Select Page
... documenting the history of the University of Delaware

Beneath Thy Guiding Hand: A History of Women at the University of Delaware – Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Reform

In 1897, Louise Staton was among eight girls and four boys who graduated from Newark High School. When Louise’s father, a Baptist minister, had died several years before, her mother had moved to a house in Newark where she boarded students from Delaware College to extend her slender income. Louise was an outstanding student who loved learning and hoped for a career in teaching. I wanted to go to college very, very much," she wrote many years later. "I realized that the education that I had so far was only a foundation and I hoped to broaden it. I was bitter against the Board of Trustees of Delaware College for refusing admission to women-both on my account and for the other girls in my class."1

Louise Staton was not alone in her feelings of frustration with the trustees’ policy. Just two years later, the Delaware College junior class annual, Aurora,urged the trustees to admit women. The publication’s editor, Everett C. Johnson, argued that Delaware’s failure to provide higher education for women had put the little state seriously behind the times and that the influence of female students would improve the quality of education for the college’s male students. The Aurora’s editor reminded his readers that girls made up the preponderance of high school graduates in the state and that many of them "would be glad of the chance to secure a college education," were they offered the opportunity. The junior annual called for the return of co-education to Delaware College, not only because it was just, but because the separation of the sexes was artificial. The series concluded with a ringing appeal: "In the midst of our intermingling hope and anxiety, we, the Junior Class of Delaware College, with all the ardor, zeal, and determination that our young hearts possess, call upon our faculty, our trustees, our alumnae, the various Woman’s Century Clubs throughout the state, and all other individuals and societies who are interested in the future manhood of Delaware, to join us in our earnest appeal for the equal education of our boys and girls, which apparently can only be accomplished by adopting co-education at Delaware College."2

The Aurora’s fervent entreaty touched a chord of sympathy and support in Delaware, where efforts to improve education were at last taking shape. In 1891, a federal law required states to provide land-grant educational opportunities to all citizens, regardless of race. Delaware was a segregated state. Rather than admit black students to Delaware College, the state chartered Delaware State College for black students. The new collegiate institution, located in Dover, accepted students of both sexes from the first. In 1897, the year in which Louise Staton graduated from high school, Delaware adopted a new state constitution that made state government responsible for public education. This was a necessary first step to addressing the educational needs of an overwhelmingly rural state, where shanty-like, one-room schools, maintained by ill-educated and ill-equipped teachers, were commonplace. In the years that followed, educational reformers emphasized the importance of teacher training as a key component to improving the state’s public schools.

During those same years, the Delaware College Board of Trustees was cautiously reassessing its position on co-education. In addition to pressures from those who wished to see the college play a role in providing a better educational system in Delaware, some members of the board were also concerned about the future of farming in the state. Throughout America, and especially in areas such as Delaware where agriculture was stagnating, young people were abandoning farm life to seek opportunities in the burgeoning cities. America’s rural communities looked to their state land-grant colleges to counter this trend. In 1907, the Delaware College Trustee Committee on Agriculture visited several leading land-grant universities to observe their practices and noted that co-education "was proving a great success" at those institutions. The members of the committee were deeply impressed" at viewing young women from rural areas engaged in studying domestic science and believed that they will play no unimportant part in solving the question of keeping the young people on the farm."3

At the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the Board of Trustees of Delaware College was required to request an extension of its state charter. The reincorporation procedure gave the state legislature an unusual opportunity to make demands of the college’s trustees. The board found itself in the unaccustomed position of being obliged to bend to growing public opinion and to the view of some of its concerned board members that something be done about women’s education.

The president of Delaware College at that critical juncture was George A. Harter, a former professor of mathematics. Harter faced a quandary. Like most of the board, he opposed the reintroduction of co-education at Delaware College on the grounds that the college lacked the physical and financial resources to assimilate female students. On that point, the majority opinion among the trustees had not changed since the 1880s. But Harter and the board now feared that the state might charter a separate college for women to train teachers, one with its own board of trustees and its own claim to scarce state and federal funds. The cautious president thought carefully about this dilemma. He then recommended a solution designed to educate women and yet avoid co-education, while at the same time maintaining Delaware College’s control over the state’s educational resources.

In November 1910, he unveiled his plan for women’s higher education in an address before the Wilmington New Century Club. The president had chosen his audience well. The New Century Club was an organization of about 500 women from Wilmington’s leading families who met together to promote philanthropy and social reform, to hold social functions, and to pursue self-improvement. Founded in 1889, Wilmington’s New Century Club was part of a network of women’s clubs that extended throughout the United States. The Wilmington club was the oldest and largest among the state’s fifteen women’s clubs and the leader of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs.

The club movement was one manifestation of two inter-related phenomena at the turn of the century: The Progressive Movement and the effort of American women to redefine and expand their roles in society. It was an exciting time of national renewal. Progressives urgently sought solutions to the problems associated with late-nineteenth-century industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Optimistic and pragmatic, the Progressives sought to restore a national spirit of shared community responsibility without sacrificing the benefits of material progress. They had a broad agenda that included legislation to curb business excesses and to provide greater opportunities for self-improvement to all Americans.

The Progressive Movement gave a tremendous boost to longstanding efforts by feminists to gain equal rights for women. As the nation’s greatest, under-used resource, women played leading roles in addressing social problems identified by the Progressives and in establishing new professions designed to respond to those problems. According to the tenets of Victorian culture, women were, by nature, self-sacrificing, sensitive to the needs of others, and nurturing-all traits suited to address the social and educational agenda of the Progressives. America’s best-known example of a Progressive woman activist was Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, who helped define social work as a profession. The Progressive Era witnessed a dramatic growth in the number of women seeking baccalaureate and graduate degrees, together with an opening of opportunities for women to become teachers, researchers, government workers, and nurses, as well as administrators of social and educational agencies.

The club women were not paid professionals, but volunteers, raised in the genteel tradition of upper-middle-class American life. They have been called "domestic feminists" because they did not aspire to overturn their traditional home and family roles, but rather to extend home values into the wider world.4 As reformers, club women were especially active on behalf of programs to assist children and working women.5 In Delaware, where public education had been so long neglected, its improvement headed the list of their concerns.

Among the Wilmington club’s members, the most committed was Emalea Pusey Warner, daughter of Lea Pusey, a Quaker mill owner, and wife of Alfred D. Warner, the president of his family’s shipping firm. Emalea Warner was an enormously energetic and effective campaigner for numerous reforms. As a young matron in the 1880s, she had been responsible for coordinating Wilmington’s charities, and she kept the New Century Club focused on issues of broad social concern, including education, prison reform, and public health. Emalea Warner believed that the problems that confronted modern society could be solved only through the active involvement of committed women. She championed higher education for women as the single most important means to achieve those goals and to widen the world of women beyond that of their private homes and family life. From the perspective of the club women, especially that of Emalea Warner, President Harter came with a very timely and important message.

He hardly needed to remind his audience of the embarrassing fact that Delaware was unique among the states in providing no collegiate institution for its daughters. Noting the earlier failure of co-education at the college he proposed an alternative: The creation of an affiliated, or coordinate, Women’s College. The new institution would be located in Newark, would occupy buildings separate from those used by the men’s institution, and would exercise a degree of autonomy. But, it would be tied to Delaware College and its board and share the use of the established institution’s resources.

The president’s proposal was met with a hearty endorsement from the club women, who were delighted that those in authority were finally willing to consider including women in the college. Emalea Warner saw in this proposal the opportunity for the women’s clubs of Delaware to take on their greatest challenge to date. In her capacity as chairwoman of the state federation’s Education Committee, she mobilized the club women and represented them in pushing the proposal to its realization. Without her leadership, the Women’s College might well have collapsed before it was begun, and Delaware’s daughters would have waited even longer for the opportunity to attend a state-assisted college.

Emalea Warner opened the campaign by sending letters to important people throughout the First State asking for their support. Her letters brought the issue before leaders of opinion and uncovered their individual attitudes toward it. One important state-wide organization that adopted the cause was the Grange, or Patrons of Husbandry, Delaware’s largest and most politically powerful farm organization. The Grange created a committee to lobby on behalf of the cause. Although Governor Caleb S. Penniwell gave only a tepid endorsement, his successor, Governor Charles R. Miller, a lawyer with degrees from Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, who became governor in 1913, was a strong advocate. President Harter, expressing his willingness to work with Mrs. Warner s committee, said: "Let us work for a coordinate college that will offer to the girls of Delaware the same kind of an education that Delaware College has been offering to the boys. Let it not only be a normal school, a school of domestic science, but a school that embraces the whole range of college activity."6

During 1912, a coalition was forged among the women’s clubs, the Grange, President Harter, the director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Delaware College, and the states Board of Education to work for enabling legislation. In April of that year, representatives of the Board of Education visited a number of institutions of higher learning in New England to gather ideas about how a coordinate college might be organized. Among the potential models, the committee members were most strongly impressed by the relationship between Brown University and its sister institution, Pembroke College. A woman dean administered Pembroke under the general supervision of the president of Brown and that university’s board. That was the plan finally implemented in Delaware. The committee also took note of the layout, equipment, buildings, and curricula at several New England coordinate colleges and women’s colleges. In October 1912, the committee met with a subcommittee of the Delaware College board to work out the basic structure of an affiliated Women’s College, to be conducted under the control of the entire board. Responsibility for the proposed Women’s College was written into the new charter for Delaware College, which the General Assembly adopted in February 1913.7

The next month, the legislators considered a hill to create the Women’s College. As the date for the vote on the hill approached, Emalea Warner campaigned vigorously. She wrote letters admonishing supporters to ceaseless work, for "the hour of our active and united effort to secure the passage of the Woman’s College Bill is now at hand." She also supervised the creation and dissemination of a poster addressed "TO THE PEOPLE OF DELAWARE." From the opening line – "DO YOU KNOW-That Delaware is the only state without an institution of higher education for women?," the message was loud and clear.8

On March 19, 1913, the Delaware General Assembly passed the Women’s College bill. An avalanche of letters and telegrams from club women, Grange members, and other friends had secured large majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The law created a commission that was charged with overseeing the construction of the college’s buildings. Governor Miller chaired the commission, but Emalea Warner, the only female commissioner, was its most active member. The commissioners purchased a nineteen-acre farm, located less than one mile south of the Delaware College buildings on the Depot Road that led from Newark to the Pennsylvania Railroad station. They hired Lausatt Rogers, an architect from New Castle, to design two structures, a residence hall and a building for laboratories and classrooms. Construction bids were let to local contractors, and ground was broken on June 16, 1913, less than three months after adoption of the enabling legislation.

While construction of the college buildings was under way, the commissioners collaborated with the Delaware College board to secure a dean, a faculty and a student body. Selection of the dean was the first order of business. In August, the Delaware College board defined the person it sought as one "who shall be a woman of liberal learning, adequate experience, and undoubted character and ability to organize and put into successful operation such courses of study as the Board of Trustees may adopt."9 By November, they had found in Winifred Josephine Robinson, an assistant professor of botany at Vassar College, a candidate who inspired every confidence that she could fulfill those demanding conditions.

Winifred Robinson was forty-six years old when she accepted the challenge to create a new Women’s College in Delaware. Reared in Battle Creek, Michigan, she had grown up in the women’s world of her grandmother’s home, with her aunt and her widowed mother. Although she dreamed of going to college after completing high school, her family lacked the funds; so she rolled up her hair to signify her coming of age and taught school. It took six years for her to earn enough money to attend the state normal school in Ypsilanti. Through persistent effort, she completed a baccalaureate degree at the University of Michigan in 1899, at the age of thirty-one. After graduation, she moved to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, as an assistant in botany. She continued her education at Columbia University where she earned a Master of Arts in 1904 and a Ph.D. in botany in 1912. Her botanical work took her to interesting places around the world, including Hawaii, Germany, and Jamaica. During her years at Vassar, she spent most summers at the New York Botanical Garden, working with colleagues in her field and occasionally enjoying the theater and concerts that the city offered. In 1913, however, she accepted the post of Dean of Women at the University of Wisconsin Summer School. That position gave her experience in managing large numbers of college women in residence halls and sorority houses and whetted her appetite for the opportunity that beckoned in Delaware.10

The chance to shape a new public institution designed to extend educational opportunities for women captured Dr. Robinson’s enthusiasm and overcame her reluctance to leave the comfortable world of Vassar. After a preliminary visit to Delaware as Emalea Warner’s guest, the future dean wrote to her hostess to express thanks for her "charming hospitality" and to continue the dialog that they had begun about the great object of their mutual concern. "I had intended to learn every line of the Princess (my part in Love’s Labour’s Lost which we are planning to give) on the train but my head was so full of your great ideal for the Woman’s College that I kept turning plans over in my mind and never a word did I learn." The letter continued with suggestions for the arrangement of the college dining room, the layout of an athletic field, and the installation of cooking apparatus on each floor of the residence hall so that the students could make tea.11

When Emalea Warner replied a few days later, she showed her enthusiasm by using a Quaker salutation, "My dear Friend." Hoping that Winifred Robinson would accept the position at Delaware, she wrote, "your coming to us…will be a new day for little Delaware and a fresh page will be written in our history. We are going to help you tremendously – dear good women of this state whom I know you will love when you can touch their lives and they will love you."12

The tone of the Winifred Robinson-Emalea Warner correspondence suggests that, from the beginning of their long collaboration, these two remarkable women shared a vision of what the college might become. They were a powerful team. Emalea Warner had a well-defined purpose in mind and a prominent social position in the community. Dignified and determined, "she had a presence that would not be denied," a member of the first class at the Women’s College later recalled.13

Dean Robinson’s contribution was her experience in teaching and administration at a women’s college. She was described by a perceptive colleague at Vassar as "a leader among her friends" and as an individual who had demonstrated "an unusual ability in dealing with young women."14 Like many of her students, she had come from an economically disadvantaged, small-town background, and through sheer determination, had earned a professorship in a respected institution. She was thoroughly familiar with each of the prevailing systems of women’s higher education, the co-educational plan of her native Midwestern state universities, the women’s college world of Vassar, and the affiliated relationship that bound Barnard College to Columbia University. From those experiences, Dean Robinson had formed strong convictions about the most effective organization of a women’s college. She held equally strong views concerning not only the living arrangements and social life of the students but also their curriculum and potential careers.

Both Emalea Warner and Winifred Robinson were women moved by powerful convictions and for both, in their different ways, the creation of the Women’s College was to be the greatest adventure and achievement of their lives. Mrs. Warner kept beautifully organized scrapbooks, filled with letters, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia concerning the creation and early life of the college, all of which are now located in the Archives of the University of Delaware. She dedicated the scrapbooks to: "Winifred Robinson, Dean of the Women’s College, whose vision, scholarship, inspiration, and efficient administration won for it Honor and Success."15

Dr. Robinson made a favorable impression on the Delaware College Board of Trustees, and, in November 1913, President Harter offered her the position of dean at an annual salary of $2,000. The dean was expected to live in the residence hall, and her room and board constituted an important part of her compensation. The president was also authorized to inquire about Dr. Robinson’s religious affiliation, "not that membership in any particular church is required, but that we may assure them [the board] of the Christian character of one for such a responsible position."16

The new dean began her duties in the early months of 1914. There was much to do to complete and furnish the buildings and to attract a faculty and a student body. In the spring, Dean Robinson and Emalea Warner toured the state, meeting club women and addressing high school seniors. Their visits attracted considerable attention. A newspaper reporter who covered their visit to Wilmington High School commented that the dean "made a decidedly favorable impression" on the students.

Dean Robinson sat on the stage of the school auditorium, together with the principal and Mrs. Warner. She was probably the first woman with a Ph.D. whom the students had ever seen. The newspaper reporter wrote, "She is of pleasing appearance, of medium height, fair in complexion and of slender figure. Her personality is altogether kindly and she made the girls at the High School feel that she is interested in them for their own sakes, and not merely that they may be part of an educational institution."17 When she got up to speak, she disarmed the students with her directness. "I really came just to see you," she said, and proceeded to describe the advantages of a college education and the joys of college life. Her parting words were, "I hope you’ll all come to college, we look to you to give it backbone. I shall expect to see many of you there in September 1914." Later, at a smaller meeting in a classroom, the dean encouraged students to be independent and self-reliant. "I would rather you would do something I don’t want you to do than to wait to be told what to do. I want you to be in the college life, and not only to be interested in everything there, but in the people who can’t come to college. You will lead there a simple, comfortable, hospitable life."18

How much Louise Staton would have thrilled to Dean Robinson’s words had they been spoken at her high school seventeen years before. Many young women in Delaware who could have been enriched by a college education had never been offered the opportunity. But, finally, all obstacles had been overcome and the State of Delaware was offering its daughters a college of their own. Excitement at the prospect of Delaware’s taking its place among the other states in making that opportunity available captured the imaginations of many people. As one newspaper editorialized, "At this college you may discover your talent or your inclination-your fitness for home, church, social, and business or professional life will be developed."19 Tuition to Delaware residents was free, and room and board cost a modest $200 a year. Students who lived nearby could live at home and commute at little cost.

But how many would come? Would the efforts of so many advocates be vindicated? Had students really been impressed by Dean Robinson’s appeals? The answers to those questions still hung in the balance as the construction workers completed the final touches on the college buildings and the furniture trucks pulled up to deposit their cargoes.