The History of Women in Higher Education
Women had been fighting for their place in higher education for more than a century before the introduction of coeducation at Bowdoin. In 1833, Oberlin College became the first college in the United States to admit women. Many public universities later expanded their programs to become coeducational following the Morrill Act of 1862, which granted each state land to strengthen its agricultural and mechanic schools. Because the government was funding these schools, taxpayers demanded that their money be used to educate both men and women.
Beginning in the 1870s and 1880s, all-women colleges such as Wellesley, Smith, and Bryn Mawr also provided women with opportunities in higher education. Nineteenth century social norms dictated separate curriculum for men and women. While men were prepared to enter the workforce and make an income, women were taught to rear children, maintain the home, or become school teachers. Nonetheless, women’s colleges provided a space for women to develop their leadership skills in extracurricular activities, interact with other women students, work with women mentors, and pursue their intellectual interests. However, many eastern, men-only liberal arts colleges did not offer education for women until the 1960s and 70s when the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements forced society to examine the systemic racism and sexism in the United States. Eastern men-only liberal arts colleges began to reassess their admissions policies and moved toward inclusivity, and many introduced coeducation during this era.
Bowdoin Women Before Coeducation
Women were members of the Bowdoin community long before they were admitted as students in 1971. Brunswick community women and Bowdoin faculty wives fulfilled pivotal roles as office assistants, honorary degree recipients, and donors. The Bowdoin Wives Association and the Society of Bowdoin Women were women-run organizations that sponsored dances and events, published newspapers, and fostered community among women. Bowdoin granted twenty-three honorary degrees to women before welcoming full-time women students. Bowdoin was still a “men’s college,” but the early camaraderie among women created space for future women to join the community in new capacities.