A campus divided: the myth of coeducation at Colby

Colby likes to champion its status as a historically trailblazing institution through the fact that in 1871, the College was the first all-male college in New England to accept women. While this is a true statement, it requires a bit of inspection. To begin with, Bates College, founded by abolitionists in 1855, was co-ed from the beginning, and thus maintains a more salient claim to progressiveness. What few don’t know is that our claim to early reforms in gender equality are a bit inflated, as Colby’s period of coeducation only lasted for 19 years. In 1890, then Colby University’s administration decided for a number of reasons that men and women are best educated separately, and thus shifted the structure of the College to a coordinational system, separating the sexes entirely and prohibiting women from taking classes in the sciences. This shift was not simple however, as it was subject to fierce debate and discussion involving a few individuals whose names are still known by students today.

The year that coordination was implemented, Colby’s then-president Albion W. Small issued a statement in the Colby Oracle on the reasons for coordination at Colby University. He stressed the fact that it had nothing to do with the fact that the women were incapable of handling the curriculum of a school like Colby, as he stated that “the young women who have been graduated have accordingly as a rule possessed mental and moral qualities of an exceptional order.” He argued that the sexes were simply best educated independently from one another. Continuing in his statement he wrote: “the conclusions, which a majority of our faculty have reached, they think an ideal college course for young men would not be an ideal course for young women, any more than the training which would be most advantageous for a bass singer would be advisable for a soprano voice.” Small saw that women and men required different educational focuses, as the primary sphere of education for women would be what best fit for her future as a wife and mother, which would be “chiefly derived from attention to the humanities.”

Another core issue that Small was concerned with was that there would be rising competition between the sexes as a result of coeducation, which would take away from the educational atmosphere. That wasn’t entirely false, as many men were allegedly beginning to grow wary of the women’s success, especially with Mary Caffree Low’s status as Valedictorian. This matter was particularly infuriating to future Maine supreme court justice and salutatorian to Low, Leslie Cornish  (a male student), who held a strong desire to rid Colby of women entirely, and expressed this to administration during the move toward coordination. The male population (or at least the editors of the Oracle at the time) showed some support of the change as well. In the 1892 issue of the Oracle in reference to the former system of coeducation, the essay stated: “[Colby] had emphasized the rights of women to education, but had forgotten or ignored the fact of the fundamental differences of temperament or talent between the sexes and the consequent need of separate training.” They went on continuing to affirm Small’s reasonings that “pride of sex causes unhealthy competition, and, possibly, in some cases ill feeling.”

Despite the support that the new system garnered, several female students and alumnae made efforts to stop the move towards coordination for the school. For graduates Low and Louise Coburn, this was an issue not taken lightly. In a letter to Coburn, Low wrote, “I find so many people who agree with us in this matter. It is dark now, but brighter days are ahead I am sure, the wrong will be righted.” Their mission to fight the change was unsurprisingly met with fierce opposition, and as mentioned in another letter, Low and Coburn considered dismantling the Colby chapter of Sigma Kappa, the sorority they founded as students, as some of the women who were currently members were not supportive of the cause.


Wilder Davies

After the issue of Small’s statement in the Oracle, Low and Coburn penned an address with the support of 18 other female alumni in response to the points Small made. In his argument he had mentioned that an education in the natural sciences was unnecessary for the needs of the average woman, which they replied “In all these studies, an earnest, thoughtful woman finds something attractive, something akin to her own emotional nature. If she have that in her heart that thrills to the music of Sophocles or Milton, she will find the golden heart of Mathematics, if she have the chance.” In fact, as they also noted, women had been very successful at Colby in their study of science and mathematics. They saw that the motives of coordination stemmed from the same fears men that had in regards to educating women throughout all of history, as they stated: “At bottom, it is a fear that woman will be made less of a woman and more of a man by education; the old fear that made men hesitate centuries ago before allowing her to learn the alphabet.” It makes sense that these women, who had such successful careers at Colby, were distraught by the changes made in 1890, and in a larger sense instances like these are likely what instigated future women’s rights initiatives.

  Low and Coburn were right in blaming the coordination system on the fear of educated women held by men at the time, and that many of the reasons Small had put forth were lacking established reason. When viewing the arguments from the other side, it is of no surprise that many men were in support of maintaining the established gender norms of the time. Coordination was simply another example of “separate-but-equal” treatment of a disenfranchised group, which has been used as a tool to perpetuate oppression in many instances throughout history. In the eventual procession of Colby’s history, the school was largely segregated by sex until the middle of the 20th century when it silently dissipated after the end of World War II.

Today the college is coeducational down to the bathrooms in most dorms, yet evidence of the former division can easily be seen in the layout of our current campus. Since the coordination system was still in play during the planning and eventual movement from the downtown to Mayflower Hill, administration designed the new campus with the division of the sexes in mind. Women occupied the Foss-Woodman and Mary Low-Coburn dorms, and men took up residence in Roberts Row and East and West Quad. The coordination system is visible in the layout of the academic quad as well, with the sciences and library close to the men’s side, and the humanities near the women. While the College can certainly maintain its claim as the first all-male college in New England to go coed, historically it is far from being a leader in the education of women.