The theme for National Women’s History Month this year is “Women’s Education—Women’s Empowerment.” Reports, newspaper articles and other material related to women’s education at Amherst can be found in the Amherst College Coeducation Collection. The faculty voted overwhelmingly to approve coeducation in 1974, but the debate over the issue already stretched back more than 100 years.
The mid to late nineteenth century saw a great deal of discussion about women’s education in the United States. Following the Civil War, the political and social atmosphere in the country reflected the difficult attempts to reunify the North and the South, restore local governments, and ensure civil liberties for African Americans. At the same time, growth of industry, territorial expansion, and advances in science and technology inspired newly progressive thought and debate in many areas, including education. But not everyone was yet convinced that women should be pursuing advanced level educations, and the idea of bringing men and women together in the college classroom was still considered a radical idea.
Though there were already a few coeducational colleges (Oberlin College was the first, founded in 1833) and some women’s colleges, almost all colleges and universities at that time were exclusively for men. Many colleges considered and rejected coeducation during this period. Some founded “annex” or “coordinate” schools, rather than integrate women into their classes (e.g., Radcliffe at Harvard, Barnard at Columbia). Other colleges admitted women as “special students” in non-degree programs, or awarded them degrees without ever acknowledging their presence in the classroom. In some cases, women were asked to sit in separate rooms or behind screens while attending lectures, so as not to distract male students. The question here at Amherst was further complicated by the planning underway for two local women’s colleges. Smith College would be chartered in 1871 and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary—in operation since 1837—would receive its collegiate charter in 1888.
Prominent figures of both sexes and all political persuasions spoke publicly for and against coeducation. Some Massachusetts feminists and progressives such as Julia Ward Howe and Henry Ward Beecher (class of 1834) believed that coeducation was economical and egalitarian, and that the integration already found in other aspects of social and cultural life should extend to education. Those opposed were primarily social conservatives who worried that bringing women into colleges would distract male students, lower academic standards, and cause women to neglect or forgo marriage and motherhood. Dr. Edward Clarke of Harvard College argued that coeducational universities would lead to feminized men and “undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems” in women.*
The coeducation debate was going strong during the Amherst College fiftieth anniversary celebrations of 1871. Two women had applied for admission, and a committee had been formed to consider the matter. One proposal under consideration was a merger between Amherst and Smith College. Both Henry Ward Beecher (class of 1834) and former Massachusetts Governor Alexander H. Bullock (class of 1836) advocated strongly for coeducation in the public addresses they delivered on July 12. Bullock went so far as to offer an endowed scholarship for a qualified woman (the funds were never allocated). Their words are preserved in Exercises at The Semi-Centennial of Amherst College, available in Archives and Special Collections and excerpted in the Coeducation Collection. The comments of Beecher and Bullock and Amherst Student articles on the subject provide valuable information about nineteenth century thought on the value of higher education for both women and men. Debates over the merits and failures of coeducation continue, though the issues central to these conversations have evolved alongside cultural attitudes about gender and education.
The Amherst College Coeducation Collection was digitized as part of the Five College Archives Digital Access Project in 1999. The digital collection can be accessed online at the Five College Archives Digital Access Project.
An exhibit organized to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the matriculation of the first coeducational class, Images of Coeducation: 25 Years, is also available for viewing online.
For more information about Women’s History Month, visit The National Women’s History Project.
*Clarke, Edward H., Sex in Education, or, A Fair Chance for the Girls, Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1873. [see also Julia Ward Howe’s response, Sex and Education; a reply to Dr. E.H. Clarke’s “Sex in Education,” 1874.]