Educated, Activist Women Who Opened College Doors for the Rest of Us
Shortly after publishing my book, Ask a Suffragist: Stories and Wisdom from America’s First Feminists, I was surprised when emails from middle and high school students started coming in. In retrospect it makes sense, but at the time, I didn’t know that an author is also a volunteer mentor for young students. Speaking to America’s young citizens about who came before them and how they will carry on that legacy is a privilege. I love to hear from male students, who understand that just as women’s rights are human rights, women’s history is human history, rich with information to benefit both women and men. I love to hear from female students, the beneficiaries of the work of generations of women and men who opened doors to make their education possible.
The first college in America to admit women alongside men was Oberlin College in Ohio. Since it was literally the only option for an ambitious American woman seeking a college education, several of the nation’s future suffrage leaders attended Oberlin, such as Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown, who met at Oberlin and later founded the American Woman Suffrage Association.
At Oberlin, they enrolled in the same public speaking course. Both wanted public speaking careers—Lucy wanted to be an abolitionist and Antoinette wanted to be a minister—but they were dismayed to find that women were expected to learn public speaking by silently listening to their male classmates. They protested the rule and subverted it by forming their own debate society for women.
After graduation, Antoinette applied for postgraduate theology studies, flummoxing Oberlin officials, who supported co-education but not women in ministry. In the end, they agreed to let Antoinette take the courses but only as a “resident graduate” ineligible for a divinity degree. Even without the degree, Antoinette went on to become the first ordained Protestant woman in the United States.
The friends became sisters-in-law when each married brothers from a progressive Ohio family, Sam and Henry Blackwell. Both brothers became women’s rights activists after witnessing the struggle of their sister, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was rejected from over a dozen medical schools because she was a woman. Eventually, the student body of Geneva Medical College (now Hobart and William Smith Colleges) in New York voted to let her in as a joke. Elizabeth became America’s first female medical student, thanks in part to a bunch of young men who wouldn’t take her seriously.
Elizabeth performed well at Geneva, but when her younger sister, Emily Blackwell, tried to follow in her footsteps, she found that the door that had opened for her sister had since slammed shut. Geneva administrators weren’t willing to repeat the experiment of educating a woman. Emily was accepted at Rush Medical College in Illinois, but her admission was revoked during her first year when the school faced retaliation from the local medical society for having a female student. Emily eventually returned to Ohio and finished her studies at Western Reserve College (now Case Western University).
Shortly after Emily graduated, Elizabeth helped another woman, Marie Zakrzewska, start medical studies at Western Reserve College. In her home country, Marie had battled against a sexist rule prohibiting young single women from attending the school of midwifery in Berlin. (Single ladies would be too distracting to the young men!) She eventually prevailed with the help of a forward-thinking male professor, Dr. Joseph Hermann Schmidt. After graduation, she heard about the women’s rights movement in America and decided to immigrate, but encountered equal doses of sexism here, compounded by anti-immigrant prejudice.
Elizabeth introduced Marie to activists Harriot Hunt and Caroline Severance. Harriot was a self-trained doctor who had tried and failed to gain admission to medical school at the same time Elizabeth had been applying. She had since turned her efforts to helping younger women attain medical educations. While touring Ohio, she collaborated with Caroline, a local women’s club leader, to start a scholarship fund for female medical students. Marie became one of its first beneficiaries. Marie went on to help Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell open the first American hospital administered by women, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, before moving to Massachusetts to teach at the first women’s medical school, New England Female Medical College (now Boston University School of Medicine).
Oberlin was the first college in America to admit black women—but that didn’t happen until about two decades after white women and black men began attending the school.
“For,” as Oberlin graduate Mary Church Terrell explained, “not only are colored women with ambition and aspiration handicapped on account of their sex, but they are everywhere baffled and mocked on account of their race.”
Mary became the first president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, a united force to uplift the people of their race by advocating for reforms such as women’s suffrage and universal education. Mary coined their motto: “Lifting as we climb.”
I like to think that when I donate a bit of time to a teenager, I am lifting that young person as I climb, just as Mary would have me do. The young students who look to me for help with their history projects can be flaky. They send nonsense emails, well-decorated with emojis. They seem to struggle with setting appointments and instead of using their time with me more productively, they often waste the opportunity by peppering me with basic questions they could have answered by googling, or better yet, by reading my book. They are young, and it shows.
But it won’t be long before they are the nation’s workers, activists and leaders. I’m happy to do a small part to contribute to the education of America’s next generation, remembering that education was once a rare gift for a woman. I am grateful that many of the few women who got in to college back when so many barriers stood in their way became human rights activists who made the opportunity available to the rest of us.
This blog post is cross-posted at the Ohio History Connection.