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Beneath Thy Guiding Hand: A History of Women at the University of Delaware – Chapter 1

Chapter 1: The Beginnings

On October 28, 1884, an audience composed of both male and female students of Delaware College gathered in the college oratory to hear a speech by Belva Lockwood, an attorney and nationally known advocate of women’s rights. Mrs. Lockwood told the students that they were living in "The Era of Woman." "Today," she declared, "the woman question is the question of the hour." Great advances were sweeping the country, she said, as women were seizing long-denied opportunities to attend college and to participate with men in furthering the work of society. "There is a mental growth in the women of today unknown to most of the women of the past. It is but a little time since the intellectual woman was the rare exception; now, she is a feature of society…." Women had proved their intellectual equality with men and had thus laid to rest the arguments of the conservative doubters who had proclaimed them the "weaker sex," fit only for the narrow sphere of home life. The advance of women, Belva Lockwood proclaimed, was the keystone of that progressive momentum of the age "that no conservatism can hold back, no sneer dispel, and no state legislature legislate out of existence." She urged that women be educated to move beyond the single goal of marriage to embrace a broader, more equal partnership with men, "to think and act in the great battle of life."1

Belva Lockwood’s declaration that the day of women’s equality with men was at hand received favorable comment in The Review, then, as now, the student newspaper. Her speech was the highlight of the seventh anniversary of the Pestalozzi Literary Society, an organization of Delaware College women. Although "the woman question" still raged in many places, it seemed to have been settled in women’s favor at Delaware College, where women had been admitted on the same conditions as men for over a decade. Mrs. Lockwood’s arguments in support of women’s intellectual equality were familiar, not only to the small number of college-educated Americans of the time, but to the average newspaper reader as well. Her declaration of the inexorable advance of democratic social progress was also a common theme among late nineteenth-century American journalists, politicians, and other opinion-makers. Her audience accepted these ideas as representative of modern and progressive thinking. True, some educators, clergy members, and lecturers continued to hold to the old, familiar arguments that college work did irreparable injury to women’s delicate and volatile minds, harmed their capacity for reproduction, and encouraged them not to marry, but the evidence of experience had failed to sustain their fears and objections.

Although the issue of women’s participation in politics remained controversial, women’s access to higher education no longer appeared to be in doubt. By the 1870s, women were being admitted to over half of the collegiate institutions in America. There were a growing number of private colleges for women, of which Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, and Vassar were among the best known. In addition, some formerly all-male colleges had joined with coordinate women’s colleges that shared their faculty and resources. Of these, the "Harvard Annex," begun in 1879 and later named Radcliffe College, was the most conspicuous model. Although these elite, private institutions attracted much attention, the greatest inroads into the previously male domain of higher education had taken place at the state-supported colleges and universities established or expanded under the terms of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862. The University of Iowa had admitted women from its beginning in 1856. Cornell University and the University of Michigan were opened to women in 1870, and other state universities, especially those in the Middle West, followed soon after. The name given to this commingling of male and female students in the same courses and degree programs was "co-education." In 1873, the United States Commissioner of Education reported that more than 8,000 women were enrolled in co-educational colleges and universities throughout the country.2

Co-education became the policy at Delaware College in July 1872, when the Board of Trustees adopted an enlightened, although grammatically incorrect, resolution "that in future any Female that shall present herself to the Faculty of Delaware College for examination with a view to admission to the College as a student, the faculty are hereby authorized to admit them on the same terms and under the same regulations as male students are admitted."3 President William H. Purnell had proposed the resolution to the board at its spring meeting in March; but, in order to give the trustees time to consider the proposal carefully, it was not presented for a vote until the board’s summer meeting. The small number of trustees who attended the July meeting voted eight to three, with one abstention, to admit women. We know from a trustee’s diary entry that among the eight trustees who voted in favor of the resolution, at least one did so conditionally, and it is reasonable to assume that others also regarded the policy as an experiment.4

At that same meeting, the board authorized the faculty to establish a new course of study, to be called the Literary Course, which would lead to the degree, Bachelor of Literature. The Literary Course was to replicate the liberal-arts curriculum that led to the Bachelor of Arts, except that a modern language, typically French or German, would substitute for classical Greek. This variation from the standard liberal-arts curriculum was designed to attract those students, both male and female, who lacked training in the classical languages hut were otherwise ready to begin college-level work in preparation for careers in teaching.

One year later, the board accepted the faculty’s recommendation to make the Literary Course a three-year program of study that would not require the study of Latin or Greek, agriculture, or advanced mathematics. In addition, the board authorized a three-year diploma program in Normal Studies. Students in this non-degree program would take courses in geography, English grammar, higher arithmetic and algebra, elocution, bookkeeping, "and such other studies as may in the Judgment of the Faculty be necessary to prepare students pursuing this Course to become teachers in the common schools and grammar schools of the state."5 At a subsequent meeting, the board created a third degree program called the Scientific Course, also a three-year program that eliminated the classical languages.6

The admission of women was agreeable to the faculty, several of whom had college-age daughters. It also was initially popular among the students. Members of the Athenaean Society, a college literary and debating group, endorsed the board’s decision by giving a round of "hearty cheers" when they were informed of the new policy. It was, however, more controversial among board members. In spite of the land-grant monies, the college was impoverished and in sore need of student tuition dollars. Some saw the admission of female students as a means to enlarge the student body and to encourage the state legislature to provide funds for teacher education. Others were more skeptical, believing that the presence of women would discourage male students from coming to Delaware College and would overwhelm the college’s already inadequate resources.

The chief advocate for co-education at Delaware College was the president, William Henry Purnell. A native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Purnell had graduated from Delaware College in 1846. He brought a variety of professional experiences to his position as president, having practiced law, organized a volunteer regiment for the Union during the Civil War, and served as postmaster of Baltimore. In common with most of the preceding presidents of the college, Purnell was a Presbyterian, but he opposed narrow sectarianism and kept the college non-sectarian and open to scientific inquiry. Purnell’s varied background, not uncommon among nineteenth-century academic leaders, made him comfortable with the view of education embraced in the Land-Grant Act that linked the liberal arts to the practical, professional subjects of agriculture and engineering.

When Purnell was called to the presidency of his alma mater in 1870, the college was being reopened after a decade of inactivity. Delaware College proudly traced its origin back to Francis Alison’s colonial academy, but the institution had not received its collegiate charter from the state until 1833. In 1834, the building called Old College was completed, and the college opened its doors to an all-male student body consisting mostly of young men from Delaware and the nearby region. Plagued with low enrollments and chronic financial difficulties, the college had closed in 1859 just two years before the outbreak of the Civil War. During the war, Congress adopted the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which committed profits from the sale of United States government lands in the West to assist the development of state colleges where liberal arts, together with the practical subjects of agriculture and engineering, would be taught. Only when the Delaware General Assembly had designated Delaware College to receive the First State’s portion of these federal funds, were the trustees of the defunct institution able to reopen its doors.

In light of such negative factors as Delaware’s small population, popular indifference to education, the state’s modest share in the federal land-grant money, and the earlier failure of the college, the prospects for the revived institution were not bright. The faculty consisted of only five people, including the president. The physical facilities, library, and scientific equipment, all housed in Old College, were marginal. Given those conditions, the college might well have been unable to attract a student body large enough to sustain it. President Purnell’s proposal to admit young women was designed to increase the pool of potential students. Some people believed that the president and a few of the faculty and trustees were also looking for an opportunity to provide an inexpensive college education for their own daughters.

In the September term of 1872, six young women joined the freshman class. Unlike the men, many of whom lived in the college building, the women were required to find lodgings in private homes in Newark. Several of them were residents of the town and continued to live at home. Others found rooms with Hannah Chamberlain, who maintained an academy for girls nearby. There were no athletic activities for the women, nor were they expected to participate in military training, but in all other respects, the female students were treated like their male counterparts. George Morgan, a student at that time, recalled later that "they were at college only when in attendance upon classes. They were a well-grounded, bright lot, even decorous, and were gallantly treated."7 It was generally noted that the men’s behavior showed a marked improvement in the company of the women students.

Choice of curriculum was not restricted by sex. Most of the female students chose the Literary curriculum, but a few took the Classical or Scientific. In 1873, the state legislature enacted an "Act to aid Delaware College and to provide for the Education of Teachers for the Free Schools of this State." The bill provided scholarships for students from each county to attend the college in preparation for teaching within the state. This act, clearly related to the introduction of co-education at the Newark college, would have fulfilled its aim more successfully had the legislature concurrently established qualifications for teachers. The feebleness and equivocation of the legislature’s position on educational reform was further demonstrated in 1875, when the state discontinued the scholarships.

In June 1875, a class consisting of three female and two male students received Bachelor of Literature degrees on Commencement Day. These three women – Elizabeth S. Blandy, Harriette H. Curtis, and Ella Y. Mackey – were the first of their sex to join the alumni of Delaware College. All three were residents of Newark. Harriette Curtis was the daughter of a paper maker who had established the Curtis Mill at the edge of town on the White Clay Creek. The Blandys, another of Newark’s leading families, lived at Belmont Mansion on Quality Hill on West Main Street. Ella Mackey was the daughter of William D. Mackey, much beloved professor of ancient languages at the college. Both Harriette Curtis and Elizabeth Blandy had prepared for college at Hannah Chamberlain’s academy. During the 1860s, when the college had been closed, Miss Chamberlain conducted her school in Old College, and Harriette had earned the school mistress’ ire by coasting down the building’s broad, front steps on a sled.

In 1944, Harriette, long since married to her fellow Delaware College classmate Delaware Clark, had survived to become the oldest living graduate of Delaware College. In an interview in The University News, an alumni magazine, she recalled that the college had provided no recreation or sports program for its students, but that the students of both sexes enjoyed frequent social visits to the homes of leading Newark families, including her own home and that of the Blandys.8 In winter, the students – male and female – went ice skating on White Clay Creek above the paper mill dam. The men rented sleighs, which they raced on Main Street. In spring, the women watched from the windows in the Old College Oratory while the men played baseball. The most successful cooperative venture between the male and female students during the era of the first women’s class was a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals, which took place in 1873: Harriette played the role of Lydia Languish, and President Purnell served as director of the production. The play was presented before a packed house in the Oratory. The budget for the play was negligible: Newark ladies rummaged through their attics to supply eighteenth-century costumes and props. It was truly a community project that brought the men and women students, the college faculty, and the town of Newark into a single orbit. Unfortunately, this brave beginning in theatrical production had no sequel.

In 1876, a group of nine female students founded the Pestalozzi Literary Society, named in honor of the famous Swiss educational reformer. Their society was organized along the lines of the two male societies, the Athenaean and Delta Phi, both of which had been features of student life at Delaware College since the 1830s. The new society’s purpose was to encourage literary pursuits and companionship. Members met weekly in a room in the college building, designated by the president for their use. They required one another to write poems, short stories, and essays to be read at their meetings, and they debated such issues as, "Resolved: That the Native savage possesses a right to the soil" and ‘Resolved: Women should be allowed to vote." In 1881, the society established a monthly magazine, with the modest proclamation of its intention that it might become the "best monthly published in America."9 When the society failed to resolve the issue of the publication’s name, they called it No Name.

The No Name was handwritten to save on printing costs. In spite of its ephemeral appearance, copies of every issue have been preserved in the University Archives. The magazine provides a revealing window into the lives and thoughts of the society’s members. Although its editors strove to maintain a high-toned literary style and serious content, they often slipped into sarcastic commentary on local news. Every issue contained critiques of the presentations made at the most recent meetings of the society. Considering the small size and close interaction of the student body, the editors did not shrink from making statements that must have proved embarrassing to their classmates. The editors had clearly defined notions of how college women should behave, and they were determined to use the power of the press, even if only in manuscript, to encourage a high level of conduct and erudition. Infractions such as tardiness, lack of attentiveness during the Bible reading, failure to prepare adequately for the meetings, and frequent outbursts of "compulsive giggling" all came in for reprimand.

Of the eighty-one young women who attended Delaware College during the period of co-education, fifty were members of the Pestalozzi Society. It is difficult to say why the other thirty-one female students did not join. Perhaps they were not invited to do so, or perhaps they were not interested in associating with a society that had literary and feminist objectives. The Review, a publication dominated by male students, claimed that "the spirit of Woman’s Rights appears to have pervaded the Pestalozzi Society from the very beginning, and seems to be the characteristic spirit of the society."10

Although its weekly meetings were open only to members, the society had an impact on the life of the college as a whole. It sponsored dramatic entertainments and lectures to which the entire student body was invited. Innocuous artistic tableaux illustrating such religious themes as "Rock of Ages" and "Simply to the Cross I Cling" were among the Pestalozzians’ renditions. But, the society was also a voice for political and social change, as, for example, in its advocacy of educational reform in Delaware’s schools. True to their uncompromising spirit of frankness, the editors of the No Name, once described the state’s legislators as "narrow-minded and pig-headed" for their failure to address the needs of Delaware s "shamefully inadequate schools."11 The society also aroused student interest in the issue of greater rights for women. It was the Pestalozzians who brought Belva Lockwood to speak at the college and sponsored a lecture by America’s most renowned feminist, Susan B. Anthony.

Not all of the society’s themes were so high-minded. Commentary in the No Name dealt with a variety of student concerns. There were occasional nods to fashion (blue skirts and grey overdresses were popular in 1881) and references to recreational outings, such as ice skating and roller skating, which became quite the rage in the early 1880s. One revealing entry notes that "we have no objection to our lady members smoking cigarette stumps, but would advise them not to make use of the articles during society hours."12 In another issue, the editors discussed the recent visit to Newark of a group of girls from Philadelphia who flirted with the male students "which we Pestalozzi girls do not deign to notice."13 In 1884, the presidential election in which James G. Blaine, Republican, faced Grover Cleveland, Democrat, also excited much interest and debate among the Pestalozzians.

The picture that emerges of the female students in the Purnell presidency is one of a group of somewhat parochial young women (about half of whom came from Newark and most others from nearby) who were adequately prepared to do college work and who affected in their literary magazine a style of sarcastic camaraderie. These characteristics made them similar to their male counterparts. Their uniqueness lay in the fact that they attended college at a time when higher education for women was still experimental and controversial at Delaware College. They could never escape a sense of being on trial and of representing issues that transcended each of them as individuals. Most married after graduation; some became teachers. Two, including Carrie M. Purnell, daughter of the president, obtained advanced degrees in medicine at the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia and became physicians. Another, Sarah L. Mackey, sister of Ella, taught one term for her father, Professor Mackey, while he lay fatally ill in 1885. The first woman to teach at Delaware College, she married in the summer of 1885 and died the following year.

In June 1877, the Wilmington Every Evening and Commercial published a series of articles that dealt with the progress of coeducation at the college. The newspaper reported that the experiment had proved highly successful. President Purnell observed to the press that the young women were having an uplifting effect on the behavior of their male counterparts. Co-education, he said, was breaking down the artificial barriers that had heretofore separated the sexes and was giving men and women similar educational experiences. President Purnell was certain that co-education would encourage the women students to look beneath the surface of their male classmates, finding their more solid qualities, and he felt that the shared educational experience would assist the women to become more sympathetic and helpful wives.14

The president’s argument for co-education aimed to overcome doubts among conservative-minded people by appealing to their belief that women should retain their traditional role in the home. Purnell’s appeal to traditional values in order to promote greater educational opportunities for women revealed his sensitivity to the political and social realities of his time. Whether the college women did perform their roles as wives and mothers more sympathetically or intelligently as a result of their college experience cannot be said for certain, but the record does indicate that over half the female graduates did marry within a few years of their graduation and most others probably married later.

Late twentieth-century people are inclined to interpret statements such as those made by President Purnell to justify co-education as examples of the tradition-bound nature of Victorian society. Such an interpretation, however, ignores the fact that swift and dramatic changes were taking place in post-Civil War America. Railroads, industrialization, and urbanization were altering the landscape and the lives of millions of people. Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection excited debate between religious conservatives and scientists that set the educational enterprise at odds with accepted theological beliefs.

The women’s rights movement, which included access to higher education as a cornerstone of its agenda, was part of the swirl of change. It is hardly surprising that the women’s movement met with resistance and that, to be effective, advocates of new opportunities for women were compelled to express their views in terms of traditional social relationships. In that era of woman," higher education for females was a new and radical idea, no matter how it was justified.

Enrollment of women students at Delaware College reached its peak in the year 1875-76 and then declined. By the mid-1880s, women represented a mere handful of the total student body. It is difficult to explain that trend except to note the narrowness of the geographical base from which the students were drawn, the refusal of Delaware’s legislature to require teachers to attend college and the lack of special facilities for women at Delaware College. Perhaps, also, continued hostility of some members of the Board of Trustees to co-education discouraged women’s enrollment.

In spite of warm support from the president and faculty, coeducation did not become woven into the fabric of the college. The area of greatest controversy developed over the awarding of student honors. The short explanation of this tension was that the male students resented the awarding of honors to their female classmates, but that interpretation of the problem is simplistic and unfair. What the men objected to was the fact that students who took the Literary course, most of whom were women, were placed in the same category for honors as were those who took the classical curriculum with its emphasis on the mastery of Greek and Latin and its required work in advanced mathematics.

The honors issue reached its highest intensity in 1885 when Grace Darling Chester, daughter of a professor of science, was named class valedictorian. Miss Chester, who pursued the Scientific course, was described by The Review as a "diligent student," but she had been permitted to substitute three classes in botany privately taught, most likely by her father, for regular science classes. The male students cried "foul," and the salutatorian refused to participate in the commencement program.15 Grace Chester must have been mortified by the publicity the contretemps provoked, for she failed to attend the class dinner. But the next morning, she gathered her courage and appeared before the large crowd at the commencement exercises to give a speech, entitled "Pasteur as a Scientist," and to receive her Bachelor of Science degree.16 The next year, she began teaching at the Female Seminary in Frederick, Maryland.

It was in the context of this increasingly contentious atmosphere that a majority of the members of the Board of Trustees decided to end their experiment in co-education. On June 24, 1885, by a majority vote of thirteen to eight, the board adopted the following: "Resolved: That the system of co-education in Delaware College be, and is hereby abolished; provided that all students already matriculated may at their option finish their collegiate course." At this same meeting, in what must have been a closely related matter, the board accepted the resignation of William H. Purnell as president.17 Thus ended the first attempt to introduce women students into Delaware College.

Opponents always maintained that co-education had a negative effect on male enrollments. There is no evidence to support that claim; in fact, enrollments declined in the wake of the board’s rejection of women students. It is possible, however, that some young men chose not to come to Delaware to avoid co-education. More important was the state legislature’s withdrawal of its short-lived support for future teachers and its failure to establish college attendance as a requirement for public-school teachers. Those actions caused Delaware College a significant loss of revenue at a time when the college was inadequately financed and was hoping in vain for ongoing assistance from the state.

To say that co-education was a reform whose time had not yet come explains nothing. By the 1880s, co-education had become well entrenched at many colleges, especially those that received support from land-grant endowments. Nor could it be argued that the women who went to Delaware College had disgraced themselves, either intellectually or socially. On the contrary, women had been consistently numbered among the best scholars. The only scandal associated with co-education occurred a year after the board had voted to abolish it, when a female student was discovered locked in a young man’s room in Old College. Both students were expelled. At the time that co-education was abolished, eighty-one young women had matriculated at the college, and thirty-two of them had graduated-a graduation rate of forty-six percent. During that same period, 214 men attended Delaware, and eighty-five of them graduated, which represented a graduation rate of forty percent.18

The members of the Pestalozzi Society were so incensed by the board’s action that they used their meager funds to print a pamphlet to proclaim their view of it in their usual uncompromising style. "Delaware College is the only institution of learning in the civilized world that has excluded young ladies after admitting them," the editors wrote. They attacked as spurious the argument that coeducation was harmful to the male students: "The young men have never been more studious and orderly than since the admission of young ladies." Nor did they give credence to the contention that the presence of female students deterred male enrollments. But suppose there are a few such, should their ignorant and unreasonable prejudice be allowed to dictate the policy of a State Institution of learning, the very object of which should be to dispel prejudice and enlighten the people?… The only college in the little Diamond State is henceforth a thing tabooed to those of our sex who desire to avail themselves of its educational advantages. It is a hard judgment, but we will possess our soul in patience and await with confidence the sober second thoughts to right this injustice."19

The women of Delaware would wait a long time "to right this injustice." Nearly thirty years separated the demise of co-education in 1885 from the creation of the Women’s College in 1914. The real reasons behind this hiatus must be sought in Delawareans’ apathetic attitudes toward public education during those years: The state’s refusal both to improve its deplorable public schools and to provide significant support for higher education. It was the classic chicken-and-egg situation: Delaware public schools were too inadequate to prepare students for college, and Delaware College lacked the students and the incentive to supply teachers to the schools. The college trustees were unwilling to stretch their modest resources in support of co-education in view of the state’s indifference to teacher training. Young women of the Diamond State would not return to college classrooms until there was a groundswell of public support for improvements in education at every level. Only then would the "era of woman" that Belva Lockwood had so ardently proclaimed in Old College in 1884 become a reality in Delaware.