There was a time when 46% of current Penn State undergrads would’ve been considered a “risk” to the university based simply on their existence. Before June 1871, women weren’t allowed to attend Penn State. President James Calder would change that and pave the way for Rebecca Ewing, the first woman to graduate from Penn State (then named the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania).
Calder, the College’s fifth president, proposed to the Board of Trustees and faculty that women should be admitted. They eventually approved this proposal, but not without exhaustive discussion. Some thought coeds would become a “hazard,” a potential “distraction,” and threaten the “standards of scholarship.” Others even believed women would strain themselves too hard learning math, science, and philosophy, “for which they have no use,” according to “We Are a Strong, Articulate Voice: A History of Women at Penn State.”
Come September 5, 1871, the BoT and faculty agreed to Calder’s proposal with some stipulations. “Separation of the sexes, and variation of labor for instruction and exercise, as prudence dictates, will be carefully secured; but the privileges enjoyed will be equal,” the Board explained in the college catalog of 1871. With that, Penn State became the first college in Pennsylvania to admit women.
Ellen Cross and Rachel Ewing were the first to enroll in the “women’s department” in the fall of 1871. According to “We Are a Strong, Articulate Voice,” Cross said the professors were kind and considerate to her, while the male students were more reluctant to accepting women.
So what was life like for the first women of Penn State? Probably a lot like you’d imagine. They were allowed to take the same classes as men, but new classes were introduced for them, including Piano Music and Domestic Economy. Due to their so-called “fragile nature,” women were exempt from certain graduation requirements like the Labor Rule (physical labor around campus for an average of 10 hours a week).
Despite the engrained mentality that women were fragile and lack of widespread support for women at Penn State, progress was evident. Ewing became the first woman to graduate from Penn State in 1873. According to “We Are a Strong, Articulate Voice,” 49 female students were enrolled in 1878 — that was 30 percent of the total student population. With the growth of the female population came more change. While men were free to move off campus into what would become today’s fraternity houses (they called them “eating clubs” back in 1872, but you’re not fooling us), women still had to stay in Old Main, and were still barred from social clubs and fitness classes. Strangest of all, they weren’t allowed to attend dances — these were strictly for men, and men danced with each other to whatever Opera bangers were in at the time.
Harriet McElwain (the namesake of McElwain hall) became the “Lady Principal” in 1883 and she realized how ridiculous this all was. She advocated for change, and as a result, the Ladies’ Cottage (then renamed the Women’s Building) opened in 1889. It contained student’s rooms, a reception area, a parlor, a dining room, and (finally) a gym. This building was symbolic in a sense — women had a place other than Old Main, and they were here to stay.
Penn State has pioneers like Ewing, Cross, McElwain, and plenty who came after to blame for its contemporary atmosphere. Without these women, there’s a chance almost half of Penn State’s current student body wouldn’t be allowed to reap all the benefits of a Penn State degree. Never let Penn State’s first women and the pioneers following them like Fanny Atherton and Mira Dock get lost to history.