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Monday, Apr 15, 2024

From the Archives: Women’s history at Middlebury College

“From the Archives” is an opportunity for various writers to visit the Middlebury Special Collections and write about a different artifact each week. The Special Collections boasts hundreds of thousands of historic items, and through this column we encourage writers to explore not only the college’s history, but also the history of the world around us. 

“The constituents of a sound education are first, character — second, culture —  third, critical power. (Including accuracy and sympathy with the various ages, nationalities and modes of men.) and fourth, — power to work hard under rule and pressure.” 

May Belle Chellis ’86 — 1886, that is — the first female graduate of Middlebury College, wrote the above in a letter on the value of a college education nearly 40 years after graduating. 

During this March — Women’s History Month — as the snow seems to bury any motivation to study for that mid-term exam looming ahead, The Campus invites its readers to reflect on the value of a college education through the women who fought to be here and learn among the men. 

Chellis transferred as a sophomore from Mt. Holyoke College in 1883 and joined a cohort of two other female students, May Anna Bolton ’87 and Louise Hagar Edgerton. Bolton, whose father was a custodian at the college, had applied in the spring of 1882 but was denied by the trustees. Given the state of the college’s funds, buildings and the corps of instructors, the board believed admitting female students would adversely impact the college’s endowment.

By the fall of 1883, enrollment at the college was down to 38 students total, and the trustees finally gave in and opened up the admission process to women. This decision, however, did not mean the female students gained full and equal membership in the community. One example of such inequities was that there were no dorms for women on campus. Chellis therefore lived with Bolton’s family in the house that is now the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest. It was also up to the women of the college to fundraise for and furnish a study room for themselves on campus.

“It was great fun for us three girls of the Freshman class to furnish a study room in the Old Chapel building. Our friends gave us twenty five dollars, some chairs and a mirror,” Chellis wrote. “We atoned for our high priced wallpaper by papering the room ourselves (except the ceiling).”

The faculty also held lower standards for women at the start, but the female students at the time pushed back. 

“The faculty were not going to require us to do the regular Rhetorical work that the boys had, but we three insisted that we ought to do it just the same,” wrote Chellis.

To nobody’s surprise today, Chellis excelled in all of her classes, even receiving the $5.00 gold piece prize for the highest rank in Greek. Chellis fondly recalls a personal and close relationship with her Greek professor, William Wells Eaton, who also taught her how to skate on Otter Creek. “No matter how wildly my skates moved, he was never tripped,” she reminisced. 

Chellis also included a treasured letter that Professor Eaton sent her, along with a little pebble he picked up at the shore of Marathon in Greece. Here is the letter in Greek (The Campus asks readers of Greek to offer a translation):


Eaton's letter in Greek.

During her time at Middlebury, Chellis also taught at the Black River Academy in Ludlow, Vt. She eventually graduated from Middlebury with honors, and began an illustrious career as a teacher in Minnesota and Nebraska. Chellis was also a member of the League of Women Voters. 

Chellis ended her reflection letter with a metaphor that aptly describes the transformative experience of a college education, one that she helped build and advocate for herself.

“Without an intelligent conception of what has gone before, a man today was no more than a grub burrowing aimlessly in the unilluminated earth, feeding on mud with all the glories of the real world lying concealed above him…” Chellis wrote, “And four short years would have taken him out of the earth and given him wings.”

So ladies, find your wings this March, and soar from the earth…

Photos of the first female students enrolled at the College.
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