When Women Weren’t Allowed to Go to Harvard, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Brought Harvard to Them

Unlike other women’s colleges of the day, the Annex was intimately connected with Harvard

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, in an undated photo. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The story of Harvard University starts with its establishment in 1636. The story of women students at Harvard starts two hundred years later. Women weren't allowed to get degrees there until Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, born on this day in 1822, helped change that.

“Agassiz carried the energy and vision needed to grapple with Harvard’s administration,” writes Natalie duP. C. Panno for The Harvard Crimson.

Agassiz was an important part of the push to have women educated at Harvard, which, like most universities at the time, was open only to men. She was the founding president of the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, colloquially known as the Harvard Annex, and remained president when it became Radcliffe College, one of only two of the Seven Sisters to grant degrees that were also signed by the president of an Ivy League school.

The former wife of deceased Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, she had been educating women since opening a school to supplement their household income in 1855, according to Encyclopedia Britannica . She was there when the Harvard Annex opened in the fall of 1879, writes Madeleine Schwartz for Harvard Magazine.

At the Annex, Harvard professors taught Annex women the same classes they taught the men.

“Harvard Annex girls have nothing in common with their Harvard University brethren except the most important of all—the Harvard professors and the Harvard examinations,” wrote student Amy Robsart circa 1893. But not all was equal: students earned certificates, not the coveted Harvard degrees, and they weren’t a part of regular scholastic life, writes Schwartz.

Radcliffe College was the last of the pioneering women’s colleges to gain degree-granting status. The founders of Radcliffe College didn’t just want to give women an education. They wanted to give women access to a Harvard education, writes Nancy Weiss Malkiel in her book on co-education, and they were willing to wait until that could be achieved.

As early as 1883, Agassiz was trying to explain why the Annex could be different from other women’s schools: “We readily admit that such a college would be both undesirable and superfluous, unless we can connect it directly with Harvard College. Failing this, we should miss the distinctive thing for which we have aimed.”

Other schools like Vassar, Smith and Wellesley offered degrees for women. Agassiz wanted access to Harvard’s long-standing prominence and “its relation to the intellectual world outside, its maturity of thought and method; its claim on cultivated minds everywhere,” she wrote in 1892.  

But Harvard was reticent to bring women into the educational fold. In 1883, university president Charles Eliot said educating young men and women together was out of the question at Harvard: “generations of civil freedom and social equality” would be required before women’s capacities could even begin to be assessed. Ten years later, Panno writes, Harvard’s treasurer referred to it as a “risky experiment.”

In December 1893, it was announced that the Annex might join Harvard. That would mean that students would receive Harvard degrees. Newspapers of the time, preserved in founder Arthur Gilman’s scrapbook, document lengthy wrangling about its exact status, its ability to grant postgraduate degrees, and numerous other issues.

It took some time and an act from the Massachusetts legislature, but by June 1894 when the academic year’s courses for the new Radcliffe College (named after the first woman to donate to Harvard) were announced, the Boston Herald wrote “It is the Harvard course over again, with practically all the advantages of university training.” In a victory for Agassiz and her fellows, Radcliffe students studied on Harvard standards and received degrees with the Harvard seal and the signature of its president, as well as that of Radcliffe’s president.

In her address to the graduating class of 1896, reported the Cambridge Tribune, Agassiz said that the privileges of a Harvard education came with the responsibility of doing something with it.

“We have to show that the wider scope of knowledge and the severer training of the intellect may strengthen and enrich a woman’s life,” she said, “and help her in her appointed or chosen work, whatever that may prove to be, as much as it helps a man in his career.”

Agassiz resigned in 1899, at the age of 77, believing that Radcliffe College was only a temporary step on the way to full Harvard admission for women. In a sense, she was right, as by 1971 Radcliffe was no longer a degree-granting institution and had joined Harvard in what was called a “non-merger merger.” “Most Radcliffe alumni and even the Radcliffe trustees were not willing to relinquish Radcliffe’s corporate identity,” Weiss writes.

But for women to fully join Harvard as students, “She would have more than a century to wait,” wrote Drew Gilpin Faust in 2001. Radcliffe College was fully dissolved in 1999, at which point women ceased to have two signatures on their diplomas—one from Radcliffe and one from Harvard.

Editor's note: The photo accompanying this story was originally captioned with an incorrect date. The date of the photo of Elizabeth Cary Agassiz seen here is unknown.

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