HAIL TO THE CONQUERING COED
The First Year of Coeducation
"The step is taken - or, rather, the leap is made - and it is the duty of all students, alumni and friends of the institution now more than ever before to heartily cooperate with the trustees and faculty in making the choice a wise one..."
-Student Opinion Round Table
January 30, 1895
"And if they must come the students must receive them. By this action of the powers that be, it becomes the duty of the student body to put aside all personal feelings and individual prejudices and heartily cooperate in making this new departure from the conservative policy of the school, a most decided success."
-Student Opinion Round Table
April 24, 1895
In the Fall of 1895 thirty-three women took advantage of the coeducational opportunity provided for the first time at Beloit. Of these thirty-three women, twenty-eight entered the Freshmen class, three entered the Sophomore class, and two entered the Junior class.31 Unfortunately, it is not possible to fully trace the records of these women because their applications no longer exist and thus there is no formal survey of their backgrounds or why they chose Beloit. As an example one can look at the reminiscences of Mrs. John Wycoff, daughter of one of the first female graduates of Beloit College, Grace Chamberlin, '98. Mrs. Wycoff explained that "...[w]hen it was announced that the college was opening its doors to women...my mother's and aunt's father, John Nelson Chamberlin,...asked his two daughters to come home and go to Beloit." Grace was a freshman at Carleton College in Minnesota in 1894 and had taught high school the year before to earn money for her college education. That same year her sister, Hattie Chamberlin, '99, was finishing her preparatory work at Carleton Academy having also taught the year before. Mrs. Wycoff also remembered her mother telling her how Genevieve Davis, '97, who was listed in the entrance Record book of 1895 as the first woman to enter Beloit College, had ended up at Beloit. "Genevieve had been a student at Oberlin College [in Ohio) but she was acceding to her father's wishes that she go to Beloit which he, Jerome Davis, class of 1866, had attended." It seems likely that these are fair examples of the type of women that attended the college in the early years. Family connections to the school, whether a brother or father attended, constituted a major factor that brought the first women to Beloit.
Regardless of the factors, the women came and the faculty and students were forced to adjust. The students' adjustments to the "co-eds" progressed over time from that of disgruntled acceptance to one of respect. This change in attitude could have stemmed from the women's performance in various aspects of college life. Perhaps the women dispelled the preconceptions the male students had. In a Round Table editorial from September of 1895 a student explained that after the initial shock of the announcement of coeducation "universal approval [became] more and more evident."32 The women proved themselves academically and socially and through their various accomplishments as a group and as individuals they won the respect of the Beloit College community. It seems the women approached their first year at Beloit wisely. They proved their loyalty by supporting the men's athletic teams as well as by joining organizations such as student government.
Beloit women had to prove themselves first and foremost in the academic arena, which was the main source of pride among the students and faculty. The co-eds had to show that they were "worthy" of acceptance because of the never-ending debate concerning women's ability to compete with men. In September of 1895 the faculty voted that "...the requirements for Public Rhetoricals be the same for the young women as for the young men."33 Public Rhetoricals were held weekly and all students were expected to participate. They consisted of speeches given by students on various subjects related to their classes. Public speaking was an integral part of men's collegiate training because it prepared them for life after college as lawyers, clergymen, and so on. But traditional religious beliefs had maintained that women should remain silent in church and mixed company. For example, Lucy Stone, an activist both for women's rights and abolition, was asked to write a commencement speech for her graduation from Oberlin College in 1847. She refused because she would not be allowed to read her own speech in public. "Not until 1858 would an Oberlin woman be permitted to read her part at the public commencement."34 By the time Beloit became coeducational this attitude was not as prevalent, although remnants of the traditional restriction of women were still evident. Women were allowed to participate in the Public Rhetoricals because this was a part of the Beloit College education. They were, however, excluded from speech and debate contests with the men for many years. A student editorial from The Round Table elaborated on the women's participation in the Public Rhetoricals by remarking that initial opposition based on the belief that female students would lower the standards of the college was "shown to be unfounded by observations from the first week of co-education, and it is obvious that the young lady students are abundantly able to cope with the brightest of our young men in the recitation room."35 This level of academic excellence among the women is supported by the honors they achieved. In January of 1896 it was announced that Miss Sarah Mabel Nichols, '99, had won the Waterman Prize, a scholarship based on academic achievement given to the most promising Freshman student coming from a Beloit area high school. Despite the women's academic achievements the men still did not completely accept them. According to a speech given by Grace Chamberlin Rosa, '98, at the Alumni Day banquet in June of 1963, the men were very impatient with the women in that first month of coeducation. She explained:
It was extremely hot the whole four weeks but the girls were determined to make good and studied very hard. The Professors were testing us too, as we soon discovered, when longer and longer assignments were being given out. But we were not to be daunted. The boys began complaining they 'never had worked so hard', or 'had such long assignments', 'wished the girls weren't here', and other similar remarks. One day, toward the end of the month, President Eaton announced in Chapel...that he would like to meet all the young women immediately after Chapel ... he told us - not asked us - 'not to study so hard!' This incident shows the character and caliber of the women who dared 'to storm the ramparts' of this long-time male institution.36
Ms. Chamberlin went on to mention that in the class of 1899, Mabel Nichols was Salutatorian, and Lillian Dudley was Valedictorian of the class of 1901.
Not only did the women prove themselves the equals of the male students in academics but they won approval in other areas. Sports were a major topic of discussion and importance among the male students. "With her [female students] they [male students] generously shared their honors and their great offices, and gave her a place in everything saving the great games of strength, whereat she was somewhat rejoiced, having no skill in such mattters."37 Although women could not participate in many physical activities due to an absence of organized sports for women, they did show their support for Beloit athletics. On September 25, 1895, The Round Table mentioned that "[t]he co-eds made a hit last Wednesday when Miss Webster voiced the sentiments of her sex in regard to athletics. It was a happy introduction." In April of 1896 an article appeared suggesting that since the tennis season was beginning the women should establish a tennis tournament among themselves. The author explained that "...the young women of the college find that here is a sport in which they can indulge with as much enthusiasm as the young men."38 At this time tennis was simply a recreational activity for the women at Beloit College.
That first year of coeducation at Beloit, the women's extracurricular activities were not very diverse. They participated in student government, formed the Young Women's Christian Association, and founded a sorority. In retrospect, it was a time for women to find their place within the college community. One may assume that due to their desire to excel academically the women did not have an overabundance of time to form new clubs.
In September of 1895, The Round Table reported that the women were attempting to form a Young Woman's Christian Association (Y.W.C.A.). The men felt this showed an effort on the women's behalf to enter into the spirit of the college, and they "respect[ed] them for that loyalty." Barbara Miller Solomon writes that, "the Young Women's Christian Association became a major source of strength and influence among white and black Protestants. Initially their religious activities included missionary societies, prayer meetings, and bible study groups; later social work dominated."39 Campus chapters of the Y.W.C.A. were formed across the country. The Y.W.C.A. was prominent for many years as an organization promoting Christian values, and represented such characteristics as spiritual devotion that nineteenth century women were expected to embrace. At their meetings the women would discuss the Bible or other religious topics. By the end of their first year the women at Beloit had fully organized their own chapter of the Y.W.C.A. The Round Table recognized their effort in June of 1896:
Now we are sure coeducation has come to stay. Last Friday evening the Y.W.C.A. of the College touched the purse strings of the college community by giving a lawn social...and devoted the proceeds from the sale of ice cream to defray the expense of delegates to the Lake Geneva Assembly...we hail this first effort on the part of the young ladies as a good sign of organized independence in co-ed ranks...40
The so-called "independence" of Beloit women in the Y.W.C.A. was acceptable to the faculty and administration because it was a very "safe" affiliation. The success of the Young Men's Christian Association on campus also helped male students to feel comfortable with the Y.W.C.A.'s existence. The issue of permitting truly "independent" organizations for female students would, however, continue to prompt heated debate.
In April of 1896 The Round Table mentioned the appearance of Greek letter pins upon seven of the co-eds. The name of the sorority was Theta Pi Gamma and it was the "first society of its kind among the young ladies..."41 In May, the "sorority question" (whether or not to allow its existence) was brought up in the faculty minutes. Sororities across the country were originally founded as secret societies to affirm the ties of friendship. Sororities also provided institutional group support for young women. "Administrators, early wary of the political power of these societies as a competing authority, at first tried to halt their development."42 It was recorded in the Beloit College Faculty Minutes of May 2, 1896, that the "matter of the forming of a Greek letter society...without permission of the Faculty..."43 would be the topic of discussion at the next meeting. One month later the faculty reached a decision regarding the "secret society formed by some of the young women of the Freshman Class."44 Although organized "secretly" or independently, the society was allowed to continue its existence under certain conditions:
1. That it is to undertake Literary work after the example of women's clubs. 2. That it is to have no affiliation with any society outside Beloit College, the Faculty not approving of the forming of Sororities in Beloit. 3. That it do not pledge or admit any members, beyond the seven original members, until the faculty shall have given formal consent to do so, when in our judgment the Society shall have given evidence of its value to the life of the young women of the College.45
The independent formation of a sorority was a problem because it was a "secret society", and also because the women were establishing their own identity. With no precedent or example, perhaps the faculty felt nervous about the women establishing new organizations. They had similar reservations when fraternities first began to appear on campus in the 1850s. The sorority issue was not heard of again until 1898, when women petitioned the faculty for permission to obtain national recognition of their sorority. The faculty ruled against this, believing that the same goals could be achieved in "the formation of more open societies not connected with the secret society systems of other institutions." The faculty also felt that the formation of a secret society would bring "bitterness into the lives of those women not included in the membership and would naturally cultivate among the members a spirit of exclusiveness not the most wholesome." Along with these reasons the faculty concluded that sororities distracted from scholarly pursuits. Because they were not unanimously in favor of the already existing fraternities, they did not feel it was right to extend the system among the women. The issue of sororities was not settled until the first decade of the twentieth century.46 In 1904, after the Trustees had consulted with authorities in several Eastern schools, sororities were banned altogether from the campus. The women continued to petition for permission to legally organize a local sorority on campus. Finally, in 1908 the faculty allowed the women to formally organize the same Theta Pi Gamma sorority they had originally created in 1896.
Another area of college life the women of Beloit entered within the first year of coeducation was student government. In October of 1895 the class officers for the following year were announced and each class voted a woman in as their vice-president; one also voted a woman in as class historian. The class of 1897 elected Laura Sparks as their Vice-President, 1898 chose Grace Chamberlin, and the Freshmen elected Katherine Adams Vice-President and Imogene Webster as class Historian. It is not apparent whether these were just "token" positions or whether the men had actual confidence in their ability. The significance is that women made a concerted effort to become involved in the activities and community of the college at large. For example, in November of 1895, Genevieve Davis, 1897, was elected to the post of Local Editor of The Round Table, which became traditionally female from 1895 into the early decades of the twentieth century.
The Local Editor was similar to a gossip columnist, reporting on the social activities of the members of the college and other related matters.
The women also wanted to participate in the choir that sang during chapel, but were excluded. The Round Table staff reported in March of 1896 that "...the faculty had excluded the young ladies of the college from participating in Vesper choral singing, on the ground that it was calculated to impair their womanly modesty..."47 It turned out that President Eaton, not the faculty, had made this decision and "...on considerations wholly apart and removed from the one stated..."48 Although the women did make breakthroughs in that first year much of what they attempted was denied or limited because of tradition.
The young women also took it upon themselves to create a social life in the early years of coeducation at Beloit College. The faculty decreed that the young women should be in their rooms by 10:30 P.M. and on special occasions arranged for previously, by 11:00 P.M., although there was no mention of a similar rule for male students.49 On October 31, 1895, the women of Stowell Cottage, one of the female residences which was located on present-day Church Street, "entertained a few of their particular friends in their parlors..."50 They also gave a "leap year party" in January of 1896, as well as numerous other social gatherings throughout the first year. In March the women of Rogers Cottage, one of the women's residence halls, hosted a costume party. "The guests were graciously received by such charming and distinguished hostesses as 'Martha Washington', 'Mrs. Madison', and 'Miss Madison'."51 The women also attended "indoor-basket-picnic-and-carpet-lawn-party",52 sponsored by the men of Phi Kappa Psi. The women provided the food and aside from eating, dancing took up the rest of the evening. Their social life was based around gatherings like these, hosted by the women or one of the fraternities, where the entertainment consisted of singing, candy-pulling, playing games like charades and cards, or dancing "till a reasonable hour."53 Every issue of The Round Table from 1895 until at least 1905 mentioned in the Local section that one of the young women had gone away for the weekend or had guests visit them. So it seemed that they were not wanting for an active social life.
The first year of coeducation at Beloit left those involved with mixed emotions. According to Grace Chamberlin Rosa's speech given at an Alumni Banquet in 1963, in those early days of coeducation "...the men were not always considerate, some going even to the point of shutting doors ahead of us, and placing their feet on the backs of chairs, even on desks..."54 Despite these juvenile displays of their disagreement with the new situation, there is some evidence that many people were glad to see the change. For example, by Thanksgiving of 1895 an article appeared in The Round Table giving thanks for "...one of [the] greatest experiments, co-education....It has been tested here and...has proven a booming success..."55 A month later an alumni from the class of 1888, Harry Morrow Hyde, wrote an article for The Round Table entitled "She!" The article began "Hail to the conquering coed!....She has melted the ghostly army of gray alumni with a smile!"56 and continued on in the same manner. Despite the various attitudes and actions of the male Beloit community, the women proved themselves competent scholars and worthy of respect.