Excerpt from A Human Life:
An Autobiography with Excursuses1
by Daniel W Fisher, President of Hanover College from 1879-1907

        At the meeting of the board in 1880, the first after my inauguration as president, the college was opened to women, and it has ever since been coeducational. We first considered the question in the faculty, and we there, with entire unanimity, voted to recommend to the board to take this important step. I previously had tried to acquaint myself with all that could be urged on either side. I remember asking one of the alumni, a man of high standing and of recognised ability, but who was much opposed to the admission of women, to tell me candidly and fully his objections; and he did so. I listened attentively to all that he said; and then I courteously replied in substance, that what he had told me strongly confirmed me in favour of opening our doors to them: for if so able a man as he could offer no stronger objections than he had done, they showed the weakness of the negative. I could discover no sufficient reason why Hanover should refuse, and I could see many considerations that made it desirable. My opinion was then and still continues to be that co-education in the higher institutions of learning is a question that can be wisely decided only by a careful consideration of each particular case, under existing conditions. This, of course, involves the assumption that there is no sound, radical objection to the principle involved in the association of the two sexes as students in our colleges; and also that no rule of wisdom or righteousness is necessarily violated if an institution limits itself to either of the two sexes. We have a good illustration of this in the two Indiana colleges controlled by the Presbyterians. Wabash has, in the face of pressure, refused down to the present to admit girls, and results seem to justify this attitude. She has drawn to herself an increasing attendance because she is the only college in the State that is not coeducational. If she had in her territory a number of competitors, taking the same position on this subject, she in all probability would not on this basis sufficiently increase her patronage to justify the exclusion of girls. On the other hand, Hanover, on account of her situation, needed to open to them in order to obtain a larger attendance, and to provide for a want that could not be sufficiently met in any other way. Girls have a right to as good opportunities for higher education as are furnished for boys; but how in any given case this may be provided most wisely can be decided only by a calm, broad view of conditions affecting different institutions. One of the practical difficulties encountered in co-educational colleges is that so many girls are seeking the higher education that they tend to become the majority of students, or at least so far to dominate as to give tone to the entire atmosphere. Consequently some of these institutions are limiting the number admitted, and they do this regardless of what would be considered adequate preparation in a boy. For this a given college may not deserve blame; because otherwise the tendency would be to lose more and more of male attendance, and to assume the character of a girls’ college. Nevertheless, this is in some regions a very great hardship for the women.
They theoretically are entitled to as good an education as the boys; but where are they to obtain it? Institutions, such as Wellesley, Smith, and Vassar, conducted for them exclusively, are now so over-crowded that in order to obtain admission the names of candidates have to be entered months in advance. “Annexes,” such as are maintained by Harvard and Columbia, serve merely to care for a part of the girls that would swarm to the parent universities, if the way were open. If those of the smaller colleges that still exclude women, but are not crowded with men, shall open their doors to co-education, partial relief may thus be afforded; but it can be only partial. The problem of adequate provision for the higher education of women looms into view as most important and pressing.

          An apprehension that causes some excellent people to hesitate as to coeducation in our colleges is that the bringing together of young men and young women in the familiarity of such a life may lead to attachments, ending in marriage. No doubt, in such institutions this does frequently occur. Yet my observation, extending over so long a time, convinces me that “engagements” are no more numerous than would be made in a like period by the same persons, if not in a coeducational institution. The parties in that case would be different, as a rule; and they would not be so likely to bring together young people who, by training and similarity of tastes, are fitted to be permanently happy in each other’s society. Sometimes there are regrettable escapades, just as there are also outside of colleges; but they are not so frequent, and they seldom are so serious as some people imagine. In my time at Hanover there was one foolish and hasty marriage of students; but even for this the college could not fairly be held responsible. The young man resided in the village with his mother, and had informed her of his intention, and the young woman had just been dumped down on us, in order to get her away from another escapade, and without informing us of her peculiar state of mind. There is always a possibility of worse scandals; but their occurrence is quite rare as on the outside of college.

          When we opened the college for women, in 1880, the board thought it wise to signalise the occasion by conferring the Doctorate of Laws on some woman, who would be universally recognised as worthy of such distinction. I took the opportunity to ascertain that this honour would be appreciated by Maria Mitchell, so well known as the head of the department of astronomy of Vassar College, and it was accordingly conferred on her. So far as I know, this was the first instance in which in the United States the Doctorate of Laws was given to a woman, and I could learn of only one precedent in the world at large. The public press has since persisted in crediting this act to Dartmouth, probably through confusion of Hanover, N.H., the site of Dartmouth, with the Hanover where the college that gave the degree is located. It is noteworthy also that the first young lady to enter the college, and to continue until graduation, was a member of the Christian (Disciples) Church, and became a missionary sent by that denomination to Japan, and to the Japanese in the Hawaiian Islands.

End Notes

1.  Daniel W Fisher. A Human Life: An Autobiography with Excursuses. (New York: Revell, 1909), 224-8.