Co-education comes to Penn State in 1871

March 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In June 1871, shortly after James Calder, fifth president of the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania — now Penn State — arrived on campus for the first time, he brought a proposal before the faculty and the Board of Trustees that caused some consternation: Calder, a supporter of equal educational rights, recommended that women be admitted as students to the all-male school.

Women students at Penn State, 1890s

The educational opportunities of women students at Penn State, like these two "co-eds" pictured on campus in the 1890s, were made possible by their forerunners, Ellen Cross and Rebecca Ewing, who in the 1870s were the first women students admitted to the then all-male Agricultural College of Pennsylvania.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

Although there were women on campus, mostly the wives and daughters of faculty members, only men were permitted to enroll in degree programs. Technically, Minerva Whitman, the daughter of botany professor J.S. Whitman, is considered the first woman to have studied at the College, in 1864 — she was given special allowance to attend her father's classes — but she was not permitted to officially enroll.

According to “We Are a Strong, Articulate Voice: A History of Women at Penn State,” the decision to admit women students was something of a risk, because “co-eds,” as they were then called, were often regarded as "hazardous to a college, distracting the boys from their studies and lowering the standards of scholarship." Not everyone was in favor of the principle of co-education; at the time, "vigorous" collegiate study was only considered appropriate for men, and was felt by many to be detrimental to women’s "delicate" health and sensibilities.

However, Calder saw absolutely no reason to exclude women from a college education — in fact, his previous presidency at Hillsdale College had resulted in the school becoming co-educational — and after some contentious discussion, the faculty gave its approval.

“it was felt that the important trust committed to the Board would not be fully administered while one half of the youth of our State were denied it’s advantages; and the experience of other institutions, several of the Agricultural, justified the expectation of good results from the co-education of the sexes,” said the trustees in the 1871 college catalog. “Such separation of the sexes, and variation of labor for instruction and exercise, as prudence dictates, will be carefully secured; but the privileges enjoyed will be equal, and the advantages derived from a residence at the college will be as great in one case as in the other.”

In September the College became the first college in Pennsylvania to admit women to degree programs on a regular basis, and among the first land-grant schools in the nation to do so. (It would be six more years before women were admitted to the University of Pennsylvania, and 22 for the University of Pittsburgh).

Calder invited two Hillsdale students, Ellen Cross of Omro, Wisconsin, and Rebecca Ewing of Angola, Indiana — both who were among the first women to attend Hillsdale — to join him in Pennsylvania and help launch the “women’s department.”

Four others enrolled later that year and the women’s department was up and running. By 1878, Penn State had 49 female undergraduates in residence. (As of Fall 2019, that number was 36,878 University-wide, with an additional 7,295 graduate students, including World Campus.)

Concurrent with the admission of women students came the appointment of the first female faculty members, Mary E. Butterfield, instructor in German, and Sarah E. Robinson, instructor in piano music.

Cross was the first to enroll, but In 1873, Rebecca Ewing became the first to graduate, with the class of 1872. Cross stayed at the College for two years before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, and, in 1919, at the age of 70, she was honored by the University of Wisconsin as one of the first women in the U.S. to receive a doctor of philosophy degree and to be ordained into the ministry.

Cross Hall and Ewing Hall, two residence halls on the University Park campus, are named in honor of the two women.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021