Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The 19th Century Dummer Women

For this blog, I am pleased to announce a guest blogger.  Jenika Smith, Class of 2009, chose to create a blog for her Alma mater based on her research in the Governor's Academy Archives and elsewhere, as a final project in her college history class.  I hope you all enjoy reading her work!

Coeducation in the 19th Century: The Women of Dummer Academy

Dummer Academy Class of 1901

       The Governor’s Academy has a history resembling the majority of boarding schools in the Independent School League. The school, much like her counterparts, possesses a rigorous academic schedule, a thoughtful and gifted faculty and a buzzing community full of spirit and respect. However, what stands out about the Academy is that it is the oldest continuously run boarding school in the United States , so its archives contain a plethora of books, letters, photographs and objects that remain untouched by the common student. It is only when these artifacts are sought after and revealed that a researcher, especially a current student, faculty member or alumnus, can see into the Academy’s past as if she or he were there. Examining just a letter or a photograph one can see that the school’s moral and community values at its founding are what fundamentally shaped the distinguished academy that it is today. While both captivating stories and controversial issues alike have arisen in the Academy’s long history, there is one, or might I say two events in particular that are telling in understanding a much broader history of the United States. Those events, though brief in time, were the first experiments in which The Governor’s Academy opened its doors to female students during the 19th century. It was an unlikely tale for the Academy, whose prestigious reputation resided with those male graduates who went on to attend Ivy League universities. So how could coeducation at the Academy be possible during an era of extreme controversy over women’s education? Moreover, why were females seeking higher education and how did they land at Dummer Academy? This piece will not only discuss the decision to allow female students at the Academy but it will also analyze the basis why coeducation was considered taboo at schools like Dummer.

Ebenezer Greenleaf Parsons
        In the early spring of 1872, Reverend Ebenezer Greenleaf Parsons became the headmaster of Dummer Academy. Referred to as Principal Parsons, he brought with him an esteemed character, a highly regarded intellect and a progressive stance on the social norms of the era. In fact he was headmaster of Pinkerton Academy before that, which became coeducational in 1853. Parsons’ predecessors left the Academy financially unstable, leaving him and the Board of Trustees with no other option than to find new ways of increasing enrollment. From the success of neighboring boarding schools such as Phillips Andover, Lawrence and Milton Academy grew heavy competition and Dummer seemed to be on a losing streak. Throughout the 19th century Dummer experienced shortages down to one student and few times had to go on hiatus. The prolonged sequence of financial issues the school had faced guided Parsons and the trustees to seek no other solution but to allow female students to enroll in the school. Although Parsons was considered to have a more progressive outlook on female education, the Academy only resorted to coeducation due to financial concerns. While one cannot predict what might have happened if Dummer had not been in financial straits, the opening day of school letter confirms the lack of interest the board members had in female education at the Academy. The second page of the letter states, “The Academy will here after be open to females and the price of their tuition shall be seven dollars per term unless abatement.” The rest of the letter continues list the rules and expectations for the school year; however, the females are only mentioned once. Being the first time females ever to matriculate at the Academy, one would think the board members would pay more attention to that important detail.

       As simple as the decision was, Dummer had a reputation to uphold. By 1872 many communities in the United States accepted the idea that female education was reasonable but under the condition that women use their education to teach their children and become better spouses. Women at that time were seen as the upholders of the moral world. A child’s future decisions and knowledge depended on his or her mother’s education and moral upbringing. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” was a strong advocate for female education in the 19th century. Before coeducation occurred at the Academy, Hale was already the chief editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a literary magazine that encouraged women everywhere to seek schooling in one form or another. “In this age of innovation, perhaps no experiment will have an influence more important on the character and happiness of our society, than the granting to females the advantages of a systematic and thorough education.” Women who wrote about female enlightenment often reasoned that female education was for the betterment of society as a whole and therefore should not only be considered but should also be taken very seriously. Much of the controversy stemmed from books such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published following the American Revolution, which discussed the unnatural socialization of the female sex and argued for equal rights for women. Though the arguments promoting female education were validated, as demonstrated by the amount of public schools and female academies that sprang up in the late 19th century, elite all male schools such as Dummer were not ready to take on coeducation, as it proved that females had an equal role not only in education but in politics and law.

       So while many girls were in fact attending school in the late 1800s, it was the elite families who sent their children to private schools or away to boarding schools. Were women conforming to their overarching duty as a mother and housewife, or were they reading authors like Wollstonecraft and Hale and going to school to seek the enlightenment those authors preached? While it was true many young girls were sent to school so that they could be better “fit” to raise a family, it turned out that their education also helped them land jobs. The United States experienced a time of immense industrialization and modernization and large families sent their children into the city to seek new opportunities and work. However, those were not typically the families whose children attended prestigious schools like Dummer at that time. Dummer Academy, among the top private academies in the country, and still is to this day, could not afford a poor reputation. Allowing coeducation could have deterred wealthy, conservative families from sending their boys to Dummer. A school whose pride focused on its highly esteemed male graduates, some who went on to attend Harvard and Yale to become prominent figures in the Boston area was reluctant in those days to allow coed integration in the classroom. It was not surprising, however, that coeducation would begin at Dummer under Parsons’ watch. After working at Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire, Parsons experienced the effectiveness of coeducation. For a school to be as progressive as to have any portion of the student body made up of females in the mid 19th century , it had to have a headmaster who believed in the cause.

       Reluctance faded as enrollment in both female and male students increased after 1872. There went from being six female students to eleven in 1873, and there may have been more than that since the students were not normally listed again if they attended more than one year. Little is known about what happened to the female students after they left the Academy. It is unidentified in the archives materials whether the female students went on to attend female universities or maintain a profession, but most of them did get married. Generally what is known about young women and girls in the 19th century is this: girls who attended secondary school generally went until they were of childbearing age or their parents felt they had enough schooling. Some families may have sent their daughters to the local university or an Ivy League equivalent for women. The families might not have had the finances to send their daughter to Dummer for more than a year, or were spending it on their sons who were attending other leading schools like Phillips Andover or their other daughters who were also attending Dummer. Though the female students may have only attended for one to three years, the period in which coeducation existed at Dummer lasted for ten. Transportation and medical services were improving towards the end of the century, however, ten years is an extensive period of time to be conducting an experiment, which many of the trustees did not necessarily promote. The increase in enrollment allowed for the continuation of coeducation since it still provided revenue for the school. While we do not have letters or proof that any trustee harshly disapproved, we can find evidence in the years after Parsons resigned in 1882.

       The school continually sought efforts to raise revenue. Insignificant enrollment during Parsons leadership may have meant that coeducation was simply ineffective both in raising revenue and attracting new students but it may also say something about his management of the school. In search of new leadership, the school found John W. Perkins who had a remarkable reputation as master of Salem High School. Perkins was a high achiever. He ran the farm, managed multiple assistants, took care of the school grounds and was even a teacher at Dummer. Perkins was an extraordinary headmaster, yet he did not believe in coeducation. He wanted Dummer to return to the “first principles” which assumed the traditional male and female roles. In this case, Dummer was to be an all-boys school and provide the classical curriculum. During Perkins’ term as headmaster he raised tuition to that of Andover’s, he fixed up the gymnasium, and he added a few major buildings to expand the campus. These advancements would allow Dummer to compete with the other boarding schools in the area. Looking at his record he may have been successful in raising revenue, but it all fell apart after about six years because of his disingenuous character, resulting in him leaving the Academy. He did not have the humble qualities that Dummer Academy desired in a headmaster.
Perley Leonard Horne

       So began another tumultuous period for the Academy. Although the Board of Trustees was able to run the school, the Academy needed stability in leadership in order to bring the community of scholars together in spirit. The second wave of coeducation was embraced in 1896 for the same reason it had been twenty years before that, but this time it was under headmaster Perley Leonard Horne. Although he had set high standards for the college preparatory institution, the school still had not prospered as hoped. One difference between the first and second period of coeducation was The Dummer News. This addition to social and academic life at the Academy allows readers to view the school from students’ perceptions. Analyzing their work in the context of 19th century women’s history, one can understand how female students felt about their time at Dummer. A female student, whose identity remains undisclosed, wrote the following piece in the “theme” section of the school newspaper:

“While working on a scrapbook today, I saw a piece about the progress in the education of women. It told of an incident in a town in Connecticut only two generations ago. The school committee passed this resolution, that it is the sense of this meeting, that it would be a misuse of the public funds to teach girls the back part of the arithmetic. I know from my own experience that it is impossible to teach it to some girls nowadays.”

       Themes in The Dummer News appeared in every issue. They were meant to be short so that many themes could be published, in order to touch upon a variety of topics. The theme above shows the insecurity some young girls may have felt about their own academic capabilities during that era. It also shows the more general view of female education and its importance. While some people, like the school committee in Connecticut, felt it would be a misuse of funds to teach young girls math, female students at Dummer were excelling in other subjects nearly two decades before, demonstrating the outstanding capabilities of the female gender during a time when their intelligence was questioned. The excerpt below was taken from an article in The Boston Globe commemorating 113 years of the Academy’s existence:

“…various prizes were awarded as follows. For elocution, to Miss Abbie J. Hale and William Durgin, the Kent medal, for faithfulness, Miss Alice Nelson; for scholarship, Miss Sarah Wheelwright; and for composition, to Miss Carrie G. Knight; and one was also given by the instructor to Miss Eunice Hale. Miss Eunice G. Knight and Miss Emma A. Hale graduated, being the first female graduates of the school.”

       Although subjects such as math and science were not included in the newspaper article, only one male was even mentioned in the awards list. If the female students were not as important as the male students, then perhaps the females would not have been listed at all. To attest for their acceptance at Dummer Academy by both faculty and students alike, a male student expresses his delight on the front page of The Dummer News:

“Those who are in this community for the first time carried away with them a splendid impression of the young ladies’ ability in a social way and of the young ladies personally while the old boys had their former impressions confirmed. May the ball be kept rolling now that it is started and the Dummer boys will show their appreciations.”

1901 Student Body

    Female students were warmly welcomed at the Academy, as demonstrated in newspaper articles in and outside the school. Another example that proves that fact was the creation of the Dummer Allies. Carrie Knight Ambrose, who was one of the first female graduates at the Academy, and Carrie Dummer founded the female group as a way to show their undoubted support and loyalty to the school. Their admiration provides further insight of the community at Dummer throughout the 19th century. Although female education during Parsons’ and Horne’s headmastership was considered only necessary for financial stability and was not a result of a new found progressive stance, the girls there stood as equals in the hearts and minds of the other students and faculty.

       Boarding schools are unique in that community is of the utmost importance. That is one thing that has never changed about The Governor’s Academy. So while female students were accepted as a part of the greater community at the Academy during a time of extreme controversy over women’s rights, how was it that coeducation eventually failed? For one thing, the amount of public schools steadily increased towards the mid to late century as a way to provide greater access to free education. Perhaps the female students at Dummer were not fighting for continued coeducation because they were able to get their education in nearby towns such as Newburyport, Salem or Rowley. With the improvement of the railroad system in the greater Boston area, people were able to travel further in a quicker amount of time. Some may have chosen to study elsewhere or find jobs in the cities. Coeducation did work at some schools, however. Pinkerton, for one, was coeducational before many schools, and it was the school that Principal Parsons and Principal Horne had worked at previous to Dummer. The founders implemented coeducation soon after it first opened in 1814. It was one of the first private schools to become coeducational in the 19th century. Franklin & Marshall College began as a secondary school when it opened and perhaps was the first private school to allow coeducation. About one third of the student population in 1787 was female, which included the first Jewish female student to attend school in the United States. The Westtown School, also located in Pennsylvania was founded as a coeducational institution in 1799. Quakers founded Westtown, and because their faith deems men and women as equal, coeducation was never a controversial issue for them. However, complete integration of male and female students did not occur until the mid 1800s. Similarly, Franklin & Marshall was founded by Lutherans, who had a more progressive view of the female role in society. Other boarding schools had female academies but they were not integrated with the males until the 20th century because most private schools in New England had enough funds to purchase land and buildings to separate males and females. The main reason why coeducation may have failed at Dummer was not necessarily because its founders were of a different faith, although that may have contributed to it being all boys at the beginning, but Dummer Academy had become an elite private school that had to compete with other leading institutions. The male role flourished at schools like Dummer. There was a brotherhood at the Academy and schools like it. The Sons of Dummer and the Dummer Fraternity are perfect examples of the attitude men at those schools had about themselves and how they compared to women. For example, after 1904, when coeducation at Dummer was officially abolished until 1971, The Archon was founded in order to inform alumni and students about exciting events and news about the school. In the 1906 Archon, one of the first editions to be published at Dummer, the alumni section of the magazine only lists males, including the Sons of Dummer. Though there may have been mention of females who attended in later years, the absence of female alumni suggests that life at Dummer did in fact go back to “first principles” as it had done under Principal Perkins in 1882. The male dominant role had been challenged at Dummer because girls were seeking higher education themselves. Going back to basics and emphasizing the brotherhood that formed at the Academy was a way for male students to establish their superiority. If women infiltrated places of higher learning, where politicians, lawyers and bankers were being educated, then it would disrupt the power order.

       Though female integration at the Academy in the 19th century proved women had the same academic and social abilities as their male counterparts, it seemed that Dummer was destined to be an elite male force in the private school arena. It was not until the late 20th century that the school, and society as a whole, would come to accept females as equal in stature due to the changing times. Governor Dummer Academy had been experiencing another period of financial instability at the beginning of the 1970’s due to an economic recession that heightened inflation and decreased enrollment. Social movements were also common during that era, especially the second-wave feminist movement. Both the economic hardship of the school and the women’s rights movement may very well have contributed to the permanent decision to implement coeducation at the Academy. The social structure of society was changing, just as it had done a century before that, leaving behind a legacy that continues at the Academy to this day. While the school may have been excessively male elitist two centuries ago, today it lives up to its modern day reputation as a school built on community values and equality in all respects.

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