Oberlin Blogs

All The Educated Ladies, Put Your Hands Up

March 2, 2013

Margaret Saunders ’16

As an avid fan of period dramas, I have always made ample room in my heart for each and every woman who dares to talk back to the nobility who has insulted her family, defy the social norms and break out the pants, or--heaven forbid!--marry for love. But while Netflix Instant is full of series about lady detectives, ladies in power, and many, many ladies in love, I've noticed a severe lack of appreciation for the women who've made huge strides in the most basic areas of our national rights: ladies who graduated.

If you grew up in the American educational system, you've probably heard of Elizabeth Blackwell; I'm pretty sure learning about America's first woman with a medical degree is a requirement of every fifth-grade class. But when I wracked my brain in search of more famous women with diplomas in hand, I was shocked and saddened to find that I honestly couldn't remember learning about any significant others.

Hopefully this blog post will change that.

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Oberlin students circa 1850

If you've ever opened one of the admission office's many pamphlets, you probably know that Oberlin became the first co-educational college in 1833. The Fabulous First Four (™ me) to enroll were Mary Hosford, Elizabeth Smith Prall, Mary Caroline Rudd, and Mary Kellogg in 1837, and in 1841 Hosford, Prall, and Rudd became the first American women with Bachelor's degrees. Why the story of these ladies has not been the subject of an Oscar-winning biopic I have no idea, because I'd definitely sponsor it.

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Mary Caroline Allen, née Rudd, Class of 1841

But they weren't the only ladies to stick their diplomas to the man in Lorain. Lucy Stone '47, an abolitionist with a strong feminist leanings, toured the nation speaking for the end of slavery in a time when it was considered improper for any woman to engage in public speaking, much less voice their opinions on racism to a national audience. Her sister-in-law, Antoinette Brown Blackwell '47, followed her to the podium and became the first female ordained minister in the nation. Adelia Field Johnston taught History as Oberlin's first female professor in 1878. Edmonia Lewis studied art here and later was commissioned for a sculpture by Ulysses S. Grant.

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Lucy Stone, Class of 1847
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Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Class of 1847

Women of color used their Oberlin education to make great strides in combating racism. The first woman of color to earn a college degree in the United States was Lucy Stanton Day Sessions, class of 1850. Mary Jane Patterson followed in her footsteps and walked away with a Bachelor's degree in 1862. Mary Church Terrell earned her Master's in 1888 and lived to the age of 90, garnering a mountain of accomplishments in activism. Anna J. Cooper '84 is even quoted in the modern U.S. passport book and had a commemorative stamp issued in her honor.

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Lucy Stanton Day Sessions, Class of 1850
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Mary Jane Patterson, Class of 1862

All of these women have incredible stories behind them, stories of bravery and stalwartness. It's hard enough for many freshmen to brave eating in the dining halls alone; could you imagine being the only woman there? The only person of color? Could you attend classes, day after day, in a foreign place without a guarantee that your efforts will change the way people see you? The way they treat you? College is difficult for everyone, but over a century ago these women did things that most people considered impossible. It's a sobering and wonderful thing to ponder. It's a legacy of women who made a better life for themselves and for the girls to follow them; girls like me.

I'll conclude with this: while researching Oberlin history for this article, the name of Elizabeth Prall caught my eye. "Hmm, why does that sound so familiar?" I thought.

Then it hit me: Elizabeth Prall is the name I see above my head every time I open the door to my hall. And Mary Bosworth felt familiar, too. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions: the four wings of South Hall are named for Oberlin's first four female students.

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South Hall (Photo courtesy of Sakina Lavingia)

I hope I do them proud.












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