The World’s First Women’s College
As an author of historical fiction, it is a good thing I enjoy research, which sometimes takes almost as much time as the actual writing of the novel. I am presently in full on research mode for my new WIP (work in progress). One of the things that makes the task so enjoyable is that it can lead us down unexpected paths and reveal new information about people and places we thought we knew well.
The deep South, the birthplace that I love despite its many flaws, is sometimes believed to place lesser value on education than other regions of the nation. I can understand why this view is held. It has always seemed to me that there is a historical dichotomy in the South where education is concerned. Until very recently, elementary and secondary education generally seemed an afterthought that received lip service but no real dedication, if funding is any indicator. A heavy line of demarcation can be drawn between the value that was placed on postsecondary education versus that given elementary and secondary education. I have always found it puzzling that the South has some of the nation’s finest institutions of higher learning and historically some of the poorest public school systems.
My WIP is set during the Gilded Age, but on a barrier island along the Georgia coast rather than the more expected New York City, New Port, RI or Long Island. My protagonist is a female college graduate, no small feat for a girl from south Georgia during the late 1800’s. One might assume that during this period she would need to travel to one of the northeastern Seven Sisters (Vassar, Wellesley, etc.) to receive a college education, but her alma mater is much farther south in a mid-sized city sitting in the center of the state of Georgia. Macon has been home to Wesleyan College since 1836, nearly thirty years before the founding of any of the northeastern Seven Sisters.
Wesleyan began as Georgia Female College with its charter dated December 23, 1836. The first students began classes on January 7, 1839. The school’s name changed to Wesleyan Female College in 1843 when the Methodist Church took on full responsibility for the college. The final name change came in 1917 when the word female was dropped and the school has been known simply as Wesleyan College since that time.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia has this to say about Wesleyan’s early years:
In 1835 several Macon businessmen met to discuss the opening of a women’s college. On July 8 they held a town meeting and secured $9,000 for the school’s construction. This group of men also possessed the religious zeal common to the reform movements of the time and sought to affiliate the new college with the Methodist Church. In January 1836 the Methodist Conference unanimously agreed to adopt the college, and on December 23 the state legislature issued a charter for the Georgia Female College.From the beginning, the college’s administrators planned to provide an education that equaled those offered at men’s colleges. Unlike other women’s institutions that taught high school–level course work and did not grant degrees, the Georgia Female College provided instruction in philosophy, history, and ancient and modern languages, among other subjects. Upon completing the course of instruction, a student received the “First Degree,” the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. The school emphasized training in mathematics and the natural sciences, an offering unique in women’s education at the time. A great deal of enthusiasm accompanied the college’s opening in January 1839. By the end of the term, 168 students had enrolled, an impressive number at a time when many state-sponsored colleges in the South often had fewer than 200 students. The school graduated its first class in July 1840, which included students previously enrolled at Thomas Bog Slade’s Clinton Female Seminary in Jones County.
It is hard to imagine that such forward thinking persons resided in a state that 25 years later would follow South Carolina’s lead as the fifth state to secede from the Union, propelling it into the American Civil War. Considering Georgia’s plight during the Civil War and Sherman’s March to the Sea, it is even more surprising that the college remained in operation throughout the war.
In addition to being the world’s first women’s college, Wesleyan claims another first. The Greek sorority system so evident in the social life of most American colleges and universities began at Wesleyan with the Adelphean Society, now Alpha Delta Pi, and the Philomathean Society, now Phi Mu. In 1914, Wesleyan abandoned sororities in favor of assigning students to a class name system. Each incoming freshman class takes the name of the senior class that graduated the previous spring.
The college has gone through transitions other than name and social clubs. In 1928, the College of Liberal Arts moved from the original downtown location to its present campus farther out in Rivoli, a suburb of Macon. The College of Fine Arts followed in 1953. The entire campus has been named a National Historic District due to its architectural integrity remaining intact since the first Rivoli buildings were constructed.
I have a personal connection to Wesleyan. In January, 1960, Dr. Earl Strickland, husband of my mother’s younger sister, was elected president of Wesleyan where he served for the next 19 1/2 years, the longest serving president in the school’s history. I loved visiting my cousins in Macon where they had lovely bedrooms in the president’s home, Bradley House. As a child, I took the large rooms, antiques, multiple fireplaces with marble surrounds, and the general elegance of the place for granted. It was simply Uncle Earl and Aunt Thelma’s house. It is still home to Wesleyan presidents. Uncle Earl received several honors and served terms as president of various educational organizations while at Wesleyan. I suspect the thing of which he may have been most proud, however, were the citations he received for his work for civil rights. He served the college during the height of the civil rights era and made a stand in a town, state, and culture that heavily favored Jim Crow and segregation. Although my parents wanted me to attend Wesleyan, I chose to attend a state school. I wasn’t sure that having my uncle as president of my college and my aunt living on the hill overlooking the campus was the experience I wanted. Today, Wesleyan is consistently listed among Princeton Review’s Best Colleges and U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges.
Wesleyan Magazine Winter 2013/2014 commemorating 85 years on the Rivoli Campus
- Catherine Brewer Benson, first woman to earn a college degree at Wesleyan (1840)
- Kathryn Stripling Byer, poet and teacher; 2001 North Carolina Award in Literature and North Carolina Poet Laureate, 2005–09
- Eugenia Tucker Fitzgerald, founder of the first woman’s secret society established at a women’s college.
- Toni Jennings, Lieutenant Governor of Florida
- Neva Jane Langley, Miss America (1953)
- Ellamae Ellis League, architect from Macon, first woman FAIA from Georgia
- Sara Branham Matthews, microbiologist
- Phaedra Parks, Entertainment attorney and star of The Real Housewives of Atlanta
- Hazel Jane Raines, first woman in Georgia to receive a pilot’s license (1936)
- The Soong sisters, significant political figures in early 20th Century Chinese history (Upon her marriage, Soong Mei-ling became Madam Chiang Kei-shek. Her husband was the longtime nationalist leader of the Republic of China in Taiwan.)
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.