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Monday, Sep 25, 2023

The Esteemed History of Women at Middlebury

Author: Charlie Goulding

In the fall of 1884, Middlebury College opened its doors to three female students: Mary Anna Bolton, Louise Hagar Edgerton and May Belle Chellis.

With this began the history of co-education at Middlebury. Nonetheless, 1884 also marked the beginning of the long struggle for the full integration of women into the Middlebury community. Today, 118 years later, women play a vital role in the community, though the evolution of the College with respect to equality remains an ongoing process.

Mary Anna Bolton applied to the College in 1882 and was denied admission. For the first 83 years of its existence, the College was strictly all-male. Like many other institiutions at the time, the College simply did not feel that a Middlebury education should be available to women. In the minds of College officials, there was no need.

A need arose, however, in the late 1800s. The College fell into debt from which it was desperately trying to dig its way out of. Furthermore, in 1883, enrollment had shrunk to 38 — the College's very existence held precariously in the balance. Finally, growing support from the alumni and townspeople urged the College to admit women. The times called for a change and Middlebury responded by allowing women to matriculate.

The integration of women into the College was a gradual and sometimestedious process. As the number of women at the College quickly grew to equal that of the men, the two genders were strictly segregated in many ways. The question of scholarship was paramount. The female with the highest grade point average could only achieve salutatorian honors, even if her average was betten than that of the highest male, who would become valedictorian.

Housing also became a main issue. The College was unable to offer women housing until 1891, when Battell Hall, located, unlike the current Battell Hall, on the corner of Weybridge and College streets was opened for women. For many years, women had no designated room in which to study or socialize in between classes, and library hours were also strictly regulated.

The College's financial situation accounted for much of the hardship endured by women during the first 25 years of coeducation. It was not until the centennial that the College truly began to flower as an institution and no longer had to worry about staying afloat.

Social and psychological factors, however, further contributed to the friction of integrating women into the College. For one, the women were extremely able students. Chellis, the first female graduate, won the coveted Greek prize, and four women were elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1896. In a time when higher education was not omnipresent in the United States, Middlebury attracted some of the most talented women in the area. Thus, the College had to balance offering its female students a deservedly fair education while introducing them into a traditional, all-male environment.

A quote from The Middlebury Undergraduate, Middlebury's newspaper in 1880, illustrates the stimulating environment into which the women had entered. In an op-ed piece arguing why students should be able to put their feet up on a chair and slouch during class, one man wrote: "Coeducation will probably reach Middlebury ere many years, and then the days of putting one's feet higher than the head will be over so the privilege will be but a temporary one and easily tolerated." In some ways, it would take a while for the community to be mentally ready to accept women.

As women continued to flourish within the Middlebury community, many argued that the College's policy toward women stagnated. In 1899, Mary Annette Anderson became the first African-American woman to graduate from Middlebury. As valedictorian, her graduation was a testament to her individual ability as well as the College's progressive stance toward women and African-Americans. Still, as the 1900s rolled around, a plan for the separate segregation of women into a women's college germinated. While Middlebury planned to allow women the same access to teachers and classes as the males, the College aimed to keep women separate in other aspects.

In 1908, then President John M. Thomas argued that a women's college would be a "blessing to hundreds of girls who otherwise would be without opportunity of higher education." Though his awareness of gender issues was astute, the Great Depression and the Second World War elucidated the fallacy behind the idea of a distinct women's college. In a time when the nation felt the loss of those overseas and the College was once again strapped economically, the idea of keeping the genders separate seemed impractical and overly conservative. The idea died out soon after, and the College remained a complete school.

Also in the 1930s, women played an integral role in the expansion of Middlebury both in physical size and internal vivacity. In 1930, women joined the debate team, catalyzing a rapid increase in the community's interest and awareness of a variety of issues. In 1931, women played a large role in founding the Middlebury Mountain Club, organizing and popularizing a facet of Middlebury life that remains prominent to this day — outdoor activity.

Many of Middlebury's most distinguished female graduates attended the college between the 1950s and 1970s. Patricia Sherlock Davidson '59, has achieved much in the field of mathematics — publishing numerous text books for the Houghton Mifflin Company and working as a mathematics specialist in neurological research at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston.

Diane Mercedes McAfee '64 went on to study at Colombia before becoming a VISTA volunteer and a fervent political and social activist. In 1971, Julia Alvarez graduated from Middlebury, and went on to publish a series of hugely successful books and poetry collections. Her second novel, "In the Time of Butterflies," solidified her stature as one of the nation's finest writers.

By the late 1960s, women's issues began to resurface within the community. An incisive article in The Middlebury Campus on April 20, 1967, called attention to the inequality of women on campus. The article cited regulations for women such as curfew and having to "sign out" as tacit manifestations of the college's prejudiced attitude toward women.

On November 11, 1971, Torrie Osborn, in a Campus article, announced the formation of a Women's Union at Middlebury composed of students, faculty, faculty wives, staff and members of the community.

The Women's Union aimed to spread awareness of women's issues on campus. A Union office was established, and meetings were held weekly.

According to Osborn, the group hoped to educate women about gender issues, and wished to explore the way in which Middlebury's male-dominated community affected the perception of women at the College, as well as the way in which Middlebury perceived itself.

In 1988, women's issues came to a head during an infamous fraternity house party prank that went too far. In the spring of 1988, members of Delta Upsilon hung a bloody, battered female mannequin outside their frat house. More disturbing than the tasteless prank, however, was the fact that no students reacted to the incident before Dean of Students Erica Wonnacott requested that the mannequin be taken down.

The aftermath of this incident, along with mounting pressure to follow in the footsteps of Middlebury's closest competitors, spawned the creation of a Women's Center in 1993: the Chellis House.

The May Belle Chellis Women's Resource Center, on Proctor Road, provides a place for all students to discuss issues of gender, and is home to many other College organizations.

As we enter Middlebury's third century, not all members of the community feel that women have achieved full equality.

The recent string of passionate posters cropping up on campus, calling attention to vari
ous alleged rape cases, indicates that many still feel women at Middlebury attend a "men's college."

Indeed, the evolution of women's role at Middlebury has been a lengthy and trying one.

Still, one must always keep in mind the socio-economic circumstance of the times, and in this respect Middlebury has done its part to further the advancement of women.

As the College prepares for a new chapter in gender awareness, lessons learned from the past assume even greater significance.