A Century of Coeducation Essay

In September of 1918, twenty-four women stepped onto the campus of the College of William & Mary as the first female students in the college’s history. The 100 Years of Women campaign by the College of William & Mary falsely portrays the College as a trailblazer in coeducation and fails to acknowledge the circumstances within which it was implemented. Although a century of including an entire population of people in the institution’s enrollment is important, it is not the transformative, precedent-setting achievement that it has been advertised to be.

By 1918, when William & Mary became co-ed, Oberlin College had already been so for eighty-three years, though coeducation continued to be controversial. Commonly-shared ideas of the time, such as the proposal that a college education was detrimental to women’s health and character as well as the concept of a female’s intellectual inferiority, kept women of the time from acceptance into higher education.[i][ii] [iii]

Harvard professor and medical doctor Edward Clarke popularized and legitimized these arguments in his 1884 book Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for Girls, in which he writes that no woman could both go to school and “retain uninjured health and a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease and other derangements of the nervous system, if she follows the same method that boys are trained in.”[iv] Through his writing, Clarke demonstrates a male perspective on coeducation and provides insight on the climate surrounding it in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Understanding the historical context in which coeducation was implemented at William & Mary is essential to analysing the 100 Years of Women campaign. History shows that William & Mary struggled during the nineteenth century. In the years leading up to its turn, the College was unsuccessfully moved to Richmond, burnt twice to the ground, and nearly destroyed during the Civil War. Due to lack of funds, the College was forced to close in 1881, but it was revived in 1888 though limited to a seven man staff.[v] [vi]

Along with the revival, the General Assembly of Virginia approved an annual appropriation of $10,000 to the College for the training of male public school teachers. Funding for the program was beneficial to the College’s finances, but it wasn’t enough to restore the campus to its state prior to the Civil War.[vii] In a later speech, the president of the College at the time, Lyon Tyler, said that as of 1888, all of the five buildings were badly in need of repair the campus was neglected, and the tone in Williamsburg was stagnant and depressed.[viii]

The school remained penniless through the beginning of the twentieth century, so in response to the success of the teacher training program, all College property was transferred to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Many members of the College thought the transfer was the only way to guarantee the school’s long term existence.[ix]

Between 1888 and 1917, William & Mary remained small with its highest enrollment as a mere 244 students. By the 1917-18 school year, the enrollment dropped to 131, largely due in part to the United States’ entry into World War I. The school’s finances had been boosted by the teacher training academy and the addition of the Students’ Army Training Corps, but the College President Lyon G. Tyler wanted more. With the College deeply in debt, Tyler sought increased guaranteed funding from the state.[x]

In the meantime, Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, a Virginia activist, had started and campaigned tirelessly for the Coordinate College League to introduce bills to the General Assembly for the establishment of a coordinate college for women in Charlottesville. However, the legislation faced opposition from the powerful alumni of the University of Virginia and was repeatedly defeated.[xi] [xii] [xiii]

Tyler saw that the state was desperate to please both alumni of the University of Virginia and proponents of women’s education, so he proposed implementing coeducation at William & Mary. If the state would agree, it would be beneficial to both parties. There would be no women’s college at UVA,  though the state would still open an institute of higher education to women, which meant more public school teachers. Additionally, coeducation at William & Mary provided the two resources that the College desperately needed: more funding and more students.[xiv]

The proposal was still controversial, with the Virginia Gazette noting that women sought coeducation “at the price of the womanhood Virginia had cherished as a sacred thing.” Major James New Stubbs of the Board of Visitors protested the bill and offered a resolution that the College should refuse to accept women. The Visitors voted six to one against Stubbs’ resolution, and the coeducation bill passed both houses of the General Assembly.[xv]

That fall of 1918 marked the entry of women to the College of William & Mary. It was a groundbreaking time for females in the United States, in Virginia, and at the College. However, unlike the university has continuously claimed, the College was not the pioneer of coeducation that it advertises itself as. The College of William & Mary has made public statements asserting itself to be the first public coeducational institution in the state of Virginia, creating the image of a progressive decision made in the name of women’s advancement, but history disproves that image and this fall, a student disproved that statement. Virginia State University, Virginia’s only college for Black people at the time, began accepting women alongside men many years prior.[xvi]

Throughout the year, as the College celebrates its centennial anniversary of coeducation, it depicts an image that the school should take great pride in deciding to admit women. However, it appears to be that the College was simply following in the footsteps of many universities before them. Many colleges and universities across the country had already included women in their enrollment. The first to do so, Oberlin College, had done it eighty-three years prior. The first public institution, the University of Iowa, had done so sixty-three years prior. The school was not even the first to do so in the state. While it is notable and important that William & Mary began to admit women, a population that now composes fifty-eight percent of the student body and that has grown to be such an important part of the college campus, the act does not elicit the pat on the back to the extent the institution has received.

Despite issues with the College’s advertised image, many events this year have been held to commemorate women’s introduction to the university. Multiple student organizations have run interviews and editorials discussing the meaning of the milestone. The College has invited speakers, performers, and lecturers. Most notable, the university held Women’s Weekend, a celebration in the early autumn of the history of females upon this campus and their success beyond it. This weekend was targeted toward the college’s alumnae, with little involvement of the campus currently-enrolled students. The perception among students was that many of the events held were held in part as financial promotions, as much as they were about recognizing women. However the College openly admitted to the fact that while commemoration is important, it was done to help support the institution. The College also recognized that it has consciously chosen to make the commemoration solely a celebration about accomplishments by alumnae, rather than attempting to tackle more politically-driven issues that the school, the nation, or both, may still face.

Throughout all of the celebrating, of which many wonderful achievements have been recognized, certain issues have failed to receive the same recognition. The predominant issue that has been largely left publicly unspoken about was the other demographic groups that were still excluded from the school’s enrollment. When twenty-four women were admitted in 1918, every single one of these women was white. It took an additional nineteen years for the university to admit its first Asian-American undergraduate student, and forty-nine years to admit the first African American undergraduate student in residency. This celebration has been about the inclusion of women, which is significant, but it was not the inclusion of all women—decades still awaited before that would occur. It is important to make acknowledgement of these statistics a priority.

One hundred years of coeducation at the College of William & Mary is undoubtedly a significant achievement, one that should be recognized. However, it is important for administration and students alike to understand the reasons behind the college’s decision, and the ways in which it has successfully and unsuccessfully gone about the acknowledgement of the milestone as a whole. A century of women at William & Mary has transformed this college campus, but without a focus on inclusion and acknowledgment in its future, the College will still face centuries more of disparity.


[ii] Goldin, Claudia and Katz, Lawrence F. Putting the Co in Education: Timing, Reasons, and Consequences of College Coeducation from 1835 to the Present. NBER Working Paper No. 1628, August 2010. The National Bureau of Economic Research.

[iii] Hatch, Ruth F. A study of the history of the development of coeducation in Massachusetts. Masters Theses 1911 – February 2014. 1599., University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1933. ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst.

[iv] Clarke, Edward H. Sex in Education: Or, A Fair Chance for the Girls. New York: Ayer, 1884.

[v] Parrish, Laura. When Mary Entered with Her Brother William: Women Students at the College of William & Mary, 1918-1945. Master’s thesis, College of William & Mary, 1988. W&M Scholarworks.

[vi] “Historical Chronology of William & Mary.” William & Mary. Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.wm.edu/about/history/chronology/index.php.

[vii] Parrish, When Mary Entered.

[viii] Tyler, Lyon G. “Farewell Address of Lyon Gardiner Tyler.” Speech, Virginia, Williamsburg, June 10, 1919.

[ix] William & Mary, “Historical Chronology.”

[x] Parrish, When Mary Entered.

[xi] “Mary-Cooke Branch Munford.” Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.virginiahistory.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/mary-cooke-branch-munford.

[xii] Parrish, When Mary Entered.

[xiii] “Mary-Cooke Branch Munford.” William & Mary. Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.wm.edu/sites/100yearsofwomen/anniversary-story/brief-history/munford-mary/index.php.

[xiv] Parrish, When Mary Entered.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Barnard, Jayme. “100 Years of Women at William & Mary.” Lecture, Virginia, Williamsburg, January 13, 2019.

A Century of Coeducation Syllabus

A Century of Coeducation


Wednesdays, 12-1PM

Spring 2019

Kelsey Wright, Ahlexus Bailey, Abigail Fitzsimmons


Course Description

This course offers an overview of one hundred years of women at William & Mary and the College’s commemoration of the anniversary. This class aims to challenge students to think critically about the reasoning behind coeducation at W&M. We will analyze the College’s motives behind its introduction, as well the importance of coeducation on both the university-specific and national levels. This course will also explore the discrepancies between portrayal and realities of the introduction of and motivations behind co education. We will discuss how the College should address this centennial, and in turn, the ways in which it can be more engaging and supportive of the different people among this campus. Are there elements the college should have acknowledged that they haven’t, or things that shouldn’t have been addressed at all? We will strive to address the significance of the introduction of women to this university and the ways in which the College has commemorated this milestone.

Content Learning Objectives

  1. Students will understand how, when, and why coeducation was introduced to William & Mary.
  2. Students will be able to articulate of the sentiments offered by the president of the College at the time of the introduction of women, as well as the efforts of his successor.
  3. Students will understand the differences between white and intersectional feminism.
  4. Students will have a thorough knowledge of the College’s 100 Years of Women campaign.


Skills Objectives

  1. Students will be able to examine primary and secondary sources in the fields of history and gender studies.
  2. Students will be able to critique, analyze, and construct arguments.
  3. Students will be able to understand how an author’s perspective can impact the narratives they tell.

Required Texts, Materials, or Equipment

All readings are posted on Blackboard.


Assignments and Exams

There will be weekly readings students should have prepared for the start of class, which are listed in the outline below. In addition, students will design their own newspaper article in which they act as a journalist in the time it was announced that the university would become a coeducational institution. This will be due at the beginning of the third class. There will also be a short-answer assignment due at the beginning of Week 8 asking students to analyse William and Mary’s commemoration of this anniversary in terms of white feminism as opposed to intersectional feminism.

The midterm exam (Week 6) will be an in-class essay about the introduction of coeducation—William and Mary’s causes and reasoning behind it. For the final project, which will be due the last day of class, students should design an event that they feel could be included in the celebration of 100 Years of Women at William and Mary. Within this assignment, they will include the event’s layout and structure, and how this event will improve the already existing campaign.  


Preliminary Schedule of Topics, Readings, Assignments, and Exams

Week Topics/Assigned Readings/Assignments Major Assignments
1 Topic: Introduction to the Class and a History of Coeducation

Readings: A Reply to Dr. E.H. Clarke’s “Sex in Education”, Putting the Co in Coeducation: Timing, Reasons and Consequences of College Coeducation from 1835 to Present

2 Topic: William & Mary and Women at the College In and Before 1918

Readings: Introduction of When Mary Entered With Her Brother William: Women Students at the College of William and Mary, 1918 – 1945

3 Topic: Introduction and Reception to Women to the College

Reading: Chapter 1 of When Mary Entered With Her Brother William: Women Students at the College of William and Mary, Farewell Address of Lyon Gardiner Tyler

Create a newspaper article capturing a response to the implementation of coeducation at W&M during this time period; the response can be from the viewpoint of the student’s choosing
4 Topic: Lives of Women at the College

Readings: Chapters 3-5 of The Life Histories of Ten of the First Women to Attend the College of William and Mary (1918-1930), Installation Address of Dr. J.A.C. Chandler

5 Topic: Socratic Seminar on President Tyler and President Chandler Prepare points to compare and contrasts the stances taken by President Tyler and President Chandler on the College’s educating of women
6 In-class Midterm Paper: Write a paper that outlines the causes that led to and the reasoning behind the implementation of coeducation at William & Mary.
7 Topic: Commemoration and “100 Years of Women at William & Mary”

Readings: Review wm.edu/100yearsofwomen, The Social Context of Commemoration

8 Topic: Criticisms of “100 Years of Women at William & Mary”

Reading: Kimberle Crenshaw on Intersectionality

Short answer response—Analyze the 100 Years of Women at William & Mary campaign through an intersectional lens
9 Topic: Criticisms of “100 Years of Women at William & Mary” cont.

Reading: Schedule of Women’s Weekend

10 Topic: Presentation Week Create a proposal for the implementation of a potential element of the 100 Years of Women campaign. Include annotations on how your plan would improve upon the existing campaign.