4 Ways Colleges Can Promote Anti-Racism on Campus
Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia | Lucy Stanton Day Sessions | Lee Li Fu | Sarah Jane Woodson Early | Helen Keller | Haraguchi Tsuruko | Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander | Dorothy Garrod | Jane Matilda Bolin | Laura Bassi | Ruth Simmons | Catherine Brewer Benson | Ada Kepley
Today, more women than men hold a college degree in the U.S. Since 1982, women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men every year. But in 1940, less than 4% of American women held a postsecondary degree. And for centuries before the 1800s, most colleges and universities excluded women completely.
How did women break down the barriers excluding them from higher education? Generations of women fought for the right to a college degree. Take the author Zora Neale Hurston, for example, who was the first Black woman admitted to Barnard College in 1925.
When asked about her experience as a Black woman, Hurston quipped, “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
Below, we introduce 13 trailblazing women throughout history who earned college degrees and used their education to change the world.
Lucy Stanton Day Sessions (1831-1910)
In 1850, Lucy Stanton Day Sessions became the first Black woman to graduate from college in the U.S. Sessions enrolled in a nondegree literary course at Oberlin College, which admitted Black students and women from its founding in 1833. At her graduation, Sessions gave a rousing commencement speech calling for the abolition of slavery.
Sessions continued to break barriers long after college, becoming the first Black American to publish a fictional story and traveling the South with her husband to teach freed slaves. In 1862, Mary Jane Patterson followed in Sessions’ footsteps and became the first Black woman to officially earn a bachelor’s degree, also at Oberlin.
Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825-1907)
A graduate of Oberlin, Sarah Jane Woodson Early impressed her instructors with her language skills. In 1858, Early became the first Black woman professor when she accepted a position to teach English and Latin at Ohio’s Wilberforce College, the first Black-owned and operated college in the U.S.
After the Civil War, Early moved to the South and continued to teach. Over the course of her career, Early taught in five states, including North Carolina and Tennessee. She also published a biography of her husband, the African Methodist Episcopal minister Jordan Winston Early, and spoke at the 1893 World’s Congress of Representative Women, where she was just one of five Black women invited to speak.
Haraguchi Tsuruko (1886-1915)
The daughter of a wealthy farmer, Haraguchi Tsuruko became the first Japanese woman to earn a doctorate in 1912. After attending a women’s college in Japan, Haraguchi decided to study psychology in the U.S. In 1907, she enrolled at Columbia University, where her research focused on mental fatigue.
The same day Haraguchi earned her Ph.D., she married scholar Haraguchi Takejiro. The couple honeymooned in England before returning to Japan, where Haraguchi published her doctoral thesis and began lecturing.
Sadly, Haraguchi died in 1915 at the young age of 29. Her example encouraged other Japanese women to follow in her footsteps, including Kra Tomi, who attended Haraguchi’s funeral before similarly pursuing a doctorate in psychology.
Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968)
Archaeologist Dorothy Garrod made several groundbreaking discoveries, from Neanderthal skulls to prehistoric buildings. On her digs in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, Garrod made sure to hire women. In 1939, the University of Cambridge hired Garrod as an archaeology professor, making her the first woman professor at Oxford or Cambridge.
“The election was a tremendous surprise to me,” she wrote in response to her new position, “as I had never seriously considered it possible. Naturally, I am tremendously pleased, and I hope it may quickly lead to full membership of the University for women up here.”
Garrod made an impression at Cambridge, teaching the first prehistoric archaeology courses in the U.K.
Laura Bassi (1711-1778)
The daughter of a lawyer, Laura Bassi was a child prodigy who studied physics in Bologna, Italy. At only 20 years old, Bassi held public lectures on Newtonian physics. In 1732, Bassi became the second woman to earn a doctorate, after Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, and the first woman to earn a science degree.
Shortly after, Bassi secured admission to an elite science academy and assumed a teaching role at the University of Bologna. Though the university encouraged Bassi not to lecture too much because she was a woman, Bassi refused any restrictions. She also applied for a license to read banned books and set a record as the highest-paid employee at the university.
Catherine Brewer Benson (1822-1908)
Georgia Female College (now Wesleyan College) opened as the first U.S. women’s college in 1936. Four years later, Catherine Brewer Benson became the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree. That said, she wasn’t the only woman graduate in the class of 1840 — 20 women graduated alongside her. Since Benson’s name (then Brewer) came first alphabetically, she received the first bachelor’s degree.
In 1888, Benson returned to Wesleyan to give commencement remarks. “Members of the graduating class,” she said, “demands will be made upon you which were not made upon us. Your training, if you are true to it, will amply qualify you to meet those demands.”
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