Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Elmira Female College 1855- present

      One blog post will never be able to tell the story of this innovative and venerable institution. Let this serve as an introduction to an immense topic, and establish the distinction of Elmira's role in pioneering education for women.

      I’ve just read a fantastic book published in 1955 on Elmira College’s centennial called Elmira College: The first 100 years by E. Charles Barber. Written in an engaging and at times almost deadpan humorous way, it chronicles this historic institution which was the very first to offer women a baccalaureate degree equal to that of a man.
       Although Oberlin offered women a baccalaureate in 1837, the difference lies in the academic rigors which Elmira demanded of its female students. From 1855 Elmira offered two courses of study, classical and scientific. In the classical curriculum, a young lady would have studied Greek and Latin, and in the scientific course, only Latin. Both would include mathematics, rhetoric, English literature, philosophy, history and the natural sciences such as botany and astronomy. Add to that optional courses in music and studio art, as well as modern languages.
      Vassar, often cited as another first to offer women a man’s degree, didn’t open until a full decade after Elmira in 1865, and in fact, according to Barber, drew much if its curriculum from Elmira’s. They shared a professor, Charles S. Farrar, who also served as chief architect of the original building in Elmira, Cowles Hall, as well as an observatory which came shortly after. A clear connection exists in the exchanging of ideas between Elmira and Vassar. The chief difference seems to be that Vassar’s patron and namesake funded it far more lavishly than Elmira’s founder Simeon Benjamin could, and therefore earned Vassar greater notoriety.
        Filled with amusing and poignant anecdotes and biographies, Barber’s book brings to life the early college and early Elmira itself. A canal and rail town, Elmira boasted connections, commerce, and culture, but also transient laborers and their seamy amusements. The dual nature of the town demanded a delicate balance for its fair student body, which was achieved under the artful direction of its first president Dr. Augustus Cowles.
        Over 280 pages, this book pays homage to the times in the mid 19th century when progressive ideas fought their way through a white-dominated, patriarchal society, but makes a point that “enlightened” modern historians fail to notice. These progressive ideals were championed by men of deep Christian faith, soft-spoken men of great educations and fine minds who believed deeply in causes such as abolition and equal educational opportunities for women. Here the Victorian standards of modesty and charity for women are treated without the disdain of modern viewpoint.
         This experiment on Prospect Hill in a burgeoning mid-nineteenth century New York rail town proved once and for all that women were capable of great intellectual accomplishment. For women everywhere, Elmira has become a light to the world, a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden.  


  1. It's a really great book, recommended to me by Kerry Lippincott, the education coordinator for Chemung Valley history Museum, whom I met at the college's Octagon Fair last weekend. She was wonderful and answered my many questions on the spot and referred me to a few other resources as well.

    thanks for stopping by, Steph!

  2. it is amazing what was open to women in the day. Amazing what wasn't, and how few colleges there were for women. Thank you for sharing.