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Tales from the Morgue: Life for the first co-eds in 1837

Tales from the Morgue: Life for the first co-eds in 1837

Miss Caroline Mary Rudd was the first co-ed at an American university—and many were the Victorian conventions and prejudices she was forced to brave.

On Sept. 6, 1837, the first women attended college classes with men. Women attended colleges before that, but they were all-female schools.

Things were a little rougher for women in college in those days, even by the standards of 100 years later. The Arizona Daily Star celebrated the 100th anniversary of co-educational institutions with a wire article about those first co-eds.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Wednesday September 1, 1937:

Co-Education Began Just One Hundred Years Ago

OBERLIN, O.—Just one hundred years ago September 6 America's first co-eds packed their campus clothes and set out for Oberlin College, the first school in the country to allow men and women to sit together through college courses.

There was no sleeping through eight o'clock classes for those first co-eds. The Young Ladies—as they were called in 1837—were required to rise at five in the morning and have their rooms in order by eight. Midnight bull sessions were not yet the style, for ten o'clock was the prescribed and enforced bedtime.

Food at Oberlin was more plain than fancy, and a good thing, too, for it was served by the co-eds. Bread was the staff of life—bread with milk, bread with gravy, bread with salt, and bread and water. If a young lady preferred a more hearty diet than bread she paid an extra charge and sat at a table where meat was served.

Waiting tables was only the beginning of the duties of those first co-eds. The young ladies also scrubbed floors, kept their rooms and the rooms of the men students clean, and washed and mended the young men's clothes. Pay for this valet service was two and three-quarter cents an hour.

Strict Regimen

These and other regulations that governed these petticoated pioneers of co-education have come to light through the centennial celebration of Oberlin college, set for September 6.

Church was not the co-ed's choice in those days. She went whether she wanted to or not. And religion was not confined to Sundays. A prayer began every class, whether it was Cicero, the Acts of the Apostles in the original Greek, anatomy, physiology, or trigonometry. No co-ed served meal began without grace, and there was prayer meetings, religious lectures and chapel hours for the young ladies to attend. They were also allowed a half hour each morning for private devotions.

College life for the co-eds of 1837 did not include fraternity and sorority dances, rumble seats, football games, or complicated campus politics. Their outside interests were limited to literary societies, the Female Moral Reform society, and the Musical Union. The Reform society's most earnest endeavor was to adopt a resolution "that the disgrace of the gentleman who takes improper liberties with a young lady shall be as great as that of the young lady who permits such liberties."

"Lady Students" Bashful

Even though they were eager for the kind of education that had heretofore been offered only to men, the first co-eds grew faint. There was also the faculty plan to combine the men's and women's English composition classes, and a subsequent petition from the ladies that either from modesty or delicacy they felt reluctant to read their compositions in the presence of men. By means of the petition and tears, the ladies won their point, and they continued to read their written thoughts before a strictly female audience.

In 1840, Oberlin was given a telescope, but it was reported that the lady principal was "a bit hesitant about allowing the lady students to stay up after hours to look at the heavenly bodies."

Once every week the co-eds were given a lecture by the ladies' principal on engagements, marriage, hygiene, politeness, dress and the qualities essential for a minister's wife. One student described the lectures in these words: "She holds up before us the great laws of life and health, teaches us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and not guiltless if we trample on these laws."

Charges of laxness in morals among college students is not entirely a new complaint. Oberlin had to defend just such criticisms a hundred years ago. In 1837, a student who had been dismissed from the school wrote a pamphlet accusing the leaders of Oberlin of "wild fanaticism." He declared that "joint education" was very similar to free love, and that undue intimacy was common between the students of opposite sex. The pamphlet, just as anything written on the subject today, enjoyed a wide circulation.

No one today knows why the four young women who enrolled at Oberlin College on September 6, 1937, chose to be America's first co-eds. Oberlin admitted them to "bring within the reach of the misjudged and neglected sex, all the instructive privilege which hitherto have unreasonably distinguished the leading sex from theirs,"

Whatever the motive of those four young ladies in going to school with men, the end was matrimony, 100 per cent. If matrimony is indeed the aim of most co-eds, the beginners were more successful than their modern sisters. For through the years the percentage of marriages of Oberlin's women graduates has dropped from 100 to 60 per cent.

One might argue that the women went to college for the education, not believing they would meet their future mates.

One might wonder if these ladies were admitted to college because maids were wanted for the men. In spite of the liberal view that women should have the best education available, most people expected them to marry instead of pursuing careers. Therefore, they must do the things that would prepare them to take care of a family.

Johanna Eubank is an online content producer for the Arizona Daily Star and Contact her at

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Online producer

Johanna Eubank is a digital producer for the Arizona Daily Star and She has been with the Star in various capacities since 1991.

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