Trailblazer Mary J. Backus Paved the Path for Co-Education at Adrian College

Posted Thursday, March 07, 2024
Author: From "A Pictorial History of Adrian College"

Coeducation was an important feature of the Adrian College experience. Asa Mahan was a fervent believer in truly equal female education, whereas many schools that allowed women made them take separate courses designated for "ladies." Adrian also offered a "Ladies' Course," but it was in addition to the regular collegiate majors, which were fully open to women. As described in an 1884 circular, this "Ladies' Course" was designed to "meet the wants of young ladies who do not desire to take the rigorous collegiate courses and to give more opportunity for the study of music and the branches of polite literature." This allowed women at Adrian College a choice, and many opted for the full collegiate degree, while others took advantage of the Ladies' Course.

Adrian graduated its first woman, Mary Backus, in 1864. While this is significant for the time period, one should not assume that the school endorsed a culture of complete equality between the genders, The college both education and employed women, but none of the female instructors were considered professors or had advanced degrees until the 1900's. On January 4, the Star Literary Society, which had more female members than men including two of Asa Mahan's daughters, took up the question of women's rights. They debated whether "women should be allowed all the privileges possessed by man." The minutes record that "after an unusually interesting discussion, a motion to adopt was made and lost by a large vote." While acknowledging that women had the right to be educated alongside men, this debate shows that the student body was not yet ready for equal legal rights. This attitude seems remarkable from our current perspective, but the result is not entirely surprising, as it was 1861, and women would not get the right to vote for another sixty years. When one considers the environment and times, it is both commendable and historically significant that Adrian College continued to open its doors to women students, giving them a chance to eventually convince their brethren that they were as capable as any other group.

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