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... documenting the history of the University of Delaware

Beneath Thy Guiding Hand: A History of Women at the University of Delaware – Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Merger

On a beautiful May afternoon in 1935, the Delaware Federation of Women’s Clubs dedicated a rose garden at the Women’s College to Dean Winifred Robinson, whom they praised for her "wise guidance and gentle leadership."1 The gesture was timely, because Winifred Robinson, at the age of sixty-seven, was fast approaching retirement. Only three years later, a Wilmington newspaper headline proclaimed, "Delaware’s Foremost Woman to Retire." The small-town girl from Michigan who had struggled so conscientiously to acquire an education and had abandoned a promising career as a botanist to found a college for women in the First State was praised as a gentlewoman of courage and fortitude whose lift is a monument of service for others."2 In retirement, the dean planned to leave Delaware. She continued to follow her established pattern of spending her summers in rural Vermont, but she substituted Florida for Delaware in the winters.

On the surface, Dean Robinson’s life and work appeared as triumphant as the newspaper coverage suggested, but behind the celebratory facade, she had reason to fear for the future of the college. Her concerns were well-known within the University of Delaware. At a dinner held in Kent Dining Hall in April 1938 to honor her, Dean Robinson reflected on the development and present situation of the institution she had shaped. After making the obligatory reminiscences about he early years of struggle to establish the college, she noted that the future of women’s higher education was not secure. The young women of the First World War era had viewed college work as preparation for the careers they saw awaiting them, but since that time, the national mood had shifted away from accepting the concept of careers for women. Since 1926, the number of American women seeking graduate training had steadily decreased, while established women scholars increasingly complained of their low pay and low status in American universities.3 The Women’s College, she said, was a bulwark set against those forces that would marginalize women scholars, deny women equal access to education, and keep women from pursuing careers. But the ideals that Dean Robinson embodied were no longer in fashion and, with her passing, those ideals lost their best champion in Delaware.

Seven years later, in 1945, when the Women’s College officially merged with Delaware College, the creation of a co-educational University of Delaware had the appearance of inevitability. The shift from coordinate education to co-education seemed not unlike the gently rising ocean tide, which by 1926, had so undermined the foundation of another Delaware landmark, the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, that the building suddenly collapsed into the sea. The comparison is instructive. As a physical reality, the lighthouse entirely disappeared, though to this day it lives on in hundreds of paintings, clay sculptures and relics. In fact, the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse remains one of Delaware’s best-known symbols. In contrast, nearly all of the Women’s College buildings are still standing and remain vital parts of the modern University of Delaware. Science Hall and Residence Hall are now aptly named in honor of Winifred Robinson and Emalea Warner, respectively. The women’s gymnasium, named for Beatrice Hartshorn, is now home to the University’s Professional Theatre Training Program. But, hardly any of the thousands of students and hundreds of faculty who pass by or through the former women’s campus are aware that it was once a place set apart. Few today even know there was a Women’s College, so far has it receded from collective memory.

It would be too easy to attribute the merger to the retirement of Dean Robinson or, alternatively, to the impact of the Second World War. The dean had been an implacable foe of joining the two schools and the special circumstances of wartime served as a catalyst to co-education. However, neither event was, in itself, responsible. The seeds of the merger must be sought elsewhere.

President Walter Hullihen had never been convinced of the value of the coordinate model. In 1928, responding to a query about co-education, he described Delaware’s coordinate plan as "old-fashioned" in its insistence on different courses and regulations for men and women students. He believed that coordinate education was neither cost-effective nor good pedagogy. "Our regulations," he wrote, "forbid [men and women] being combined in a single class. This seems to me an indefensible increase in our overhead costs and is prejudicial to good teaching."4 Throughout his long presidency, which lasted from 1920 until his death in 1944, Hullihen pressed for a unification of Delaware College and the Women’s College. Nearly all of the major buildings constructed during his administration were designed to bring men and women students together, not to set them apart. The Memorial Library, built in 1924, combined the libraries of the two colleges in one building located in the middle of the Mall, halfway between the two campuses. In the years that followed, Hullihen clustered other new buildings in close proximity to Memorial Hall, thus creating a new campus, symbolically located halfway between the original Delaware College and the Women’s College.

With each succeeding construction of a University building, the president pre-empted Dean Robinson’s efforts to maintain the separation of the sexes. In vain, the dean sought for state funds to build a student union building and a new classroom-laboratory for the Women’s College. In 1929, she almost succeeded in the latter quest when the University Board of Trustees voted its support for a classroom-laboratory to take pressure off overcrowded Science Hall. The request went before the state legislature just as the effects of the stock market crash were wreaking havoc with the economy, so, in spite of subsequent annual appeals by the dean, the state never funded the building.

In the 1930s, while building projects at the Women’s College languished for want of support, Delaware College and the University as a whole found a new champion in H. Fletcher Brown, a DuPont Company executive who dedicated his fortune to the education of the common man and the advancement of science. In 1935, Brown announced his intention to provide a modern building for chemistry and chemical engineering for the University. With his gift, the University built a large, handsome structure facing the Mall on the Delaware College side of Memorial Library. In 1937, Brown offered to build a structure identical to the chemical laboratory, to be located on the opposite side of the Mall. This building was to house the Delaware College humanities departments, humanities classrooms, graduate education, and the University administration.

More than any previous building project, the construction of this humanities-graduate education-administration building, which was at first called University Hall, foreshadowed the dissolution of coordinate education at Delaware. Dean Robinson and the Women’s College faculty saw the building project as a deliberate attempt to encourage co-educational classes and to redirect the University away from basic undergraduate education and toward advanced scholarship. The dean explained her opposition to the construction project in a letter to a member of the Georgetown, Delaware, school board. Declaring that "buildings are tools," she argued that the proposed building was designed to promote scholarship in various academic disciplines aimed at the best students of both sexes, in place of the Women’s College’s concept of integrating many disciplines in order to prepare female students for "their probable life work."5

University Hall provided a concrete symbol for a debate that absorbed the faculties of the Women’s College and Delaware College throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. Fundamentally, the question was whether the University should be reorganized around disciplines rather than remain divided into two, gender-specific units. As early as 1932, the faculty of Delaware College had taken a stand in favor of a discipline-based organization that would reduce the repetition of courses and promote research scholarship. Those Delaware College faculty who taught classes in the Women’s College could not develop advanced courses, much less find time for research, so long as they were required to teach an endless round of the same beginning-level courses in both institutions.

The Women’s College faculty argued for retaining the status quo. Some of them, particularly the younger women, recognized the limitations and redundancies inherent in the dual college system, but they had reason to fear for their careers should they come under the control of their male colleagues. The women faculty argued against academic reorganization. Noting that "coeducation does not bring out the best efforts of the woman student," they observed that "in a mixed group, the men express themselves, the women are passive." The women faculty also declared that co-education would deprive women students of opportunities for leadership in extracurricular activities and that co-educational classes would be directed toward the needs of male students at the expense of the needs of female students. With respect to their own situation, the women faculty cited studies done in co-educational universities to show that once men and women faculty were integrated, the women faculty were stuck in the lowest ranks.6

In spite of these protests from the Women’s College, President Hullihen and the faculty of Delaware College pressed on toward co-education. The composition of the University’s Board of Trustees had changed since the time when the board had accepted responsibility for women students only on condition that they be educated separately. The board was no longer controlled by small- town men with parochial views, but was in the hands of more cosmopolitan men who had big-business connections and whose goals for the University embraced scientific research and graduate study. Co-education was not threatening to them. Uniting the two, sex-segregated colleges would reduce costs and would free faculty to direct more time toward research and the teaching of more advanced courses. The construction of University Hall went forward with the board’s approval, and the building was completed in 1940. It is particularly appropriate that University Hall was renamed Hullihen Hall in 1944, shortly after the death of the president who had been its chief promoter.

In 1938, in the midst of uncertainty over the future of coordinate education at Delaware, the University undertook a search for a new dean of the Women’s College. The successful candidate was Marjory Steuart Golder, widow of an English professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and mother of two young children. Mrs. Golder’s life course had been very different from that of her predecessor, and her selection, over a host of other candidates, signaled a new direction for the college and a new type of role model for its students. Marjory Golder was the daughter of a well-connected Washington lawyer. She was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Northwestern University, held a Master of Arts from Columbia University, and had taught English in high school in El Paso, Texas. She had postponed completion of a Ph.D. at Radcliffe College to marry and rear a family. Just before coming to Delaware, she had served as the registrar and assistant to the dean at American University. She had not had to struggle for the opportunity to attend college, and she had set aside the life of scholarship to marry, only to be led back into a career by the death of her husband. A refined and gracious woman, Dean Golder supported the retention of the Women’s College, but she was unable to hold back change.

It was indicative of the new atmosphere that, in the same year in which Mrs. Golder came to Delaware, the University offered its first co-educational courses during a regular session. At first, coeducation extended to only a few upper-level courses, but within two years, most advanced courses had become co-educational. By 1940, women students regularly attended humanities classes with men in University Hall; and Women’s College chemistry faculty members-Quaesira Drake and Elizabeth Dyer-were teaching some of their courses in the previously all-male chemistry building, now named Brown Laboratory.

As the academic rationale for coordinate education was dissolving at Delaware, support for continuing the separate social life of the women’s campus was also collapsing. The first major challenge to Dean Robinson’s elaborate system of controls had come in 1931, when women students protested against the ban on smoking. Initially the students dared not suggest that smoking be permitted on the Women’s College campus but they did seek the right to smoke elsewhere in Newark. They also sought the right to accept rides in cars within the town without securing permission from the student governing board.7 Denial of the freedom to smoke became a major source of irritation for both students and faculty at the college. During the 1920s and 1930s, smoking cigarettes symbolized female liberation from the strictures of Victorian morality. It was for that very reason that Dean Robinson upheld the smoking ban so vigorously. Faculty members resented the need to drive across the state line to Maryland to escape the dean’s authority in order to smoke a cigarette. Nothing showed the degree to which Dean Robinson bad become out of touch with the times so much as her refusal to seek accommodation on this issue. Toward the end of her tenure, she reluctantly agreed to permit students to smoke in the college commons room, but she succumbed to this compromise only because of her embarrassment at the sight of students smoking on the streets of Newark. Faculty were never permitted to smoke anywhere in Newark during her regime.8

While there was no organized protest, younger faculty at the college complained of the smoking ban and of other restrictions. They resented the demand that they live in the noisy "gold fish bowl" environment of the dormitories, take all of their meals in the company of students, and spend their weekends as chaperones at student parties, dances, and sporting events.9 Faculty chaperones deliberately turned blind eyes to the students’ dating behavior. Some women faculty even laughed privately at the seriousness with which the college indulged in the pomp of May Day celebrations. A more sophisticated generation found those elaborate extravaganzas farcical.

Changing attitudes toward the overly protective nature of higher education for women affected colleges throughout the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Not surprisingly, Delaware absorbed the new ideas much later than did larger, trend-setting colleges and universities. In many women’s colleges, female faculty had achieved the right to live off campus, or at least to live in non-dormitory, private residences, as early as the 1890s.10 M. Carey Thomas, the redoubtable president of Bryn Mawr, insisted on providing women faculty with residential privacy as a means to encourage their research. The First World War and the post-war period ushered in a revolution in moral standards that especially affected the young, while, at the same rime, the decline of the Progressive Movement called into question the value of careers for women. Students at women’s colleges turned away from the intense, all-female activities and from the social service spirit that their colleges had fostered in the pre-war years toward the greater excitements of dating, drinking, dancing, and driving in fast cars. The right to smoke fit squarely into that changing scene.

Such developments were muted at the Women’s College in Delaware, but they were nonetheless present. It was as if the ground were shifting beneath the feet of the older generation of women scholars who had renounced marriage in favor of the chance to have a career. Helen L. Horowitz reports in her study of the Seven Sister colleges, entitled Alma Mater that "women faculty and administrators felt betrayed. Only a few years earlier, they had been objects of student admiration;" now they seemed like leftovers from the Victorian era.11 Patricia Albjerg Graham, another scholar who has studied those years of transition in women’s education, has noted that opportunities for women in higher education were greatest in the years from 1875 to 1925, when colleges and universities concentrated on providing undergraduate education in the liberal arts. After the mid-1920s, as universities became ever more preoccupied with research and graduate study, opportunities for women scholars declined. During the forty years that followed the end of World War I, the cultural model for American women became one of "domesticity" and "acquiescence," not unlike the mid-nineteenth-century ideals of womanhood that women of Winifred Robinson’s generation had fought so hard to overcome.12

World War II introduced powerful changes at the University of Delaware. Many male students were inducted into the armed forces, and military training programs took over University facilities. Work for an undergraduate degree was crowded into three years, instead of four, and new career paths were temporarily offered to women so that they might qualify to replace men in the war emergency. For the first time, the University of Delaware opened to women the opportunity to pursue degrees in engineering, but only a tiny number of women chose that male-dominated field. The pre-war pattern of athletic contests, dances, and other features of campus social life was also disrupted. Women students were pushed to complete their studies rapidly and were strongly encouraged to apply their training to the nation’s all-absorbing goal of achieving victory.13

The war also acted as a catalyst for more fundamental changes at the University of Delaware. "The war years," says University historian John A. Munroe, "were a major watershed between the small, slowly evolving institution of times past and the rapidly expanding co-educational state university of the near future."14 President Walter Hullihen died in the early spring of 1944. His successor as acting president was Wilbur 0. Sypherd, a graduate of Delaware College who had been a member of its English faculty for nearly four decades and chairman of the department. Although his presidency was brief, Sypherd moved vigorously and emphatically to press for changes that he believed were long overdue. Most significantly, Sypherd urged the Board of Trustees to study faculty salaries. The result of the board’s study of this seemingly unrelated topic led directly to the introduction of co-education at Delaware.

The committee of the board charged with considering the compensation of faculty perceived the need for urgent action to ensure that "men of adequate stature" could be hired and kept at the post-war university. To achieve that goal, the committee looked to save money elsewhere, by consolidating the faculties of Delaware College and the Women’s College into disciplinary-based units of agriculture, arts and science, education, and engineering. Under the proposed plan, the position of dean of the Women’s College would be replaced by a dean of women responsible for the welfare of female students. As acting president, Sypherd explained this new position: "The dean of women would be the first person to greet incoming students; she would have jurisdiction over the housing of students; she would serve as a personal counsellor; she would exercise an advisory control over all student enterprises…."15 Also envisioned was a dean of men, who would have parallel responsibilities and would additionally serve as University registrar.

When the committee’s proposal was made public in the summer of 1944, many people wrote to President Sypherd to give their opinions. For the most part, the men and women faculty members presented the same arguments they had applied earlier to the issues surrounding the construction of University Hall. The faculty of Delaware College applauded the board’s plan because it would unite all arts and science faculty into one unit, eliminate the redundancy of teaching the same material to men and women students separately, and organize the University around academic programs rather than gender. Most faculty members at the Women’s College argued against the plan because they believed that women needed special conditions in which to learn. Quaesita Drake of chemistry remarked that the reorganization involved abandoning a successful program in the education of women that had integrated knowledge, rather than compartmentalizing it, as the new organization would do.16 Amy Rextrew of home economics commented that the plan held no advantages for women, who "in general…are not careerists. They are homemakers by tradition, preference, and biology."17 Women must be educated to play a "dual role," she said, as short-term careerists and long-term homemakers. Jeannette Graustein of biology commented that the entering freshmen at the Women’s College were "very young, mentally immature, and inexperienced." The college provided "the most favorable conditions in the classroom to break down the mental sluggishness and lack of self-confidence and initiative which so many of them display. The presence of masculine aggressiveness and self-assertion," she feared, would reduce "our chances of success."18

Perhaps the most thoughtful response came from a man, H. Clay Reed of the Department of History. In contrast to Professor Graustein’s concerns about the fragility of women students, Reed observed that the Women’s College had always maintained higher standards for admission and retention than those of Delaware College. Professor Reed feared the leveling effect of combining the two institutions. He favored mixed classes but observed that "the civilized world is still a man’s world" and that "many men still look upon women as inferior, whereas they are merely different." The effects of that prejudice were already evident at the University of Delaware, he noted, where women faculty were clustered in the lower ranks. Only two of the University’s twenty-four full professors were women-Quaesita Drake and Amy Rextrew. Reed believed the administration could address that problem by hiring women to serve as deans of some of the proposed academic colleges, including the College of Arts and Science, and by recruiting women scholars who would qualify for the rank of full professor.19 Acting President Sypherd and the board made a very modest effort in that direction when they decided to retain at least one woman in a role of academic leadership, naming Amy Rextrew to head the new Division of Home Economics.

On September 16,1944, the Board of Trustees accepted the reorganization plan. Dean Marjory Golder complied with the University’s request to resign her position, effective July 2, 1945, the date when the Women’s College ceased to exist. For the first time, women students faced no formal barriers to entering any academic program offered by the University or to participate in almost any University extracurricular activity. The newly hired dean of women, a twenty-six-year-old economist named Gwendolyn S. Crawford, was expected to provide whatever counseling and moral support women students might require to face the more competitive and less intimate academic environment of a co-educational university. In the women’s residence halls, there was to be little change. Familiar rules were still in effect there that governed late-night and uptown privileges, sign-outs, dressing for dinner, and ten o’clock lockup on weeknights.

One mark of change that pre-dated the dissolution of the Women’s College by a few years was the relaxation of the rule that had required women faculty to live in college housing. For several years following the war, some faculty women voluntarily remained as heads of residence halls, but they were slowly replaced as hall directors by housemothers-generally, widows who served under the jurisdiction of the dean of women. The University sought to employ "women of charm, common sense and character"20 in that role, but housemothers could not command the same respect nor enter into the academic world of their charges as the faculty residence directors had done. The previous practice, whereby women faculty had taken their meals with students, also fell into abeyance, and student meetings with faculty of either sex now took place only within the academic environment or at occasional, formal tea parties in the residence halls. The constant exposure of students to mature, intellectually alert, lady-like women that underlay the old system was replaced by an environment in which women students were only expected to adopt "tea party manners" on rare occasions that bore little relation to their everyday lives. The friendly mentoring, the sense of community, and the ties that bound social life to academic life that had marked the Women’s College disappeared, leaving the students free to construct their own social world.

The end of the war, the return of male students, and the resumption of a more regular academic and social life were far more significant for the women students than was the dissolution of the Women’s College. The women faculty felt the effects of the merger more keenly. Some faculty viewed it as a release from the stifling environment of the Women’s College. Elizabeth Dyer, then an assistant professor of chemistry, relished new opportunities for research. But, the effects on others-for example, Professor Dyer’s senior colleague, Quaesita Drake-were less positive. The merger coincided with the retirement of the ranking chemistry professor at Delaware College, and, as the senior professor in her field, Professor Drake was temporarily elevated to the role of department chairman. But, under the new co-educational order, it was not considered seemly for a woman to head such an important department, and she was replaced by a man as soon as one could be found. That experience illustrated most emphatically that women could expect few opportunities for academic leadership in the co-educational University, outside the female field of home economics. Only one woman, Harriet Baily of the Department of Art, was appointed to chair a unit in arts and science, but only because Delaware College had had no art faculty and, thus, there was no male competition for the post.

Co-education did much more than destroy the gender division within the University; it put women into a predominantly male world, and it emphasized scholarship over teaching and nurturing. Reflecting on the long-term effects of the consolidation from the distance of many years, veteran English Professor Anna J. DeArmond put the merger into perspective when she concluded: "It was a serious loss in some ways, but inevitable, and the right thing to do."21