Oberlin students of the late 1850's (courtesy Oberlin College Archives)
Oberlin College and Women's History
Postings in Honor of Women's History Month 1998
Oberlin College pioneered "the joint education of the sexes," enrolling women students beside men from its opening in 1833. As Philo P. Stewart wrote, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute held as one of its primary objectives:
the elevation of the female character, bringing within the reach of the misjudge and neglected sex, all the instructive privileges which hitherto have unreasonably distinguished the leading sex from theirs.
While the first women took classes with men, they pursued diplomas from the Ladies Course. In 1837, four women, Mary Kellogg, Mary Caroline Rudd, Mary Hosford and Elizabeth Prall, enrolled in the Collegiate Department, and in 1841, all but Kellogg graduated. Kellogg, who had left school for lack of funds, later returned to Oberlin after marrying James Harris Fairchild, future Oberlin College president.
Oberlin fused its commitment to coeducation with its support for the education of African Americans. So, in 1862, Oberlin graduated Mary Jane Patterson, the first African American woman to earn a college degree. Oberlin also enrolled Margru, also known as Sarah Kinson, who, as an African child, had been among the Amistad captives; Kinson was probably the first African woman to participate in American higher education.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell
Throughout its history, Oberlin has graduated remarkable women of passion, commitment, and achievement. Among the most famous nineteenth-century women were:
For Women's History Month 1998, we share some information about other remarkable women graduates:
Ruth Anna Fisher (1886-1975) was born in nearby Lorain, Ohio, and graduated from Oberlin in 1906. Fisher taught at the Tuskegee Institute, and in schools in Lorain, Ohio and in Indianapolis, before undertaking graduate work at the London School of Economics. When she returned, she began working for J. Franklin Jameson, the first editor of the American Historical Review and a central figure in the professionalization of History. Racism impeded her ability to move freely within the historical profession; she nonetheless maintained an appreciation for Jameson, and coedited a tribute to him in 1965.
Georgia Douglas Johnson (1877-1966) completed her studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1906. Born in Atlanta in 1886, she had previously studied at Atlanta University. Under the influence of Harlem Renaissance figures, Johnson turned to literature, publishing The Heart of A Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), and An Autumn Love Cycle (1928). Later works included A Sunday Morning in the South, an anti lynching play, and historical dramas including Frederick Douglass and William and Ellen Craft..
Edmonia Lewis (1843-?) attended Oberlin College 1859-1862, before moving to Boston to begin work as a sculptor, then to Rome in 1865. She is known today especially for her works drawing on themes of African American slavery and emancipation.
Early Women Doctors from Oberlin College:
Lillian Gertrude Towslee (1859-1918) graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1882, and taught music while studying medicine at the College of Wooster. Later, she also became a successful real estate speculator
Martha Ann Robinson Canfield (1845-1916) graduated from the Collegiate Course in 1868. She became the second president of the Women's and Children's Free Medical Dispensary in Cleveland.
Women Reformers from Oberlin College
Harriet Keeler (1846-1921) graduated from Oberlin in 1870. She became the first female Superintendent of Schools in Cleveland, Ohio. She was also the biographer of Oberlin's first woman professor, Adelia Field Johnston.
Elizabeth Stewart Magee (1889-1972) graduated from Oberlin College in 1911. She served as the executive secretary of the Consumers League of Ohio, and organized women industrial workers.
Belle Sherwin (1868-1955) received an honorary degree from Oberlin College. Sherwin organized Cleveland's Women's City Club, and, after an active career in suffrage, served as President of the League of Women Voters.
Anna V. Brown (1914-1985), an 1938 graduate of the college, served the Cleveland community in her work for the Phyllis Wheatley Association; she was particularly active on issues of aging.
Interested in learning more about women and their history at Oberlin College? The Oberlin College Archives has published a guide to its rich collection of primary documents:
Pamela Kirwin Adams, Alexandra Weil, and Roland M. Baumann, Compilers,Roland M. Baumann, Editor, Guide to the Women's History Sources in the Oberlin College Archives.
You can access this on the web through the link provided.
Other publications of interest include:
Blodgett, Geoffrey T., "John Mercer Langston and the Case of Edmonia Lewis: Oberlin, 1862," Journal of Negro History, 52 (July, 1968), 201-18.
Diepenbrock, David, "Black Women And Oberlin College In The Age Of Jim Crow," UCLA Historical Journal, 13(1993): 27-59.
Fletcher, Robert S. and Ernest H. Wilkins, "The Beginning of College Education for Women and of Coeducation on the College Level," Bulletin of Oberlin College, March 20, 1937.
Fletcher, Robert. A History of Oberlin College From its Foundation Through the Civil War. 2 vols., Oberlin,1943.
Ginzberg, Lori D., "Women in an Evangelical Community: Oberlin 1835-1850," Ohio History, 89(Winter 1980), 78-88.
Haddad, Gladys., "Women's Work at Oberlin College," The Western Reserve Magazine, 8(September/October 1981), 43-47.
Henle, Ellen and Marlene Merrill, "Antebellum black coeds at Oberlin College," Oberlin Alumni Magazine, 75 (January/February 1980), 18-21.
Hogeland, Ronald W., "Coeducation of the Sexes at Oberlin College; A Study of Social Ideas in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," Journal of Social History, 6 (Winter 1972-73), 160-76.
Hosford, Frances J., Father Shipherd's Magna Charta; a Century of Coeducation in Oberlin College.Boston, Marshall Jones Co., 1937.
Lasser, Carol, & Katherine Linehan, "'For Coeducation we've come': five alumnae look back," Oberlin Alumni Magazine, 79 (Winter 1983), 3-7, 25.
Lasser, Carol, & Marlene Deahl Merrill, eds. Soul Mates: The Oberlin Correspondence of Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown 1846-1850.Oberlin: Oberlin College, 1983.
Lasser, Carol, & Marlene Deahl Merrill, eds., Friends and Sisters: Letters between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846- 93. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Lasser, Carol, ed., Educating men and women together: Coeducation in a Changing World 1833-1908. Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Lawson, Ellen NicKenzie, with Marlene D. Merrill, The Three Sarahs: Documents Of Antebellum Black College Women. Studies in Women and Religion, Vol. 13, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1984.
Merrill, Marlene D. "Daughters Of America Rejoice: The Oberlin Experiment," Timeline 4 (1987): 12-21.
Merrill, Marlene D., "Justice, Simple Justice: Women at Oberlin 1837-1987," Oberlin Alumni Magazine 83 (Fall 1987), 11-16.
Nickenzie, Ellen and Marlene D. Merrill, "The Antebellum 'Talented Thousandth': Black College Students at Oberlin Before the Civil War," Journal of Negro History (Spring 1983).
Rokicky, Catherine M. "Lydia Finney And Evangelical Womanhood," Ohio History, 103(Summer 1994 ): 170-189.
Weisenfeld, Judith "'Who Is Sufficient For These Things?' Sara G.Stanley And The American Missionary Association, 1864-1868," Church History 60(1991 ): 493-507.
Two reference works deserve mention. An excellent article on Oberlin and fine essays on several significant Oberlin women graduates appear in:
Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, eds., Black Women in American: An Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Many Oberlin graduates are also featured in:
Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James and Paul S. Boyer, eds., Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1971; and Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurt Green, eds., Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1980.
I welcome your comments or suggestions so that we can continue this collaborative effort in women's history.
Associate Professor of History