Saturday, September 21, 2013

Female Colleges of the Late 19th Century

Naomi Rawlings here today and I have with me a special friend who is near and dear to my heart. Melissa Jagears is the author of Love by the Letter, a free ebook novella, and A Bride for Keeps, a full length novel
releasing in October.

The heroine of Melissa's novella intends to go to an all girls college in the late 1850s, which then begs the question: Why did all girls schools exist? Weren't young women expected to get married and manage a household regardless of their education?

So Melissa is stopping by to answer that question. Here's what she has to say:


The heroine in Love by the Letter, likes to do Algebra for fun. What about you? Was I the only secretary on break who wrote out algebraic equations to solve for fun?

Um, so nobody but me huh?

Well, whereas I could pretty easily get a math degree and put it to good use today, my heroine had very few choices in 1858. But, finishing schools weren’t the only places to go at that time, there were these new-fangled four year female colleges that awarded women degrees equivalent to men.

But why?

Wanting to make sure I had the attitudes of the time right for my novella, I searched out some contemporary editorials on why women were encouraged to get these degrees.

Oberlin Students of the late 1850's: Oberlin College Archives

It’s because …..they wanted women to get married. So how was that new?

Yes, even with a four year degree, the object for women was matrimony. But now, women had the opportunity not to marry just for “establishment, an occupation, or mere support,” but because “true freedom and equality are the essential requisites of genuine affection.”

Because there were more colleges available to men and therefore more “general intelligence,” the female colleges were there to help women become more educated so that marriage to these educated men could be on a more equal footing, and so they didn’t have to marry someone they didn’t care for out of desperation. Hopefully they could support themselves in a decent vocation if necessary, allowing them to wait until a man offering them genuine affection proposed.

Mary Sharp’s College and Elmira Female College are the schools my heroine debates over attending. But as Elmira’s literature of the time said, they didn’t want to “make or encourage radical changes in the social position or employments of women.”

How would you have fared in my heroines’ Protomathian year of an all-girl college? (“Elmira [Female] College, had to figure out what to call the first year students, i.e. freshmen. For its first ten years, Elmira referred to this class as the protomathians, before deciding to return to the established usage.”) Here’s her probable schedule if she’d chosen to attend Elmira Female College:

*Cicero’s Orations lectures
*Robinson’s Algebra
*Physical Geography “with frequent lectures”
*Sallust with the Germania and Agricola Tacitus Lectures (This is history, by the way, not mumbo-jumbo. I had to look it up!)
*Botany with Excursions
*Philosophy of History lectures
*Bible Lessons on the Sabbath
*Original English essays required every two weeks
*Weekly Recitations
*Rhetoric and Elocution
**Theory and Practice of Music and Oil Painting classes are extra!


Thanks for stopping by to explain things to us, Melissa. If you're interested in her novella, Love by the Letter, it's free on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and serves as a prequel to her novel A Bride for Keeps. Learn more about Melissa Jagears and her novels at

Now here's a little glimpse at Love by the Letter:

Dex Stanton has never had much time for book learning. He's been too busy helping to provide for his family. Now that he's heading west, Dex is hoping to start a family of his own. However, his attempt to acquire a mail-order bride fails miserably when the lady writes back ridiculing his terrible spelling. Rachel Oliver may be the last person he wants to know what a dunce he is, but she's also the smartest woman in town--and it's clear he needs her help.

Rachel Oliver has lingered in town for three years secretly mooning over Dex Stanton, but now she's done. If the fool wants to write to a mail-order bride company, so be it. Once she begins giving Dex lessons, however, Rachel realizes she may not be prepared to give up just yet.

As their time together runs short, can two of the most stubborn people in town set aside their pride long enough to find love?


  1. I loved this post! I just completed my bachelor's degree in English after being out of school for 25 years lol. It was a lot of fun; I had been working on it for 10 years. I think I would have failed if I had to take some of these courses listed above! I would have loved Algebra! I had to take Calculus to complete my degree at the community college before I could transfer to a four year school. I remembered why I had loved it in high school. But for my English degree, I got to read and write papers. It was a concentration in Literature, so it worked for me. One question, today when someone says they have a four year degree, especially if it is from a few particular schools (like Harvard), they are looked up to and thought of in a different way. Like, oh, you have a degree. Wow. Was that the attitude for these ladies that went to one of these four year schools, or was it more like it wasn't such a big deal? The degree gave them job opportunities and a way to wait for love instead of desperately marrying the first man that came along; but, did other people still view them as only wives, or did they get treated a little bit differently for that degree? Or was the only incentive to go so that they could hold a job, but nothing else changed? Thanks!
    tscmshupe [at] pemtel [dot] net

  2. Melissa,

    I like your picture of Oberlin. My heroine in my current WIP is an Oberlin graduate in 1866. That school was radical because they allowed African Americans to go to school there and it was coed. There was a separation between the Ladies Course and the Gentleman's Course, but they still went to school together coed and interracially as well. Great post!

  3. Hello Naomi and Melissa, good to see you both here.
    I didn't go to college and lucky I guess that I was able to finish high school because I came from family of 9 and we didn't have much. When I think of yesteryear, college for them had to be hard to get to and very lucky if they did. Liked your post today and really like that book I am seeing about Love by the Letter, looks like one I will want to read.
    Piper, it was probably real unusual for african americans to go to college in those days so I am glad to see it started way back then, much has changed over the years and I look forward to the races being more equal and not thinking of us as two but one....

    Paula O

  4. I live in Elmira, and it is a beautiful college campus with a rich history. I have it featured in one of my books that I plan to relaease this year. How awesome that you have been swept into its charms as well! Lovely post

  5. Sally, I imagine there were all different reactions but since I saw a lot of "we're not trying to disturb the status quo" in the literature I read, I'm assuming a lot of people thought they were uppity for going.

    1. It was very interesting to read your post. Your answer is kind of what I figured the response would be. Thanks!

  6. Melissa, didn't know they had colleges for women way back then. This was a big surprise. I thought they more looked at as a man's property. With a lot of arranged marriages. Sounds like some hard classes too. And the mix of races. We must have went backwards at some point in time. This book sounds like my kind of book. I love these mail order brides, but looks like he might not need one. I've never loved History so much as now.
    Maxie mac262(at)me(dot)com

  7. Thank you for this information on finishing schools and a few select colleges for women in 1858. The list of subject studied is impressive. I'd be overwhelmed by the challenge. It seems at that time women were discriminated against and options were limited. After the suffrage movement went into full swing significant strides were made. Gradually men came to realize that women could think for themselves and should be permitted to marry for love and not convenience and much later women were given the right to vote. Thank you Naomi and Melissa.

  8. I personally find the whole idea of a woman going to college just so that she could get married and not do anything with the knowledge she acquired ridiculous. But that mindset was very much prevalent at the time. Women were expected to marry. End of story. Anything else resulted in a life of hardship with little means for a woman to provide for herself.

  9. My favorite college class for ladies-Cicero's Orations lectures! sharon, CA

  10. My favorite college class for ladies-Cicero's Orations lectures! sharon, CA

  11. Interesting - but, I think I would have had a struggle with those classes!