Honoring the International Women’s Day

Last week, my friend posted about the 150th anniversary of the first women college in Cambridge, and I could not resist commenting that Knox college accepted female students from the day it was founded. 

My daughter Anna graduated from Knox, and I firmly believe the Knox was one of the best things that happened in her life. And one of the best things about Knox and its history is the fact that it would accept females and blacks from the very beginning, and never rejected any student based on lack of funds.  The college founders stated:

It is beginning to be believed, and not without good reason, that females are to act a much more important part in the conversion of the world than has been generally supposed; not as preachers of the gospel, but as help-meets of those who are, and as instructors and guides of the rising generations, not only in the nursery, but in the public school. It should therefore be an object of special aim with all who pray and labor for the conversion of the world, to provide for the thorough and well-directed education of females.

George Washington Gale

However, the history of women’s education at Knox was not so straightforward. First of all, the college founders belonged to their times, and although they believed the women should have access to education, they thought it should differ from what men were offered:

Under the influence of the Gospel a different station is allotted to her, she is regarded man’s equal in worth; and although her cares, labors and responsibilities, to a considerable extent, be in a different direction, yet they are no less honorable, and require no less of intellectual and moral culture than his

Hiram Kellogg

It took several years to come up with courses designed for women.

…fiscal restrictions delayed plans for an advanced female course of study at the College’s outset. When the means for a women’s course were finally realized, seven years after the College’s first class of men had entered, courses were initially held in the new Academy building that had been built for the College’s preparatory students (due to a lack of sufficient public education, the College maintained a preparatory school for younger students, male and female, seeking admission to the College courses).

It was not until 1856 that the College’s finances finally allowed for the construction of separate housing for the seminary students. 

Knox college

Separate social standards for men and women contributed to the perception that men’s and women’s education had separate purposes. When Knox College incorporated a college program for women in 1848, it was based upon the programs of other female seminaries and therein upon a tradition of separate education.

In 1860 – 70s then Board of Trustees President Howard Curtis was strongly supporting separation of men and women education, while Miss Lydia Howard, a principle of the Seminary worked on expanded curriculum

Here is what happened next:

On Friday, March 20, 1867, the debate came to a head. President Curtis and Principal Howard were engaged in an argument over the programming for the next year’s catalogue for the Seminary when President Curtis forcibly took the catalogue from Miss Howard’s hands in an act of physical violence. When word of Curtis’ behavior reached the students the fallout was immediate. The following Saturday morning the students, who largely disliked President Curtis but admired Principal Howard, turned out in numbers on the lawn of Old Main, ringing the building’s bell and causing a commotion. From one eyewitness account, “20 or 30 of the College and Academy students … had cut the rope of the bell [in Old Main] and were turning it over and over,” in protest. The students organized a sit-down strike on the lawn, staying away from classes that following Monday and Tuesday, and demanding President Curtis’s resignation. Late on Tuesday, the Board of Trustees acquiesced to the students’ demands, and asked for Curtis’s recognition.

As part of the controversy, Howard tendered her resignation as well, leaving the Board of Trustees with questions about the future of the Female Seminary at Knox. A Trustee “Committee on Seminary” reported that their actions in hiring Miss Howard to revamp the Seminary’s curricula had been “a new and somewhat hazardous experiment.” The Committee recommended changes in the oversight of the Seminary, saying that the interests of the Seminary should be decided upon by the Seminary faculty.

The actions of President Curtis and Principal Howard had focused attention on the Female Seminary, and in the 1869 catalogue it was reported that growing interest in women’s education had prompted the Board of Trustees to consider a plan of co-education. The catalogue further called it “a happy day … when the brief, irregular, superficial, and too often contemptible style of female education shall give way to a culture which shall furnish the same facilities for success in life … now accorded to men.” By the next year, 1870, the Board of Trustees took the final step of merging the men’s and women’s courses and awarding women Bachelor’s degrees for the first time. Although the Female Seminary would remain open to accommodate women who did not desire a degree, women who were adequately prepared could follow the same coursework as their male counterparts.

I think it’s a great story, and it is very appropriate to remember on the International Women’s Day. Nowadays, when you visit Knox college and look at the graduation pictures of the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century, you can see approximately the same number of male and female graduates.

Still earlier than Cambridge 🙂

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