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Cornell led in coeducation

  Charles Milhauser  

Susan B. Anthony’s teacher refused to allow her to study long division with the boys, and for almost a century thereafter women continued to contend for the same educational opportunities as males. Coeducation in American higher education began in the 1830s; however, “coeducation” did not always signify gender equality. Some schools forbade the study of Shakespeare and Greek literature in coed classes because some passages were thought too embarrassing to be read in mixed company. Men and women were not allowed to use the library during the same hours. Only men were permitted to deliver commencement orations because it was considered unseemly for a woman to orate in public. Instead, each senior woman wrote an essay that a male professor read aloud during the ceremony while the author sat on the platform.

A woman was refused admission to Harvard’s Medical School in 1847, although the dean assured the governing board that she was old and unattractive enough not to disrupt the male students. At the University of Michigan, the medical faculty demanded and received an additional $500 a year to teach women in separate classes. In 1860, a woman at Bowdoin College was suspended after attempting to join the all-male debate team. At Berkeley in 1900, a top woman scholar was passed over for membership in Phi Beta Kappa because “when it came to finding a job men needed the help of this honor more than a woman did.”

In 1856, Iowa College (now Grinnell) admitted nine women but with qualifications: they could attend recitation classes with the men but were barred from morning prayers or other formal exercises. Elsewhere, women could take a course provided the teacher and the men in that class approved. Grinnell in 1862 introduced two degree programs for men but only one, and that less arduous, for women. Often the more prestigious BA was offered only to men. The University of Wisconsin pioneered a six-year degree program for “women with exceptional cases of physical weakness.”

Misogynistic professors addressed mixed classes as “gentlemen,” called females rudely by their surnames or maliciously prefixed “Mr.” Women were often posed the most difficult questions or sadistically asked to explicate erotic passages in a text in the hope that such treatment would precipitate their dropping the course or quitting school. Many males believed that admitting women rendered a school second-rate since Harvard, Yale, and Princeton remained “bastions of virility.”

Nevertheless, there were some positives. The University of Iowa, in 1855, was the first coed public university in the nation. Cornell College, which from its inception had always admitted women to all its degree programs and courses with the same privileges as men, was in 1858 the first college west of the Mississippi to grant a baccalaureate to a woman. Before Cornell University adopted coeducation in 1872, its president toured the United States, studying coeducational institutions to see whether they nurtured “strong-minded” women and “unmanly” men.

Ironically, toward the end of the 19th century the number of women in American colleges and universities had increased to the point where the male population felt threatened. Connecticut Wesleyan, founded in 1831, had yielded to Methodism’s encouragement of female education and become coed in 1872. By the 1890s, the authorities were concerned that the school was becoming “too feminized,” and in 1909 Wesleyan severed its Methodist connection and ceased to admit women.

A composite photograph of the faculty in 1865 attests to the presence of women. President William Fletcher King (center) surrounded by faculty members (clockwise from top) Alonzo Collin (mathematics and natural sciences), Thomas L. Stephens (mathematics and natural sciences), Ettie A. Prior (music), Mary E. Ely (French and higher English), Chloe Matson (primary department), Libbie Prior Stephens (instrumental and vocal music), Harriette J. Cooke (German, drawing and painting), and Samuel H. Manley (Greek and Latin literature and languages).

Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus. He may be reached at or
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