Vassar College Opens

Vassar was not the first college for women in the United States, but when it opened, it was the first to offer a full liberal arts curriculum comparable to that of a good men’s college.

Summary of Event

When Vassar College opened its doors to students on September 26, 1865, a new era began in the higher education of women in the United States. Although many schools for women existed in 1865, and some called themselves colleges, none offered a full college course. Indeed, few women’s schools offered more than high school educations, and the best existing institution, Mount Holyoke Mt. Holyoke College[Mount Holyoke College] Female Seminary, was then approximately equivalent to a modern junior college. Oberlin College Oberlin College , Antioch College Antioch College , and some western state universities permitted women to take courses, but few women succeeded in meeting the requirements of a bachelor of arts degree. Vassar was unique in offering women an education as rigorous and complete as that offered in the best men’s colleges. Its success set a new standard for women’s education that other institutions would endeavor to match. Vassar College
New York State;Vassar College
[kw]Vassar College Opens (Sept. 26, 1865)
[kw]College Opens, Vassar (Sept. 26, 1865)
[kw]Opens, Vassar College (Sept. 26, 1865)
Vassar College
New York State;Vassar College
[g]United States;Sept. 26, 1865: Vassar College Opens[3860]
[c]Education;Sept. 26, 1865: Vassar College Opens[3860]
[c]Women’s issues;Sept. 26, 1865: Vassar College Opens[3860]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 26, 1865: Vassar College Opens[3860]
Jewett, Milo Parker
Raymond, John Howard
Vassar, Matthew
Mitchell, Maria

Self-made, self-educated, and proud of what he had achieved without formal education, Matthew Vassar Vassar, Matthew was an unlikely person to found any kind of educational institution. Born in England, he had come to the United States in 1796 with his parents as a four-year-old child. His parents settled in Poughkeepsie, New York, where they operated a brewery. In 1811, Vassar opened his own brewery, and his thrift and shrewd investments soon multiplied his wealth. He married in 1813 but never had children. During a trip to Europe in 1845, he was impressed by Thomas Guy’s Hospital in London London;Thomas Guy’s Hospital , with its handsome building and monumental statue of the founder. He decided to leave money in his will to build a similar institution in Poughkeepsie.

Maria Mitchell.

(Library of Congress)

Vassar showed no interest in higher education for women until after he discussed his hospital plans with Milo Parker Jewett, a Baptist minister who, in 1855, took over a school for girls in a building owned by Vassar. Jewett convinced Vassar that to build and endow “a college for young women which shall be to them what Yale Yale University and Harvard Harvard University are to young men” would create a unique institution that would be a much more memorable monument to his name than any hospital. After some hesitation, Vassar decided to begin the college during his lifetime. In January, 1861, the New York State Legislature passed a charter creating the college, and when the board of trustees met for the first time the following month, Vassar gave them $408,000 to start building. The donation represented half of his estate, and the rest was to follow later. Jewett Jewett, Milo Parker became the first president of the college, but a falling-out with Vassar led to his resignation in 1864.

During the four years that the campus was under construction, Vassar publicized his new institution widely; Godey’s Lady’s Book and Harper’s Weekly spread the news across the nation. By September, 1865, the great Main Building—modeled after the Tuileries Palace, which Vassar had admired during his tour of France—was ready. Designed to house the entire college, the building contained apartments for president and faculty, rooms for students, classrooms, offices, a library, a large dining room, and an impressive chapel.

John Howard Raymond Raymond, John Howard , who succeeded Jewett Jewett, Milo Parker as president, organized a curriculum fully as rigorous as that of any existing college. When Vassar opened, 353 students between fifteen and twenty-four years of age arrived, but fewer than half were ready to undertake college-level work. Raymond had to establish a preparatory department to bring most of them up to grade. Not until 1886 would improvements in U.S. secondary education for women permit Vassar to eliminate its preparatory department.

Matthew Vassar had hoped to hire women as faculty, but except for Maria Mitchell Mitchell, Maria , who was already world famous as an astronomer Astronomy;and Vassar College[Vassar College] whose discovery of a comet had garnered her a gold medal from the king of Denmark, all the professors were men. Women filled the lower teaching ranks. To entice Mitchell to the college, Vassar built an observatory for her on the college grounds, where she chose to live with her father.

Vassar’s publicity attracted the attention of critics as well as students. Opponents argued that women were mentally inferior to men and unable to meet male intellectual standards, that they would not be able to stand the physical strain of higher education and would develop brain fever; and that should they manage to survive college, their children would be sickly, if they were able to have children at all. Vassar set out to deflect and disprove all criticism. To protect the health of students, courses in hygiene and physiology were required in the freshman year. A gymnasium with room for a riding school was one of the three original buildings, wide corridors provided room for exercise in winter, and three miles of walkways and riding paths could be used in better weather. To protect the morals of the students, Vassar required them to live under the direct supervision of resident teachers and follow rigid daily schedules. As alumnae began to succeed in various professions, the college trumpeted their achievements as proof of the ability of women to profit from a rigorous liberal arts education.

Other women’s colleges followed Vassar’s lead. When Wellesley Wellesley College opened in 1875, only thirty of its first 314 students were at college level, and the school opened a large preparatory program. Smith College Smith College , which opened during the same year, refused to start a preparatory department and attracted only fourteen students. By 1885, when Bryn Mawr Bryn Mawr College opened, preparatory departments were no longer necessary, and Bryn Mawr was able to offer graduate degree programs from the start. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Mt. Holyoke College[Mount Holyoke College] added a college-level program and, in 1893, changed its name to Mount Holyoke College. State universities also responded to Vassar. The University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin, University of which had shunted women into a separate college with more limited and more elementary courses than those available to men, abolished the separate college in 1871.

By the 1890’s, the so-called Seven Sister Seven Sisters women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe Radcliffe College , and Barnard—were solidly established and able to hire better-educated and more distinguished faculty, many of them women. Gifts from wealthy donors paid for elaborate buildings. Financial aid for students, however, was limited, and students tended to come from upper-middle-class homes with parents who were professionals or businesspersons. The students came with the full support of their parents and often cited encouragement from fathers as the decisive factor in their decision to go to college.

Separatism, with women in control of all extracurricular life, fostered the development of a women’s culture on campus and encouraged a belief in the special mission of educated women. In contrast to coeducational institutions, at which men dominated extracurricular activities, students at women’s colleges controlled all student life, organizing meetings, politicking among classmates, and handling budgets. Students were prepared to fill leadership roles in national social and political reform movements. Graduates also contributed through volunteer work to school boards and other local institutions. Many graduates became teachers and school administrators; less frequently, they went into medicine, law, or business.


By the 1920’s, as the nation became more affluent, female student populations changed, showing less interest in reform or preparation for a profession than in enjoying the college experience. Coming from more socially elite and wealthier homes, many of these women had less interest in their studies and little reason to prepare to support themselves. Most planned to marry and raise families; few would try for professions.

During the 1960’s, the whole concept of separate education for women came into question, and on women’s college campuses the merits of separate education versus coeducation were debated. After lengthy discussion, Vassar turned down an invitation to merge with Yale University Yale University;and Vassar College[Vassar College] but, in 1969, decided to become coeducational on its own campus. Radcliffe Radcliffe College merged totally into Harvard. The other five Sisters did not become coeducational, although the presence of men on campus became normal under exchange agreements with nearby men’s colleges. Proponents of women’s colleges insisted on the continuing value of institutions at which women dominated college life.

Further Reading

  • Albers, Henry, ed. Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters. Clinton Corners, N.Y.: College Avenue Press, 2001. Biography of Vassar College’s first woman professor by another former Vassar professor.
  • Bruno, Maryann, and Elizabeth A. Daniels. Vassar College. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2001. Well-illustrated history of Vassar, from its founding through the turn of the twenty-first century. Both authors are Vassar graduates and veteran college staff members.
  • Gordon, Lynn D. “Vassar College, 1865-1920: Women with Missions.” In Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. Describes how students and women faculty transformed Matthew Vassar’s institution.
  • Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930’s. 2d ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993. Discusses how the designs chosen for buildings affected college operations and the life of students and faculty.
  • ________. Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Discusses how student expectations about college life changed over the centuries. Chapter 4 deals with the experiences of women.
  • Kendall, Elaine.“Peculiar Institutions”: An Informal History of the Seven Sister Colleges. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976. Witty and anecdotal account of the origins and development of elite eastern women’s colleges.
  • Newcomer, Mabel. A Century of Higher Education for American Women. New York: Harper & Bros., 1959. Despite its age, this is the standard history of college education for women; it offers invaluable details.
  • Taylor, James Monroe. Before Vassar Opened: A Contribution to the History of the Higher Education of Women in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914. A scholarly history, by the fourth president of Vassar College, that is the source of all later accounts of the founding of Vassar.
  • Woody, Thomas. A History of Women’s Education in the United States. New York: Science Press, 1929. Although dated in some of its interpretations, this book is the classic work on women’s education in the United States.

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New York State;Vassar College