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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar's College Historian

Carl N. Degler: “Vassar College”

Carl N. Degler, the emeritus Margaret Byrne professor of American history at Stanford University, taught in Vassar’s history department from 1952 until 1968. His essay, “Vassar College,” appeared in American Places: Encounters with History, edited by William E. Leuchtenburg. Its inclusion in the Vassar Encyclopedia is courtesy of Professor Degler and by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

November 9, 2008

I am so pleased to have this essay in a Vassar publication. It originally appeared in a scholarly work by well-published historians, each of whom selected an historical event, institution, or place to write about. My selection was Vassar College. It seemed an obvious choice for me, since it is an historical event—early women’s education—an institution—with distinctive architecture and design—and it was very personal place to me. Underneath all that were the people at Vassar I learned so much from: the democratically organized administration, the wonderfully acute students with a magnificent library to which they had free access. I could research and write, while the institution financially supported my early writing career. And finally there were the congenial and knowing faculty, with whom I could have good and often vigorous talk at Faculty tea.

In short, this is my thank you note to Vassar College. Thank you, thank you!!

Carl N. Degler

My first sight of Vassar College on the outskirts of the mid-Hudson river-town of Poughkeepsie, New York, occurred on a dark November night in 1948. The occasion was intended to be a brief—in fact, a very brief—honeymoon from New York City, where Catherine Grady and I had married that afternoon. Since both of us were working at universities and had only a weekend to celebrate, and possessed no car, we looked for a hotel near Princeton University, which was close enough by train from New York for a weekend. There were no rooms, however, since the hotels were overfull because of a big Princeton football game. Looking for another nearby college campus, we thought the short train trip to Poughkeepsie would give us a chance to explore Vassar College, which we had heard of but had never visited. After checking into a small hotel, we walked to the campus.

As we entered the nearest opening onto the grounds of the college, we could see a partly lighted, large brick structure with thick white pillars sustaining a triangular roof front. As we came closer, we could hear some talk and laughter from what seemed to be a large crowd inside. Years later, I found out that it was the Students’ Building, the largest auditorium of the college. On that occasion, it was being used for a student theatrical performance, and when we entered, it became clear that women were portraying men as well as women. Vassar, of course, was then exclusively a women’s college. We watched the performance for a while, then retreated to our hotel and thence to New York and work.

Carl N. Degler
Carl N. Degler

Four years later, when I was seeking a teaching job, I saw Vassar in daylight. This time I entered in the proper way, driving through the large, elaborate gatehouse, which arched over the entry road that stretched a hundred yards, a line of fir trees on each side, before it reached Main Hall, the principal and largest building on the country-style campus. Even today Main appears huge and unusual for an edifice constructed more than a century ago, when it was said to be the largest civilian structure under one roof in the country. Main then encompassed most of the college’s activities, including classrooms, offices, and student rooms. It was a lengthy, four-story, dark-red brick building with two large towers at each end and a large cupola over its slate-covered roof. When I arrived, the original front entrance was obscured by a porte-cochere, which reached to the second floor. Near Main I could see several buildings, including the President’s House, a drama theater, which at the college’s inception had been a riding school, a stone Gothic-style chapel, and a similarly styled library. Looking beyond these immediate buildings, I could see extensive lawns, flower beds, and many other buildings behind and beyond Main, including a small observatory. I could easily believe that this was the classic American campus: open, physically attractive, and far removed from New York City College’s closely placed buildings devoid of even a patch of grass, where I was then teaching. Even the flowers and the lawns of Columbia University, where I was then completing my Ph.D., could not challenge Vassar’s colorful and appealing bucolic country campus, especially now that I had gained a family of two children below the age of two.

That attractive campus easily captured for me what little I knew then about Vassar College. My conception was quite different from my own experience at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey. True, Upsala sported an “Old Main” too, although much more recently constructed, and displayed a few stretches of lawn, but its location in a residential part of the city limited its extent to a few blocks; Vassar’s campus stretched to a thousand acres with a lake to boot. Like the other so-called Seven Sisters—the leading private women’s colleges of the northeastern United States—Vassar was not only physically attractive but also prestigious in reputation, wealthy, and, for prospective students, costly as well, all of which Upsala had not been. And I was not alone in my conception of Vassar. Some years later, after I had joined the Vassar faculty, an indignant critic of a popular article of mine publicly berated me as a “pedagogue of the rich.” In fact, the founder of the college, Vassar, himself told the trustees at the outset that his college was not intended to be a “charity school.” Students or parents would be expected to pay for that education, though, in justice to him, he subsequently provided fellowships. As at the beginning, the Vassar College I knew in the 1950s and 1960s was an expensive educational experience. Demography reinforced that judgment. Over 40 percent of the fathers of Vassar students in the 1950s were professionals, and another 45 percent were businessmen. Compare that with the 30 percent of the fathers of students at teachers’ colleges who were manual workers.

Matthew Vassar had not intended to invest his money; rather he intended to undertake a minor revolution. His purpose was to educate young women on a level comparable to that of young men at colleges like Yale and Harvard. Vassar himself had been born in England, arriving as a boy in Poughkeepsie. His schooling was meager, and he began work at his father’s small brewery. In time, Matthew took over the brewery from his father, then built a new one, moved into local politics for a while, and invested successfully in railroads, whaling, and banking, from which by the 1850s he had accumulated a substantial fortune. Childless and advancing in age, Vassar obtained from a local educator named Milo Jewett the idea of endowing in his lifetime a first-class college for young women. Jewett became the college’s first president.

The idea of educating young women was not new. Oberlin College in Ohio had admitted women along with men in 1837, and by the 1850s several colleges for women had been founded in both Georgia and upstate New York; there were also several dozen two-year seminaries for women designed to improve their manners, reading, languages, and aesthetic abilities. The distinction that Vassar intended for his college lay not in being a four-year school, as was Elmira College in upstate New York, but in exceeding in equipment, resources, and size any women’s college then in the country—or the world. Women would gain in one stroke that quality of education then available at the country’s best private men’s colleges. Remember that in 1861, when the first ground was broken at Vassar, Harvard College had been in existence accumulating wealth and prestige for two centuries, and Yale College was not far behind.

With the innovative guidance of Jewett, Matthew Vassar wanted to make sure that his new college would indeed reach the high level he envisioned. Consequently, he put his money where his mouth was by endowing a two-hundred-acre farm outside Poughkeepsie along with four hundred thousand dollars’ worth of securities—then considered a rare amount for founding any kind of college, especially from a single donor. Sophia Smith’s endowment, for example, ten years later, did not meet Vassar’s. In line with his concern for quality, Vassar also enlisted the skills of James Renwick, the architect of the recently constructed St. Patrick’s Cathedral on New York’s Fifth Avenue. It was Renwick who designed the immense Main building and the elaborate gatehouse.

It may have taken the four years of the Civil War to open the college, but at its opening the staff and their equipment represented a virtual revolution in women’s higher education. At the outset, as Vassar had insisted, two of the eight professors were women, and thirty of the thirty- five assistants were women. The facilities for the teaching of a full array of scientific work were present: astronomy, chemistry, physics, botany, zoology, as well as courses in mathematics. The telescope proudly ensconced in the observatory was said to be the second-largest in the nation; below, in an apartment on the first floor, lived Maria Mitchell, a nationally known astronomer and outspoken advocate of young women’s independence. The teaching of physiology and health was there from the beginning as well, largely because those who expressed doubts about women’s higher education feared women’s bodies were as fragile as their minds. Matters of physiology and health were not recognized as useful for men until much later in the century.

As observers at the time anticipated, many of the early students chose classes in languages and the arts, as was the usual practice at the female seminaries. The novelty of a Vassar education, however, was strikingly apparent at the outset. Forty percent of the students chose science courses, while 21 percent selected the classics, the long-established measure of a liberal education at the private men’s colleges. (Only 7 percent picked the social sciences.) As I learned when I joined the history department in 1952, all those sciences were still operative, with others added. (Indeed, at the time of the discussions about a possible move to Yale in the mid-1960s, proportionately more women majored in some sciences at Vassar than men did at Yale College.)

Behind Jewett’s and Vassar’s idea for higher education for women stood the fear that not enough young women would take the risk. Numbers turned out to be no problem—almost four hundred women, not all of them young, sought admission—but the preparation needed for admission to a first-class college was another matter. Only 31 percent of the entering students were ready to engage Latin and other fundamental subjects at college level. For almost a decade the college maintained a preparatory department to bring the students up to the required level. The preparatory experience nicely measured how limited education had been for women while revealing, at the same time, how urgent women’s drive for higher education had become. Within fifteen years after Matthew Vassar’s experiment, Wellesley and Smith had been founded, and by the turn of the century new private universities like Chicago and Stanford opened their doors to women and men.

The new president, Henry Noble MacCracken, acted on a quite different conception of Vassar education. Ironically, just those subjects or courses Taylor had so strongly resisted became the new ideas that MacCracken, the political liberal and ardent proponent of women’s suffrage, now introduced into the education of young women at Vassar. MacCracken endorsed a course of study called euthenics that recognized the special needs of Vassar women as homemakers and mothers. Later he expressed the motivation behind his innovation: “Celibate life, independent careers, increase of divorce, limitation of children, were all, or seemed to be, evidence that the American family needed attention.” (As early as the turn of the century, some political leaders, especially Theodore Roosevelt, had openly worried about “race suicide” because college women were not marrying and reproducing. And it was true that before the twentieth century more than 40 percent of Vassar women had never married; by 1921, however, the figure had fallen to 25 percent.)

Euthenics did not survive at Vassar, but a more enduring sign of the shift away from Taylor’s opposition to courses for women as wives and mothers was the establishment in the 1920s of the Child Study major in connection with the opening of a nursery school. Soon other elite women’s colleges added that aspect of women’s education to their programs. Of course, no elite men’s colleges followed suit. (From my standpoint, the nursery school was a decided plus; both of my children entered it soon after I was appointed.)

My own rising interest in feminism did not develop from any strong expressions of feminism emanating from my women colleagues; only occasionally did they press on me their views on that subject. It emerged instead largely because I was surrounded by lively young women seeking to learn about themselves and their future from the American past. I soon began to make some connections between my professional interest in the American past and the place of women in it. That was especially potent when I wandered through, and then scrutinized, the substantial collection of books and studies in the Vassar library about and by women. Suddenly it became clear that women’s history did indeed have a good deal of relevance for the history of African Americans, in which I had become deeply interested since my days at Upsala and later in graduate school. It was while scanning those many books on women at the Vassar library that I read, with engrossing interest, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1899 tract Women and Economics. I had never heard of the book or its author but soon undertook to read most of her many writings and then published an essay on Gilman’s books and her many popular articles. Later, when Betty Friedan came to lecture at Vassar, I sent her a copy of my article on Gilman’s ideas, because Gilman had anticipated so many of the ideas that appeared in Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. Graciously, Friedan acknowledged the similarities, though in the course of her research she, too, had not come across Gilman’s book or name. From that first encounter at Vassar with Friedan emerged my joining with her and a handful of others in Washington, D.C., to found the National Organization for Women.

During most of the sixteen years I taught at Vassar, the president was Sarah Gibson Blanding, who had served as dean of the School of Home Economics at Cornell University before coming to Vassar. She was the college’s first woman president, but that did not make her a feminist, though she invariably insisted on using the description “young women” in referring to the students rather than “girls,” then a widely used designation. Like her predecessor, Henry MacCracken, Blanding always said that Vassar’s principal job was to provide young women with the best education and that education would contribute heavily to their being the primary teachers and supporters of their families.

Sarah Gibson Blanding
Sarah Gibson Blanding

As a person, Sarah Blanding was open and liberal, full of fun that was often punctuated with bursts of loud, exuberant laughter and with well-disciplined Christmas parties. ( “Time to go, Carl,” she would interrupt in order to move me out of her living room.) Though she was rather conservative educationally, she was a solid Democrat, for she had been born in Kentucky and still sounded so. Nothing pleased her more than to discover that I was increasingly interested in the history of the South. An important result for me was a steady stream of financial support for my annual visits to the meetings of the Southern Historical Association at various southern cities. Another Vassar colleague, also of southern heritage, Mildred Campbell, supported my southern interests by letting my family and me live in her rural house in East Tennessee. She felt it necessary, if I were to teach southern history at Vassar, that I gain some direct southern experience, especially in the agricultural South, since I had been born and reared in Newark, New Jersey.

Along with fostering my intellectual development, Vassar showed me how young faculty members could soon comfortably ease themselves into a serious and congenial collegial environment. Before joining the Vassar history department, I had taught freshman courses at New York University, Hunter College, Ade1phi University, and City College, while pursuing graduate study at Columbia. At all of these institutions, I was little more than a transitory person, barely recognized, except by a few contemporaneous colleagues. As one of them remarked at lunch one day, “We are all, you know, a part of the ‘fluid bottom,’ ” existing, as we were, in truth, on a tide you knew not where to or from.

At Vassar there was no fluid bottom. Virtually from the beginning, as an assistant professor, I felt accepted as a teacher, perhaps as something of a scholar, and certainly as a professional. By my time, Vassar had achieved a democratic governance in which faculty of all ranks met together periodically and in full cognizance that the faculty and the trustees had worked out a written and strictly honored body of agreements. Although I knew about the governance, I was much surprised early on that Charles Griffin, my chairman, actually asked my opinion about a general college issue. No chairman at my earlier posts had included me in any of our infrequent faculty discussions. At Vassar, though, I was soon encouraged to speak out at the full faculty meeting if I thought I had something to add to the discussion. It is true, as I have reflected since at equally democratic faculty senate meetings at Stanford, that a democratically organized faculty with power can also stifle or slow down necessary changes, because coalitions among departments and groups seeking their self-interest can and do just that. Yet I have always felt that Vassar showed me how a faculty-administration arrangement might or even ought to function.

On a level closer to students, I learned the importance of teaching classes in history, where there were rarely more than twenty-five or thirty students. Indeed, in my department, history was seen as so important that no one was supposed to lecture at all! Class discussions were based on assigned topics, accompanied by reading lists because students had access to an open-stack library. The students were encouraged—prodded, if necessary—to express their thoughts and reactions to the reading. I have never been sure that a class discussion, as opposed to a seminar, was always appropriate in history, even at Vassar, but in learning to lead class discussion, I came to see the limitations of depending upon lectures only, as had been the practice of many of my graduate and undergraduate teachers. In the context of Vassar’s belief in the value of published scholarship, the discussion method subsequently provided me with an opportunity to publish my first book. Many universities at the time assumed, as they still do, that a young scholar’s Ph.D. dissertation ought to become in time a book, especially if he or she expected to achieve tenure. A number of the senior faculty at Vassar had published scholarly works, but no one pushed me in that direction at the beginning, for which I was grateful. To be candid, I was not sure that my dissertation was something I wanted to work on at all. I still recall the reaction of my chairman when he asked me what my present research project was about. When he heard it, he said he thought the topic seemed too narrow and just plain boring, both of which it was.

Taking that implicit advice, I looked to some other projects. Because I was teaching a general course on U.S. history and chose to emphasize changing interpretations of the past, I thought it would be interesting and even intellectually exciting to do a book organized around that theme. One of the obvious advantages I obtained from Vassar was that I could design my own course and discuss with students in my class changing interpretations of American history. That was something which did not often happen at the places I had taught before. Most of them usually required young instructors to follow a departmental design. What was most valuable to me was another example of Vassar’s fine cooperative relation with young instructors: the college’s policy of offering competitive faculty fellowships evaluated by a Vassar faculty committee instead of through the traditional sabbatical, which was determined by term of service. As things turned out, I received a full year’s fellowship at the end of my fourth year. The result was my first book, Out of Our Past, the text of which I had drawn from my course in American social history. Needless to say, no university and few other colleges would have provided such generous support for a young scholar, especially since the book was intended to be a popular and not a scholarly work. (That fellowship policy, I should add, no longer prevails).

From the outset, the college had encouraged young women students to serve society even if it may also have looked to marriage and family as a primary role for post-Vassar women. Teaching or education, medicine, and social work were possibilities, especially as the city and the factory created new needs that socially responsible educated women could fill. During the 1950s and 1960s, most Vassar students perceived marriage as an important early step in their lives because a career often appeared to exclude marriage. At one time in my years at Vassar, all my superiors—president, dean of faculty, dean of students, and departmental chair—were single women. Almost all of the male faculty were married. In a student body increasingly determined to marry, a career, as opposed to a job, was difficult to contemplate. As I came to appreciate the implications of Matthew Vassar’s mission, I began to recognize that the goal of achieving equal education for women could be personally confusing for many Vassar women given the times and circumstances. That recognition laid the groundwork for my trying to unravel the complexities many Vassar women seemed to face in confronting marriage and work. It later became my book At Odds: Women and the Family from the Revolution to the Present.

Ada Comstock and Wallace Notestein in London, 1947. The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
Ada Comstock and Wallace Notestein in London, 1947. The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

I became aware of the issue in the early 1960s. Vassar students worked hard—probably harder than students in most of the private men’s colleges—and learned as much as or more than the men. Yet given the opportunities available for women’s employment at the time and joined with the pressure for marriage, Vassar women approaching graduation found themselves in a dilemma that men had no need to think about. In the 1950s and 1960s young men could strike out directly from college into a career. When marriage and family came, that may have added a new burden, but it did not usually interfere with a man’s career. Indeed, it might actually enhance the reason for continuing the career. Vassar women, however, as I learned from them, could indeed pursue a career since they possessed the necessary education. But what would happen when marriage and family arrived? Once, in discussing these issues in class, I told the students about a real-life solution that I heard about. It concerned two loving academic friends in the 1930s, Ada Comstock of Smith College and Wallace Notestein of Yale University. When Cormstock was offered the presidency of Radcliffe College, Notestein proposed to her. She refused him, for she knew that as a married woman—that is, with the likelihood of a family—she could not take up the offer from Radcliffe. When she retired at sixty-five, Notestein, who had not married, proposed to her once more. They then married and lived together for more than twenty-five years. To my students that story was romantic, but hardly a solution for them. Indeed, only reliable and easily available contraceptive devices, the loosening of sexual habits, and revised conceptions of marriage and women’s careers reduced substantially the sharpness of college women’s dilemma, though without entirely resolving it.

It could be said, too, that one evidence of that dilemma was the college’s decision in 1968 to become coeducational. The underlying drive, as I perceived it, was the issue of marriage and family versus career. It was a male president, to be sure, Alan Simpson, who initiated, in conjunction with Kingman Brewster, president of Yale, a possible linkage of the two colleges. In the difficult and sometimes acrimonious process of discussing the merger, which, in the end, did not take place, Vassar become coeducational, as did Yale. That decision clearly broke a tradition among prestigious private colleges that the best education depended upon a separation of the sexes. For a while even Mount Holyoke and Smith seriously contemplated coeducation, but among the men’s colleges the change spread rapidly across the nation. Today there are a number of private women’s colleges, but only a handful of men’s colleges remain. Even West Point and Annapolis are coeducational.

By the time the decision was made for Vassar to become coeducational and to stay in Poughkeepsie, I had decided to move to Stanford University, after sixteen years of teaching, learning from, and loving Matthew Vassar’s college. I was leaving Vassar not because of coeducation; after all Stanford been coeducational from the beginning. Rather, I wanted a strikingly different as well as more comfortable location, a larger academic scene, and to be able to work with some colleagues I knew there. As I think about Vassar today, I reflect that once again Vassar was there in the forefront of higher education, first at its beginning when it constituted a major shift in women’s education, and more recently in helping expand coeducation across the country. (Not all of Vassar women at the time agreed with that evaluation, I need to admit.). Although I supported coeducation at Vassar and Yale, my feminist outlook appreciates the continuation of single-sex institutions for women. In a still largely male-dominated society, women’s colleges provide a needed diversity for young women seeking higher education.

When one leaves a job or an institution after a substantial number of years, those left behind usually entertain one of two general responses. One is that those who remain are glad you have gone, though they may not say that. The other is that those who remain are very sorry you are going and wonder if you did the right thing in deciding to leave. The response I received from my associates at Vassar did not suggest either message to me, They did not feel that I was escaping them, or even that I was injuring them. Instead, as Evalyn Clark, one of the senior Vassar women in the department, said to me: “Carl, this move will be good for you because it will provide a wider and more exciting opportunity for your talents.” She knew, of course, as I’ve been saying, that Vassar had done so much for me that my staying could be easily justified. But that was not the Vassar I had learned about; it sought, rather, to develop its faculty as well as its students.

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