(Editor's note: From the fall 2008 issue of Bucknell Magazine.)
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- For the 534 young women in this year’s entering class, matriculating at a university has been a given in their academic lives.
Although surely a momentous occasion for them and their families, their arrival at Bucknell caused no stir or dissension. But when members of the Class of 1883 Frances Rush, Lizzie Lanning and Annie Hay arrived on campus, they were a new breed altogether — the first female students at the newly co-ed University.
Educating girls had been part of the school’s mission since its founding in 1846. But, back then, the University at Lewisburg had three divisions — a college and two separate schools that corresponded roughly to today’s high school, one for boys and one for girls.
Co-ed before others
That, too, had been noteworthy, for “the prejudices of the community were very strong against a liberal education for women,” wrote Harriet Spratt, principal of the Female Institute from 1869 to 1878. Bucknell went co-ed far in advance of other private colleges and universities — nearly 90 years before any other Patriot League school.
Among the Ivies, only Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania opened their doors earlier to women.
The pioneering female students at Bucknell had the support of the University president, many of the faculty and benefactor and board chairman William Bucknell, who “warmly favored allowing the women to enter the college. ”Yet day-to-day life proved a struggle, as the college women “[were] not received with the most cordial enthusiasm,” a female student reported in the 1901 L’Agenda. “The honor must have been too great to bear,” she added, “for we only hear of one of these women holding out until she earned her degree.”
That woman was Frances Rush, who graduated in 1887. Yet, Rush was not the first female to graduate from Bucknell. That honor belongs to Chella Scott, who entered the University in 1884 with upper-class status.
Scott must have been a real powerhouse, for not only did she earn a bachelor of science degree with honors in 1885, but she also graduated first in her class of 14. To smooth the way for future women, the administration rearranged the curricula at the Female Institute such that its graduates had already completed the equivalent of the first year of college, making it easy for them to slip unobtrusively from the Institute to the University without stirring up opposition “among the hardshelled conservatives.”
These early graduates included trailblazers such as Eveline Stanton 1890, who became the first dean of college women at Bucknell, and Mary Bartol 1894, who went on to earn a doctorate and head the classics department at Rockford College. Mary Harris 1894, daughter of University President John Harris, also earned a doctorate; she worked as a prison warden and became an expert in penology. Mary Moore Wolfe 1896 was one of the first women in Pennsylvania to attend medical school.
By early in the 20th century, women made up nearly one-third of the student body, but it would take many more years — and the efforts of countless Bucknellians — before women achieved the equality they enjoy at the University today.
In fact, in recent years, the enrollment for women exceeds that of men, a trend that has been happening nationwide since the 1950s. Women comprise 56 percent of the Class of 2012.
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