On Sept. 23, 1865, along with four women from Canada and one from Hawaii, 348 women between the ages of 15 and 27 from across the United States became the first students at Vassar College,” wrote academic intern Heather Kettlewell ’18, explaining the Vassar College Historian Colton Johnson’s recent project and the James W. Palmer III Gallery’s current exhibition, “The First Students.”
This project maps the stories of 18 students from among the original 353 who graduated in the College’s first official collegiate year, 1868. Aiming to study these women in all their complexity as Vassar scholars, “The First Students” traces information about their families and backgrounds, their pration to make their way to Vassar, their activities while they were at the college and their lives and careers after graduation.
Currently on display at the Palmer Gallery are pictures, facts and anecdotes about these students, in addition to news clippings. These echo questions and responses raised by the col- lege’s progressive ideals and will be on display for all to see through Oct. 5.
This informative exhibit is paired with clothing displays that indicate the kind of attire these students sported in that time period, which differs drastically from what the average Vassar student would wear today.
Thousands of women from all over the United States and as far off as Canada and Hawaii applied to be a part of Vassar’s first incoming class, despite the fact that the immediate aftershocks of the Civil War were still reverberating through the country.
The first president of the College Milo P. Jewett chose 353 women, out of which 63 were eventually awarded a bachelor’s degree in arts… While this would not be called a fantastic yield in today’s day and age of college admissions, it was quite a revelation in the 1860s, considering that Vassar was the United States first degree-granting institution of higher education for women. These women were making history just by attending Vassar.
For Matthew Vassar to take the initiative of handing out degrees to women that were equivalent to those awarded to men was a groundbreaking and risky step, and there was a great deal of doubt at the time surrounding its feasibility. As a result, the College came to be thought of as Matthew Vassar’s experiment, and an experiment for the country itself.
The exhibition displays a news clipping from the January 1864 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book quoting our forward-thinking founder who asserted, “It occurred to me that woman, having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development.” It is striking to know that Vassar’s progressive values have been a part of the College’s culture from the outset.
Vassar College Historian, Dean Emeritus of the College and Professor Emeritus of English Colton Johnson began working on this fascinating project in 2014 with a student academic intern. He mentioned that, during research, they had a deep curiosity regarding which women in the aftermath of the Civil War had successfully convinced their parents to let them travel across the country in pursuit of higher education.
“For example,” explained Johnson, “some women came all the way from California, and the Transcontinental Railroad hadn’t been built yet, so we have no idea how they got here… it’s remarkable that they were so motivated to come.”
He continued, “We wanted to know more about these women who were taking the bold step to participate in what was very clearly an experiment. In fact, many people of significant prestige at the time commented on how this was the absolute wrong move for American motherhood. There was a belief that if women worked too hard and exerted too much mental exercise on getting a degree—considering that the curriculum in the College was exactly the same rigor as those of Harvard and Yale—that the women would not only become weakened, they might become infertile.”
A great deal of historical significance lies in the bravery of these women to break the mold and take their education into their own hands at a time when they were so severely doubted. Johnson elaborated on the governing principle behind his project: “What we wanted to do was present these pioneer people as they were and as they seemingly became, with all the vicissitudes that came with being young and eager women in a country that was just recovering itself from the Civil War.”
This project has been brought to life in the form of panels dedicated to the stories of each of the 18 students hanging on the walls of the Palmer Gallery. They’ve been artfully arranged, inviting viewers to read up on their academic predecessors.
In addition, the gallery contains two life-size mannequins adorned in attire from the mid-19th century. One depicts a teal taffeta dress, while the other showcases a brown plaid dress. Both of these are paradigms of what the students who walked through this campus 150 years ago would wear day in and day out.
The exhibition also contains a miniature model of a crinoline to depict what supported those elaborate dresses, various types of underclothes and a large trunk filled with an assortment of hats, gloves, shoes and other accessories that these groundbreaking women would most likely have traveled with.
Palmer Gallery curator Monica Church explained that the space didn’t have much color or texture initially. “To make the exhibit come alive, we collaborated with the costume shop of the Drama Department. They loaned us some clothing from the time period,” explained Church.
Lecturer in Drama and Director of the Costume Shop Kenisha Kelly expanded on the Costume Shop’s role: “We wanted to provide a feel of the time period, as well as an idea of what the women looked like and dressed like, from the inside out. Conversely, we also wanted to flesh out what the campus might have looked and felt like, housing these women.”
The gallery now exudes the project’s historical relevance in a space infused with artifacts that reflect what it originally meant to be a Vassar student, and it’s noteworthy and important to reflect on how far this institution has come. While this is not usually talked about by the student body, understanding that this institution is grounded on the ideals of intellectual freedom and educational opportunities for all is as important now as it was then.
Church, in a striking parallel, remarked, “When you read the stories of the women, and you see the portraits, you find that Vassar’s always attracted very intrepid, independent thinkers. When I see the incoming freshmen every year, I feel like there’s connections to that first class. It validates the fact that you all belong to a really long tradition of interesting, strong leaders.”