History of Women at Cornell College

The following is an excerpt from Cornell College: 150 Years from A-Z by Charles Milhauser.

 


 

Cornell was the first coeducational college west of the Mississippi and one of the first in the nation to admit women to all degree programs and courses with the same privileges as men. Cornell women had opportunities denied to their sisters in eastern coeducational institutions, where, for example, women were not admitted to Greek courses because certain aspects of Greek culture were considered too indelicate for feminine sensibilities; where Shakespeare was taught in segregated classes because many of the bard's passages were thought too embarrassing to be read in mixed company; and where women who enrolled in chemistry courses were not allowed to be present for the "dangerous and smelly" laboratory experiments.

In the 1850s, Professor Stephen Fellows conducted Cornell's first coed class in physics. One experiment dealt with air pressure and vacuum. Fellows placed a squirrel in a chamber connected to a pump. As the air was exhausted, the creature began to suffer. The women screamed "let him out," and the animal was released.

Cornell was the first college west of the Mississippi to grant a baccalaureate degree to a woman - in 1858 to Mary Fellows - and the first in the United States to promote a woman - Harriette Jay Cooke in 1871 - to a full professorship with same salary as a male of that rank. Cooke, professor in German and history, has joined the faculty in 1857 and from 1866 was also the preceptress (dean of women). In the 1870s, she founded the Cornell Association for the Higher Education of Women.

When compulsory military training was instituted for male students in 1873, Cornell's women demanded the same. The following year, Professor Cooke organized a company of women, who drilled in uniforms - skirts, of course - and carried wooden wands on their shoulders instead of rifles. In the fall of 1889, a Ladies' Battalion was created. The women elected their own officers. By 1891, there were 112 women in uniforms that included scabbards. Only senior women were issued rifles, Cornell's Ladies' Battalion, which functioned until 1898, may be unique in United State collegiate history.

Feminist concerns were first addressed in 1969 with the establishment of an organization called the Women's Liberation Movement of Cornell College. A Women's Bureau was opened in 1974. In that year, President Secor sent a memorandum to all administrative and office personnel "to use the professional title in addressing women members of the faculty and staff as we use in addressing men." Previously women who often held doctorates and/or professorships often received communications from the college offices addressed "Ms. Doe" or even "Mrs. John Doe."

Dr. Charlotte Vaughan recalled an incident in 1972: "We had recently moved to Mount Vernon and were living in a college-owned house. I reported a leaking water heater. Two maintenance men came. They said, 'What do you find to do all day long with your husband away at the college?' I said that I also worked at the college. One of them said, 'Whose secretary are you?' I told them I was the new chair of the sociology department. They made no further attempt at conversation."

During the 1970s, the presidents of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM, founded in 1958), of which Cornell was a charter member, formed a Committee on the Status of Women to examine women's concerns at the individual colleges and to provide a mechanism of communication between women faculty and staff. It sponsored a conference at Cornell on integrating the new feminist scholarship into the college curriculum. In the spring of 1972, a male professor in the English Department introduced Cornell's first course in this field: "Women's Liberation & A Contemporary Study of Women's Literature." He enrolled 10 women and two men. A Women's Studies Program was established in 1984. Its success led to the introduction of a Women's Studies Major in 1989.