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Coeducation at Colby

Mary Low enrolled as Colby College’s first female student in 1871. She was the only female student for her first two years at Colby. In 1873, she was joined by three other women, including Louise Helen Coburn. These two women became lifelong advocates for women at Colby. For Low and Coburn, women’s education was truly coeducational, and it remained so in the early years.

But despite almost two decades of pioneering success, questions arose as to whether women should pursue the same academic program as men. Eventually the school did succumb to pressures to push women aside. Colby President Albion Small introduced a plan of coordination, consisting of a male and female division, a compromise of sorts among those who did and did not support a female presence at the college. President Small’s plan was inaugurated on June 30, 1890.

Mary Low, Louise Coburn and other alumnae responded with a letter of protest, signed by 19 women graduates, stating:    “The College seeks to justify itself by an alleged act of higher generosity. She will establish within her precincts a college for women, in which they may go to even higher achievements. But by that decision the College confesses that she made a mistake twenty years ago, and thus places her present alumnae in the anomalous position of being the visible evidence of that mistake.”    They concluded their letter with a bold declaration: “The issue is not whether men and women can recite together, whether men and women shall study this or that. It is simply the issue whether the men are willing to take the risk of having women surpass them in scholarship.”

This site gathers together letters between alumnae, writings on coordination and coeducation, and profiles of early women graduates to help bring to life this controversial period in Colby’s history.