Women’s History Month: Pioneers in Higher Education
Image description: Mary Jane Patterson stands tall in this portrait from 1862.
It’s Women’s History Month, and we’re reflecting on the trailblazing women who have changed the landscape for generations to come in higher education. Today we’re discussing some of the earliest women in the nation to achieve a degree in higher education.
While we don’t have a definitive single woman who was the first to earn a degree, we are lucky in that there are plenty of records out there to tell us all about some of these pioneering women! One of the earliest records comes from 1831 at Mississippi College. According to the school, for the class of December 1831, only two people graduated – Alice Robinson and Catherine Hall. While they were attending a women’s program, they were praised in the notes from the ceremony for their scientific achievements, which was unheard of for women at the time. It is also noteworthy that none of the men from their same class year graduated – only Robinson and Hall!
Though not much is known of her, in 1840 Catherine Brewer Benson graduated from what was then called the Georgia Female College, now known as Wesleyan College. She is one of the earliest women to earn a full BA, coming from a pioneering institution in higher education of women. Eleven other women graduated the same night as Benson, but she is typically thought of as the first as she came first alphabetically and was the first to receive her degree that night. She was even invited back to speak to the graduating class of 1888!
In 1850, Lucy Stanton Day Sessions became the first African-American woman to earn a degree credential in the US from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She was married for a time to abolitionist William Howard Day, though she was in the process of separating from him at the time, and was forced to provide witnesses to her character, as the institution found it suspicious. She performed a speech at the graduation ceremony entitled, “A Plea for the Oppressed.”
In 1862, Mary Jane Patterson became the first African-American woman to receive a BA, graduating from Oberlin College as well. She went on to become a teacher, influencing generations of young minds and inspiring them to become whomever they wanted to. She taught in both Philadelphia and Washington DC. Her three younger siblings also all graduated from Oberlin College and became teachers.
We hold so much love and respect in our hearts for those women who made it possible for we to be where we are today, with NPR reporting that soon women will be over half of the college-educated workforce. We hope generations to come will walk across the stage with these women in mind!
Cate Fitzpatrick is an executive assistant with Three Frame Media and a recent alumna of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. When she’s not working or writing, she’s baking over at https://film-baker.com/.