Fridays With Fred: Beloit College becomes coeducational
As students ambled along familiar campus paths, greeting old friends, chapel bells pealed, as usual, welcoming them to a new academic year. That fall of 1895, however, something unprecedented was astir at Beloit College. A front-page editorial in the September 25th issue of the Round Table announced the following: “With the beginning of this 49th school year, there is conferred upon old Beloit a broadened mission, henceforth her sons will not be the only standard-bearers of their alma mater, but among her roll of honor there will also be numbered strong-charactered and brave-souled women.”
Beloit’s journey to coeducation took nearly 50 years. From its founding, Beloit College coexisted with a sister school, the Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford University), even sharing some of the same trustees. Apart from kerfuffles over occasional unauthorized visits to Rockford women from Beloit men, the two institutions had a cordial relationship. Over the years, though, discussions about whether Beloit College should admit women came up time and time again. First president, Aaron L. Chapin, was against it. “The culture of true manhood is best carried on in an atmosphere essentially masculine,” he declared in 1872, “as that of true womanhood is in an atmosphere essentially feminine.” Three years later, a Round Table writer begged to differ: “The sexes are born, live and should be educated together.”
By the early 1890s, the college began to take a serious look at the advantages of coeducation, both for financial reasons and in terms of enhancing its reputation, when so many other prestigious colleges had tried it successfully. Perhaps in preparation, the college modernized its campus and curriculum, including founding an art department, art and anthropology museums, and building Pearsons Hall, dedicated to the sciences.
The class of 1895 published the college yearbook, the Codex, in December 1893. A cartoon headed, “The Needs of Beloit,” included a cluster of young women in caps and gowns. Accompanying text, entitled “How ’95 Answers the Co-Educational Question” provided both serious and tongue-in-cheek student commentary. “Yes, and no, in the future, but not at present,” wrote one. Another summed up a growing sentiment: “I believe in co-education – because.”
By June of 1894, the faculty had made up its mind for coeducation and wrote a recommendation to the trustees, couched with a warning that Beloit was falling behind the times: “The institution would be stimulated and its membership largely increased, if next September women should be admitted quietly and without ado. The whole trend of education, especially in the West, is toward coeducation, in this region we are looked upon as educational outlaws, while we maintain our present attitude toward this question.”
The trustees agreed, and in January of 1895, President Edward Dwight Eaton announced that the college would open its doors to women that fall. A Round Table editor lamented the news: “That threatening cloud which has been hanging over the College for the last four years with anguishing uncertainty has at last broken with full force…The old college which most of the students have learned to love…has sold its birth-right and given up its precious tradition and character for a mere mess of pottage - a few more students and a little more money.” In the coming months, however, other student writers expressed more hope, cooperation, and approval.
That fall, 33 women entered Beloit College. Most of them lived in small cottages on the north end of campus, while the college constructed its first women’s dormitory, Emerson Hall, which opened in the fall of 1898. Right from the start, the college encouraged women to partake in the same academic courses as men, including the sciences. Other than Physical Education, women faced exactly the same academic requirements as the men. Despite fear among some faculty that women would not be up to the rigors of Beloit scholarship, they quickly proved otherwise, winning academic prizes, and, within a short time, earning both salutatorian and valedictorian honors. The Round Table concurred: “It is obvious that the young lady students are abundantly able to cope with the brightest of our young men in the recitation room.”
Women faced a more difficult task joining in extracurricular activities. Men allowed token positions on the Round Table and Codex and elsewhere, but shut women out of many other organizations. Women formed their own literary and debating societies, glee clubs, and drama groups, and even founded the college’s first sorority, Theta Pi Gamma, though the college refused to sanction it for many years. It didn’t take long, however, for men and women to enjoy socializing together, attending chaperoned parties, and picnicking along the river and at the future Big Hill Park.
Each year, as more women entered the college and became integral to its character, stale objections to coeducation waned and ultimately disappeared. Other challenges remained, but Beloit’s “brave-souled” women faced them with determination and spirit.