The legacy of Colby’s first female graduate: Mary Caffrey Low

Mary Caffrey Low was the first woman to graduate from Colby College with the class of 1875. Low was an extremely bright student, though it was her boldness and determination to be educated in an era when women were prevented from doing so that paved the way for future generations here at Colby College. 

In the late nineteenth century, higher education was entirely male-dominated. Many people shared the belief that women were simply unfit to be educated to the same extent as men, claiming that education would corrupt women, that an educated woman would not make a good wife, that education would masculinize women and that women were simply unfit to compete in a man’s world.

Low helped to dismantle these beliefs. Born and raised in Waterville, Low attended public school and then the Coburn Classical Institute. According to the Nov. 1995 issue of Colby Magazine, Low was “a gifted young scholar who happened to also be female,” and her initial admittance to Colby in 1871 was experimental.

Though people were skeptical of a woman attending an institution like Colby, Low’s classmates generally treated her fairly. Low was Colby’s only female student until 1873, when four other female students, including Louise Helen Coburn, joined her. The five women founded the Sigma Kappa sorority, a social and literary organization that expanded across the country and still exists today. Low studied diligently and excelled academically. She was the first woman invited into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, and was the valedictorian of her graduating class, which consisted of 19 male students and herself.

Though Low was valedictorian, she was not permitted to give the valedictory speech at her graduation. The salutatorian, a male student, gave the speech, as women were discouraged from speaking publicly. Though Colby was beginning to admit women, the College had a long way to go before it provided equal opportunities to both sexes.

In the decade following Low’s admission to Colby, only 14 women graduated from Colby. Women had to find their own housing, as the college provided housing only for men until 1885, when the College purchased a building to house the 13 women attending Colby. 

By 1891, the number of women attending Colby had grown significantly – 44 women attended – and female students dominated academically, winning more honors and class prizes than their male counterparts. In 1890, Colby president Albion Small proposed to the Board of Trustees that the college be split into a men’s and women’s division to curb competition between the male and female students.

At this time, Low was working as a cataloguer at the Maine State Library in Augusta. When she heard about the Board’s proposal to divide the College, she and Coburn actively protested against the division. They wrote and sent a petition signed by 17 other female graduates advising against “the withdrawal in any way of the advantages which co-education gave to them women.”

Despite the women’s letter, the all-male Board voted in favor of the division, and the College remained divided for 79 years. Low, Coburn, and the other female alumni were right to have protested the division. According to the Nov. 1995 issue of Colby Magazine, during the years of Colby’s division, “access to faculty was equal, but facilities were not, and men dominated student government and other leadership positions and were privileged with many more extracurricular opportunities.” Not only were women not granted the same educational or extracurricular opportunities as men, they were also subject to strict social rules like curfews and a dress code.

In 1969, largely due to the efforts of Nettie May Runnals, the Dean of the Women’s Division, Colby became coeducational again. Today, Colby offers the same opportunities to men and women alike, though we should remember that it was not always this way. Countless courageous women like Low were trailblazers who, albeit slowly, changed the way that women are educated at Colby.

Today, Mary Low’s name is not forgotten on Mayflower Hill. Mary Low Hall, which serves as a dorm and houses the Mary Low Coffeehouse, is one of the oldest buildings on campus. In addition, the Colby community remembers Low’s influence, her determination to be educated and her challenging of the belief that women should not have the same opportunities as me.