seems to have run to the recondite, the lushly naturalistic, and the frankly bizarre. Even the plants he assiduously collected violated prevailing Boston standards. His hothouses included exotica like night-blooming cereus, passionflowers, succulents of various sorts, and other intemperate species. The women of Needham, in fact, would often find it necessary to avert their eyes from some of the glories of the Durant garden, finding them obscurely disturbing.
There was simply no place in nineteenth-century Boston for a newly rich underworld mouthpiece with such unorthodox enthusiasms, and Henry and Pauline Durant spent much of their time alone in their West Needham summer house adding to their collections and enjoying them in privacy. By all accounts they seem to have been a happy and compatible couple despite the fact that Pauline was deeply devout, and Henry, at best, was merely tolerant of religion.
When their infant daughter died, Pauline Durant begged and pleaded with her husband to “submit his will to God,” but his biographers report that he merely said, “Pauline, you must take your medicine in your way and I must take mine in mine.” His way was to lavish all of his affection upon his two-year-old son and to devote even more time and energy to his various flourishing enterprises. He gradually bought up much of the land that adjoined the country house and dreamed of the day when his son would be grown and grandchildren would marvel at the glorious surroundings that he had so imaginatively created for them.
When this only son died of diphtheria at the age of eight, however, the effect upon Henry Durant was cataclysmic. During the boy’s illness the father had vowed that he “would henceforth live for God” whether or not his child recovered. There is no way of knowing how he would have interpreted that promise if the story had ended happily, but upon the child’s death Durant immediately renounced his career and abruptly resigned from the bar. He then burned all the books, pictures, and objects of art that he considered unsuitable for a servant of the Lord, even throwing some of his most carefully nurtured plants on the pyre. It was a massive bonfire, and it smoldered for days.
These outlandish gestures did nothing to enhance Durant’s already strained social relationships, and there seems to have been collective relief when the couple moved away to New York. There Henry Durant attended to business and the Bible, apparently having convinced himself that commerce was more acceptable in the sight of God than the law. During the i86o’s he did spectacularly well in the manufacture of engines and other war matériel for the Union army. Every one of his evenings was now spent poring over Scripture, and he was soon devoting all of his spare time to evangelism, speaking at prayer meetings and religious revivals up and down the eastern seaboard. The hypnotic presence that had made him such a power in the courtroom worked equally well in church, and he became something of a star, drawing large and emotional crowds wherever he spoke. He was personally credited with hundreds of conversions. Strong men wept, and women swooned at these gatherings; and news of them quickly reached Massachusetts. There his former legal colleagues discussed his radical change of heart and direction with great skepticism. (It should, of course, be remembered that proper Bostonians “have” their religion the way they are said to “have” their hats, and faith is not considered something to be suddenly acquired in middle age.) There were also those who called him a war profiteer, but Durant seems to have persuaded himself that though “law and the gospel” were “diametrically opposed,” business and the gospel were perfectly compatible.
Though the Durants continued to spend their summers on their suburban Boston property, they found that they had even more time to themselves than before. The narrow society that couldn’t quite absorb a freethinking criminal lawyer found a hellfireand-brimstone entrepreneur no more to its liking. In solitude Henry Durant wandered over the hillside property that he had bought for his dead son and began to consider memorials suitable for “God’s work.” Though Durant was sure that God would approve a strictly religious boys’ preparatory school, the New England woods were already heavily salted with those. Pauline Durant thought that a girls’ school might be less superfluous, but that alone seemed rather too modest. Durant then proceeded to plan an orphanage as well as two schools, foreseeing an entire holy community in which youngsters of all ages, both sexes, and all economic classes would be taught gospel according to evangelical methods. Eventually, however, the Durants narrowed the proposal down to a more manageable project, definitely deciding upon an institution for the higher education of girls—a still uncrowded field in which there was more than enough room for something startlinelv original.
Once Durant had made up his mind to establish a seminary to train women as teachers “upon sound Christian principles,” he moved quickly. Mary Lyon and Matthew Vassar had gotten off to a running start and Sophia Smith’s college was under way, but Henry Durant was determined that his institution would overtake the entire field. By 1870 Durant had appointed a board of trustees, acquired the official charter of incorporation from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and set aside six hundred thousand dollars in liquid assets. He had also drafted his primary stipulation: It is required that every Trustee, teacher and officer shall be a member of an Evangelical Church, and that the study of the Holy Scripture shall be pursued by every student throughout the entire college course under the direction of the faculty.
A solid religious base was no novelty in New England colleges, and diligent attention to Scripture was taken for granted everywhere, but evangelism of the stand-up-and-confess kind was something else again. Durant’s blatant zeal was considered in rather poor taste, just as his pictures, his books, and his indecorous plants had been.
Dressed in his most conservative country tweeds, his white hair flowing in the wind, Durant set out each day to make sure that every brick in his college would be godly. He forbade loud talking, profanity, and fighting among his labor force and even went so far as to build a dormitory for them in which the rules were as strict as those in a theological seminary. Bricklayers and carpenters who couldn’t live like monks were discharged on the spot and fresh replacements sent out from the city. On the day the cornerstone was laid, Henry and Pauline presented each surprised workman with a Bible as a memento of the occasion. A last and specially inscribed Bible was sealed in a tin box, inserted into the cornerstone, and mortared over.
Absolutely everything that went into that massive structure was selected and tested by the Durants themselves. They bathed at the washstands, sat in the chairs, read by the lights, poured from the pitchers, and even walked dozens of sample stairways before settling on the ideal height for the risers. There were to be autographed portraits of notable poets in the Great Hall, and the Durants made sure that the signatures were legible. Longfellow, Bryant, and Tennyson came through beautifully, but a few minor figures sent in hasty scrawls, and the untidiest were returned for revision. Durant’s quixotic religious convictions did not demand austerity, and the college had an elevator, a steam-heat and humidity system, and gaslight throughout. There was only one obvious omission, but it seemed as striking and capricious as any of the inclusions. Henry Durant forbade any portrait or statue of himself in the building. Visitors who asked why there was no likeness of the founder were answered curtly. “This is God’s College,” Durant would say. “I am not in the monument business.” (Long after his death a building was dedicated to Durant, but in deference to his commandment it was called merely Founder’s Hall.)
Durant was, however, thoroughly and happily involved in the education business and went about researching and developing a curriculum with the same single-mindedness that he had spent on the furnishings and accessories. He visited all of the institutions that admitted women and studied them assiduously. He found a strength here and a weakness there, admirable features and serious flaws wherever he looked. He soon concluded that the academic system would have to be custom-made, like everything else at Wellesley, to his precise and particular specifications. His college was to have an entirely female administration and faculty despite the difficulty of finding an adequate number of well-trained women for the posts. “Women can do the work,” he said. “I give them the chance.” In order to collect this faculty Durant ranged far afield, raiding Oberlin, Vassar, and Mount Holyoke for newly minted graduates, often returning again and again to persuade the reluctant. “Doing the work” was just a part of the job at Wellesley; there was also the matter of faith, and that narrowed an already small pool. Only the saved could teach at Durant’s college, and a lifetime of regular church attendance did not satisfy him. A faculty was finally assembled, but there were several entire departments without a degree among them—though every teacher was in a demonstrable state of grace.
Mr. Durant rules the college,” wrote a member of the class of 1879, “from the amount of Latin we shall read to the kind of meat that we shall have for dinner.” Prayers, of course, were his particular dominion, and Sunday was his favorite time to inspect his handiwork. After the rising bell at 7 there was breakfast at 7:45, silent time at 9:30, Bible class at 9:45, church services at 10:30, dinner at 1:00, another church service at 4:30, prayer meeting at 7:30, and a reprise of silent time at 9:00 before bedtime at 9:30. (Weekdays were a comparative relief. There was no 4:30 church service, and the evening prayer meeting was optional.) Durant could appear at any moment and demand to know if a particular student believed herself saved. No matter what her answer, he would usually stop for long enough to reinforce her spiritual state with a mini-sermon. Students unprepared to meet their founder on his weekly rounds soon learned which of the hundreds of unusual plants and trees offered the best chance of shelter and would scatter like dryads at the sound of Henry Durant’s unmistakable voice. Even as a very old man he could be heard in the farthest reaches of the garden, and those who had been at Wellesley during its first decade never forgot their encounters with him. Later classes could never quite imagine what those years had been like, since there were no graven images anywhere to remind them of his physical appearance nor even a Durant Hall to perpetuate his name.
The other colleges began with characters—Radcliffe started as a plot. At first those responsible for organizing the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women seem to have worked almost surreptitiously. By 1879 the issue of higher education for women had some eloquent advocates, but few people in Cambridge, Massachusetts^, seem to have considered having such a facility in that particular town. There was already a university there, and it was generally considered quite perfect as it stood. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of female colleges quickly realized that anything in the least conspicuous would be strenuously opposed and quite possibly doomed. Under the circumstances the society did a most sensible thing. They decided upon an invisible college with shadow students, a closet faculty, and neither an actual name nor a specific location. At a slight risk of vulgarity one could compare the experiment to a floating dice game. The only people who knew where to find it were the players themselves.
The society would meet as small groups in private houses, with moonlighting Harvard instructors lecturing behind closed doors. Neither a formal catalogue nor a balanced curriculum was possible at this stage. The students were to pay their fees to the society, which in turn planned to recompense the professors for their time. The whole thing was a very private sort of arrangement, conducted with the utmost circumspection. The teaching of women, though by now regarded as worthwhile and perhaps even necessary, was still considered to be somewhat beneath the dignity of a Harvard professor. At first the only men who agreed to it were those who badly needed to supplement their Harvard salaries. Harvard’s President Eliot, however, was well aware that many of his junior instructors were somewhat underpaid, and during his administration a young man applying for a teaching post at Harvard was usually told, in a roundabout way, of the additional opportunities offered by the society. Even a quite senior professor might occasionally take a turn at speaking to the ladies. One merely had to repeat one’s regular lectures. No concessions were either expected or made.
The idea for the society was first suggested to Elizabeth Gary Agassiz, the widow of the renowned naturalist Louis Agassiz. The proposal came from a Mr. Arthur Gilman, who wished to educate his daughter Grace. Many years earlier, before her husband’s work was so well recognized, Mrs. Agassiz had run a select and successful school for young ladies in her own home, reluctantly closing it only after family responsibilities made it impossible to continue. Mr. Gilman remembered that little school with nostalgic affection. It had been precisely the sort of place he would have liked for Grace. He assembled a small group of like-minded parents at his home, and they agreed that Mrs. Agassiz should be consulted. Her previous educational experience, her impeccable Boston family connections, and her close Harvard relationships would be invaluable to any plan they devised. Although Elizabeth Agassiz was then nearly sixty years old and thoroughly occupied with writing a biography of her late husband, she promised to serve on the committee and contribute in any way she could.
Mrs. Agassiz was soon up to her aristocratic chin in paperwork, collaborating with Mr. Gilman on a list of Harvard professors—friends of her late husband’s—who might be persuaded to teach a few young women in their spare time and lend prestige to the endeavor. Several professors agreed to participate, including the eminent William James. (James set group rates for his classes in psychology and modern philosophy. Three pupils could have him for six dollars an hour each, and for any class larger than five the fee dropped to a flat ten dollars.)
The Agassiz name had proved even more magical than Mr. Gilman dared hope. He soon realized that the emerging plan was far too elevated for his young daughter Grace, who was sent off to Bradford Academy instead. It was decided that the Cambridge female students would “pursue a regular college course of four years.” Each young woman would receive a certificate upon successful completion of each course, and eventually these would be “merged into one, which will be signed by all the instructors.” The presumptuous word “degree” was never mentioned at this stage.
The preliminary planning was accomplished in a mere month. General entrance examinations were announced for September, 1879, and the response was both gratifying and disconcerting. Twenty-seven applicants, many of them already teachers, were accepted, though only three signed up for a full complement of offered classes. Elizabeth Agassiz, who seems to have discovered somewhat tardily that she was considered head of the society, had to find both classroom and boarding accommodations for them. A few Cambridge neighbors were persuaded to accept students as paying guests, and a Mrs. Garret on Appian Way agreed to rent four rooms of her private house as lecture halls. Mrs. Garret, however, didn’t wish to have it known that she had turned her parlor into a school and insisted that the fact be concealed. To oblige her the now rather desperate Mrs. Agassiz bought yards of muslin and personally hung curtains at the Garret windows. These were kept drawn whenever any young women were studying inside. A very few of the professors were brave and generous enough to teach the girls in their own homes.
Even an invisible college, however, requires a library, and this demanded some particularly ingenious arrangements. In December the committee voted to rent an empty room at the corner of Appian Way and Garden Street and to hire a thirteen-year-old boy “to carry books from the Library and return them as called for by the young ladies.” The “Library” in question was the Cambridge Public Library, because President Eliot’s support of the venture did not extend to admitting women to the Harvard bookstacks. (The following spring Mrs. Agassiz asked President Eliot if her girls might have borrowing privileges at the university facility, and while he seems to have been amenable enough by then, provided the women promised not to sit down and read, the Harvard Corporation rejected the idea outright.)
For its first three years the society muddled along in this twilight zone; but in 1882 the advisers of what was eventually to be Radcliffe College (named belatedly in 1894 for Anne Radcliffe, who two centuries earlier had been the first woman to make a gift to Harvard) voted to incorporate and officially elected Mrs. Agassiz president. One of her first concerns was to establish an explicit Harvard connection, but she ran into trouble the moment she tried to regularize the society’s position. The back-street arrangement suited Harvard perfectly. The university refused to offer any aid or comfort except the purely voluntary services of well-intentioned or impecunious professors, and it preferred not to advertise even that.
Elizabeth Agassiz was obliged to raise the necessary operating funds by any means she could devise. In 1883, therefore, considering herself rather mature to go racketing around New England with a green velvet bag as Mary Lyon had done, Mrs. Agassiz organi/ed a series of “Parlor Meetings” in Boston, to which she invited her most eminent relatives and friends. Her methods were delicacy itself. By then there were about forty pupils, and those who were taking the full course needed at least two hundred dollars for tuition—fifty dollars more than Harvard charged. Moreover, the girls had to pay for room and board. “Our students are scattered by two’s and three’s in Cambridge families,” Mrs. Agassiz assured her audience. “They quietly pursue their occupations as unnoticed as the daughters of any Cambridge residents.” That was a vital point because there was still widespread opposition to a houseful of young women in the vicinity of Harvard. “The school stirs no prejudices, excites no opposition, involves no change of policy for the University,” Mrs. Agassiz continued. “Our students themselves manifest no desire for coeducation. The element of competition with men does not enter into their aims.”
Having tranquillized her listeners with all these negatives, Elizabeth Agassiz moved softly into the single positive. What she did want was a hundred thousand dollars so that her scholars could come to Harvard “with full hands” asking for recognition and a promise that Harvard professors would continue to teach them. The money would constitute a sort of performance bond, though it sounded rather more like a dowry than an endowment. Mrs. Agassiz wanted to give Harvard the hundred thousand dollars because, as she said, “anything less would make us, financially speaking, an unsafe acquisition for the University. Even if we should succeed in raising the whole of this sum,” she added soothingly, “it would not put the education of women on a par with that of men at Harvard.”
These parlor talks may have been calming, but they weren’t as lucrative as had been hoped. By 1884 only ninety-three thousand dollars had been raised, and Harvard coldly refused that paltry sum, denying any official recognition of the annex (as Mrs. Agassiz’s society was commonly called) at its corporation meeting. No one, at that point, had any idea of Harvard’s price, or even if Harvard had a price. It was strongly suspected by many cynics that it did, but the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women was in no position to make a better offer.
In the fall of 1885 Mrs. Agassiz bravely decided that some of the rejected dowry should be used to buy a house. The concession to Harvard sensibilities had resulted in nothing more than discomfort and inconvenience for the women students, and there were now so many of them that lecture space and lodgings were impossible to find. A spacious old mansion had become available, and the price for sixteen rooms of turretted splendor was a reasonable twenty thousand dollars. Loyal “Friends” subscribed half the sum, and the rest was taken from the treasury, leaving about eighty thousand dollars soundly invested. After six years of official nonexistence the invisible college had emerged. It was hoped that from that moment on it would be harder to ignore.
Four years later the institution was still struggling under its unwieldy maiden name, but it had acquired a nearby lot and built a physics and chemistry laboratory. The ownership of all that real estate, however, seemed to go to the students’ heads. Up until then the young women had seemed content with their ambiguous status and their anomalous “certificates,” but now they suddenly demanded academic degrees. Women at other colleges were receiving them, and the ladies of the annex were becoming restive. They had been taught, however covertly, by Harvard professors, and there was a growing feeling that the world should know and that President Eliot himself should countersign the diplomas.
Mrs. Agassiz now presided over assets totalling a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and she agreed to pay another call upon Harvard, offering “all our present property” in return for diplomas but “not asking for any rights or privileges” above and beyond that. Although President Eliot seemed to like the proposal, the corporation remained adamant. The suit was rejected for the second time. Edward W. Hooper, treasurer of Harvard, wrote the icy letter of refusal: I am quite willing to see Yale or Columbia take any risks they like, but I feel bound to protect Harvard College from what seems to me a risky experiment.
The most ardent supporters of the annex idea were humiliated and predicted an early end to the whole experiment. What Harvard rejected Cambridge did without. It had always been that way, and it didn’t seem likely that one elderly lady, no matter how impeccable her background, would ever succeed in changing matters.
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 .