by Daniel Burns, Sara Lirwiller, Carrie McCarthy, and Katie Yanos

“Women upset everything."1

          For much of the history of the world, many people thought that educating women would upset everything. Not only did they think it would damage what numerous people considered the natural hierarchy of society, they also thought it would corrupt the supposedly intrinsic modest and submissive nature of woman. After centuries of debate over the issue of women and higher education, nineteenth century women and men demanded that opportunities be provided for women to receive college educations. Despite the great amount of controversy concerning this issue, many facilities were created across the nation to provide women with a higher education.

          The very first college in the United States to accept women was Oberlin College. In 1833 it opened as a co-educational institution, predating the first all-female college, Vassar, by twenty-seven years. Once Oberlin admitted women, many other colleges and universities followed suit. State universities often began the co-education process by attaching female academies to their institutions. These academies later led to fully integrated co-educational facilities. Women’s colleges were mainly a phenomenon of the east coast. Many of the long-established colleges there refused to allow co-education, so colleges dedicated entirely to women sprang up to fill the void.2

          In the second half of the nineteenth century, Hanover College, like colleges all across the nation, had to decide whether or not to admit women. At Hanover, coeducation was achieved gradually. In 1869, young women were allowed to attend recitations for subjects that were not taught adequately in the area school. This led to women being admitted unofficially to the preparatory department of the College. Despite the fact that women were already very much involved in these areas of the College, there was a good deal of controversy about officially admitting women to the College itself. In spite of objections, women were finally admitted to Hanover College in 1880.3

          Hanover College was founded in 1827 as an all-male college. Although women were not allowed to attend classes at the College or the adjoining academy until it was established in 1869, women still found ways to be educated. An example of these women was the Brandt sisters, Cecile and Ester, Cecile being the elder of the two. The Brandt family moved to Madison from Switzerland when Cecile was three months old, and after their father’s death in 1829 they moved to a farm in Hanover.

          Their early education was given to them at the Buckeye Schoolhouse, and later schooling took place at an academy that was set up by Sophronia Crosby exclusively for young women. The Triangle article talks of the lives of the Brandt sisters, and the different activities in which they participated. This article, written in 1916, helps to show that even as early as the 1840s, educating women was seen in a positive light.

          The first mention of admitting women to Hanover College came in the minutes of the Board of Trustees on June 17th, 1868: “A committee was appointed to report to the Board tomorrow on the subject of opening the college for the admission of Females.” The next mention of the subject came about a year later on June 18th, 1869 in the minutes of the Faculty: “It was also voted, that the President be requested to ask informally, of the Board of Trustees, for the faculty, discretionary privilege of allowing young ladies of the village of Hanover to attend recitation in such branches as are not suitably provided for in the village school.”

          Similar discussion of the admission of women to Hanover College appears to have occurred throughout the 1870s, but without any decisive action by either the Trustees or the Faculty. On June 23rd, 1870, the Board of Trustees appointed “a committee to take into consideration the propriety of admitting females to the college classes and report at an early day.” On July 5th of the same year, the committee “reported at length in favor of it [the admission of women], and after a full and free discussion of the subject by the members of the Board, and an expression of the views of the Faculty (by request of the Board), and after several amendments proposed, the whole subject was, on motion, laid on the table.” Why the motion was laid on the table is not clear. Interestingly though, a motion was made on the subject at the Board of Trustees meeting the next day, but was ruled Out of order: “A motion was made and seconded, That the daughters of residents of Hanover be permitted to pursue their studies in college, if agreeable to the Faculty, and after some discussion was ruled out of order.”

          Oddly, the question of women attending Hanover College does not appear again until the Board of Trustees minutes of June 10th, 1873, when the board discussed “a mixed grammar school for boys and girls as a substitute for the Preparatory Department.” While young women began to be unofficially admitted to the Preparatory Department in 1869, it is unclear when, or if, official recognition came. The inclusion of young women in the Preparatory Department does appear in the records, though, as in 1874, when the faculty minutes record the request of the faculty to a “Mrs. C. E. Coulter to . . . have special charge of the young ladies who may be in attendance [of the Preparatory Dept.]” The faculty also determined that “the young ladies should not be required to attend prayer; and should assemble Y” hour later than the other students of the Preparatory Dept.”

          Despite the increasing inclusion of women in college life, the idea of coeducation did not find universal support among Hanover students. In February of 1876, the Gnivri, a student publication, printed an editorial arguing against inclusion of women in the Preparatory Department. According to the editors of the Gnivri, women at coed schools tended to be more masculine and the men tended not to treat the women appropriately.

          It appears from the faculty minutes, that arguments against coeducation were successful, at least temporarily. The Faculty Minutes of May 23rd, 1876 record that “On motion the admission of young ladies into the Preparatory Department was hereafter discontinued.” While the opponents of coeducation at Hanover College won a temporary victory, the College was only a few years away from becoming fully coeducational.

          Further arguments against co-education at Hanover continued, even as women were being admitted. Arguments against co-education often stated that it was against a principle of the College, which was to prepare young men for the ministry; that it would cause women to become masculine and men to become feminine; that the combination of young men and women would lead to discipline problems; and that women were incapable of highly intellectual work. However, in his book, A Human Life: An Autobiography with Excursuses, Daniel .W Fisher, President of Hanover College during the late 1800s, denounced the opposition to co-education. Fisher stated that the reasons posed against co-education were weak, declaring that the “weakness of the negative” secured his favor for the admittance of women. Fisher further enhanced the argument for co-education by citing the fact that many single-sex institutions could no longer afford to deny the admittance of both genders; women had become the majority at co-educational colleges. Women had traditionally flocked to colleges such as Vassar and Smith, all-female institutions, and these colleges were rapidly overflowing. Therefore, as Fisher stated, there came a demand for more opportunities for women’s education. As a greater number of colleges opened their doors to women, females procured more opportunities for higher education.

          Women were admitted into Hanover College in 1880. As the integration process continued, opposition from the students and faculty gradually lessened. Issues of the Hanoverian from 1880 and 1881 record student and alumni reactions to the co-educational atmosphere. Once such article from September of 1880 speaks of the “presence of more than a dozen young ladies” on Hanover’s campus, and speaks positively on the effects of co-education. In an issue from February of 1881, an editor from the Hanoverian comments that, after six months of observation, women thrived at the College, proving that wariness offered by opponents to co-education could be dismissed. The article “Our Alumnae,” published by the Bohemian in 1883, restated Reverend Dr. Irwin’s speech given at the Alumni Jubilee and the Semi-Centennial Commencement. Irwin commented on the industrious nature and equality of women, exulting over the “elevation” of women and Hanover’s decision to become a co-educational institution. Later publications in the Hanover Monthly detail the involvement of women in campus organizations. An issue from September 1883 concerns the addition of a female to the publication’s editorial staff. In November of the same year, the Hanover Monthly expressed its enjoyment of the women’s literary society, the Zetelathean, which grew rapidly on campus. Further documents show that women became involved in nearly every facet of the College, organizing the first two women’s sororities—Kappa Alpha Theta and Delta Gamma—as well as achieving scholastic merit. An article appearing in the Hanover Monthly in April 1884 urges the College to allow for a female boarding house on campus, further demonstrating the ease with which women integrated with the campus.

End Notes

1.  George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion, Act II.

2.   Phyllis Stock, Better than Rubies: A History of Women’s Education (New York:
Capricorn, 1978), 190-2.

3.  The editors of the HHR wish to thank Erin Murphy, Hanover College class of 1999. Erin wrote her Independent Study, entitled “When Women First Went to Hanover
College,” on the history of women at Hanover and we are indebted to her for her writings and her research.