“There is no reason why the young women of the Commonwealth should not avail themselves of the opportunities offered here. The doors are open, and they will be welcomed both by teacher and student.” –Trustees’ Report, 1893
That the Massachusetts Agricultural College student body be all-male seems to have been assumed rather than required, according to the original criteria for admission. In the college’s early years, applicants had to be at least fifteen years old, supply a character reference from a teacher or pastor, as well as assurance of the ability to pay tuition, and pass the entrance exam. There is no evidence that the college was created to educate men and exclude women, but it was for decades a de facto all-male institution. Military drills and the study of military tactics were mandatory, as was a certain amount of manual labor, and pranks, hijinks, and roughhousing were customary.
However, even the Pioneer Class, which entered the college in 1867 and graduated in 1871, was aware of the pressing issue of women’s education. While most of his classmates wrote about agriculture, William H. Bowker made an early contribution to the discourse of women’s education with his thesis titled “The Admission of Women to the College,” presented during 1871 commencement exercises. Unfortunately, we do not know what he said; the paper does not appear to have survived, reports are scant, and the subject does not figure into Bowker’s “Memorial Oration,” delivered on Class Day and reprinted in newspapers.
“Regular debate, Ques. Res'd, That both sexes should be educated together…. Roll-call for merits of the question. Decided in favor of the negative…. Miss Thurston voted on and admitted on payment of dues.” –Records of Edward Everett Literary Society meeting, Sept. 24, 1875
The first female student known to have studied at MAC was Louise Mellicent Thurston, who enrolled as part of the Select Class in the fall of 1875. (The spelling of Thurston’s name is not consistent in college publications, which sometimes give her first name as Louisa and her middle name as Meliscent.) The Annual Report of 1869 describes the vision for the Select program as one of openness and flexibility: “While it is indispensable for the highest success of the College, as a professional school, that its regular course be very thorough and complete, it is perhaps equally important that it should offer every possible facility to those who choose to follow a select course adapted to their individual circumstances and necessities.” It goes on: “As students of this class will generally be mature, industrious and specially interested in the departments of agriculture and horticulture, their influence upon the members of the regular classes, under suitable management, will be of a desirable character.”
Thurston, from Lynn, Mass., boarded in North Street and joined the Edward Everett Literary Society, a literary and debating club. She stayed at the college for a year before becoming a teacher.
“The freshman class is favored by the presence of the first representative of the fair sex to take the regular course….” –College Notes, Aggie Life, September 21, 1892 (vol. III, no. 1, page 7)
The first known female student to enroll in the regular MAC undergraduate course, Florence May Vallentine (sometimes Valentine), class of 1896, appears on the freshman class roll in the 1892 catalog. From Florence, Mass., she boarded at a professor’s house in Amherst and was elected freshman class historian. But she stayed only a few months. According to the Annual Report of 1893: “One young woman, braving the discomforts of being the only one of her sex in college, joined the freshman class and did most excellent work, but lack of funds compelled her to withdraw before the close of the first term.” Of course, it had always been common for men to leave the college; the attrition rate was high.
As the 20th century dawned, a few more women arrived. Lilly Bertha Allen of Amherst, class of 1903, was noted affectionately in the 1901 Index's Freshman Class History: “it has the very distinguishing honor of being the only class in college that can boast of strength, strong and powerful, but not all masculine. It contains a noted woman. We have a lady in our class.” Allen departed either after freshman year or early in sophomore year. Later, the class of 1903—now all-male—contributed to the Index an editorial that argued against the admission of women to the college: “we are not prepared for this class of students and it will take time and money to become prepared, and…we can see no advantage to be derived from the policy.” Part of the justification for this position was the existence of the two nearby women's colleges. Apparently this viewpoint was not universally held:
I’ll sing you a song of college girls;
I’ll tell you where to go:
Mount Holyoke to learn to fuss,
Smith to spend your dough,
Wellesley for your grand old maids,
Simmons for the slow ones,
For wise ones go to Radcliffe,
But for your beauties, Massachusetts.
-From 1909 Index (published December 1907)
Nonetheless, MAC made more formal gestures toward educating women. Ten years after President Goodell started the Two-Years Course as a way to expand educational opportunities to those for whom the regular four-year program might not be feasible, the 1903 Bulletin laid out a “Two Years Course for Women.” The short winter and summer courses, as well as the later Extension Service, all of which brought in more female students, were also conceived in this spirit.
“In one thing we are the envy of the other classes. We have two co-eds. It has not been the custom in the past for those of the female sex to stay at this college for any length of time. But boys, let us act in such a gentlemanly way towards these, our classmates, that they shall be glad to stay and graduate with the class of '05.” –Freshman Class History, 1903 Index
The class of 1905 boasted the first women–two of them–to complete the four-year course and graduate with bachelor of science degrees.
Esther Cowles Cushman, class of 1905, lived at home in Northampton and majored in biology. She was a member of the Zoological Journal Club and recipient of the Hills Botanical Prize, and wrote her thesis on “Some Entomological Pests.” She was elected to the honor society Phi Kappa Phi and was one of six in her class to receive commencement appointments from the faculty, making them “eligible to speak at commencement.” Cushman taught school for several years before becoming a librarian, ultimately at Brown University where she managed the newly acquired McLellan Lincoln Collection donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Monica Lillian Sanborn, class of 1905, was from Salem. She lived in Draper Hall, which opened in February 1903 as both a dormitory for women and a campus dining facility, during her later years (where she boarded before that is not known). Sanborn majored in horticulture, wrote a thesis titled “The Home Fruit Garden,” and was elected to Phi Kappa Phi. Two years after graduation, she married William O. Taft (class of 1906) in Vermont. The family later moved to a farm in Sterling, Mass.
In 1905's freshman class photo, Cushman and Sanborn are seated together, off to one side. By senior year, they are placed in the center. Both were elected to the planning committee for senior prom. However, they are not featured among their classmates' “Individual Records” in the 1905 Index.
Susie Dearing Livers of Boston arrived in 1903, a member of the class of 1907 and the next woman to earn a B.S. A very good student, she assembled a small herbarium and wrote poetry and lived in the newly built Draper Hall. After graduation she worked for a Boston publisher, Ginn & Company, then at the State School for Girls in Lancaster, Mass. The Susie D. Livers Papers contain some material from her student days, including a scrapbook, class papers, dance cards, and herbarium samples.
The first master’s degrees were awarded by the college in 1896. The Annual Report of 1900 lists Mount Holyoke alumna Grace B. Baker of South Hadley among the graduate students, but she does not appear in the records again. Smith alumna Elizabeth Hight Smith arrived at MAC in 1901 and lived at home in Amherst while studying in the graduate program, earning her M.S. in. Smith went on to teach plant pathology at the University of California Berkeley. For the next decade and a half, however, even as the college sought more female students, the graduate student body was almost entirely male.
The short courses had very open admissions policies. The original short-lived Two-Years Course, devised for “those of limited means,” opened fall 1893 with 23 men. After only a few years, it was phased out, as the Short Winter Courses were established. Offered for 11 weeks, the winter courses were explicitly advertised as “open to persons of both sexes,” yet the first (1896) roster of winter students numbered 16 men. However, the 1897 Annual Report notes that “The increased activity of women in the industrial pursuits, and the consequent demand for instruction, has led to the opening of special elective courses for them, in such branches as botany, entomology, floriculture, fruit culture, market gardening and the dairy.” The first woman to complete a Short Winter Course was Alla Frances Young of Gloucester in 1901, but as it happened, the winter program continued to be dominated by men. Women such as Justine Hunt, the first female to complete the Two-Years Course for Women (1904), tended to enroll in that program or as Special Students (the first Special Student, a male, appears in the 1897 Annual Report). Once the summer program, geared toward educating teachers, opened in 1907, it brought in an enormous number of female enrollees.
“The organization of women interested in agriculture…has been fostered by the war and has become a strong movement…. The whole field of rural home making needs to be developed, and can be developed adequately only in the atmosphere of an agricultural college.” –Annual Report, Feb. 1918
Like President Goodell, Kenyon Butterfield, who took office as MAC’s president in 1906, also pressed for programs specifically for women. The Extension Service offered many programs for girls and women, in Home Economics and related areas, and women attended the short courses in winter and summer. But as the war affected the enrollment—and claimed the lives—of male students, in 1917-1918 more women came for the undergraduate course, and the numbers continued to rise.
The college faced basic challenges: where would they live? What work could they do? What should they learn? By 1918 there was a new program, Rural Home Life, which would become the department—and eventually the school—Home Economics. Women students, unable to participate in military science and tactics, required of the men, could do war work on farms and study subjects such as microbiology and personal hygiene. A women’s dormitory, Abigail Adams House, opened in 1920. With its emphasis on rigorous practical training–for home life, for community service–as well as “attention to the humanistic or cultural subjects,” the program for women was to be every bit as demanding as that for men. Much of the responsibility for accommodating the women students would fall on women professors and administrators, whose numbers also increased.