March is Women’s History Month. Let’s take a look at the historical role of women at Colorado College, the national liberal arts college in Colorado Springs.
Young Florence Haskell, age 14, was the first woman in the college’s story, and without her Colorado College would not exist. Florence suffered from tuberculosis. She and her father, Thomas N. Haskell, a Congregational minister, were searching for a college for her to attend at a high elevation so the clear, dry air could help cure her illness. Alas, no such college or university existed, so they decided to found a new one in Colorado.
Sadly, Florence died from her lung ailment, but her father decided to found a college at high elevation anyway, in his daughter’s “marvelous memory.” Gen. William J. Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, persuaded Haskell to locate it in this city.
Naturally, a college in Florence’s memory would have to admit women as well as men, so Colorado College was coeducational from the first minute of its founding. Haskell called for it to be open to “both sexes and all races.”
Women were on the faculty from the very beginning. Miss Minna Knapp of Germany taught German and music. Miss Mary S. MacKenzie and Miss Emma Bump also were teaching. Miss Eloise Wickard was the first woman to be awarded a professorship. It was in English literature.
In the first 35 years of its existence, Colorado College built one men’s residence hall and four residence halls for women. All four of the women’s residence halls were named for women who had helped to raise the money to pay for them. The women’s residence halls included dining rooms, recreation and exercise rooms, and first-floor lounges where women could receive “gentlemen callers.”
The male students lived in the one men’s dormitory and in fraternity houses.
Colorado College graduated its first men in 1882. Thirteen years later, in 1895, Nettie Carey and Elizabeth Powell became the first two women to graduate. Student enrollment at the college at that time was fewer than 200 students.
In the early 1890s, a women’s advocacy group was founded in Colorado Springs to advance the interests of the female students at Colorado College. Faculty wives and prominent women in the social life of the city comprised the Women’s Educational Society. It raised money for scholarships for women and supplied furniture and other utensils for the women’s residence halls. The Women’s Educational Society has existed for more than a century and is still going strong.
In the summer of 1893, Colorado College invited a female professor of English at Wellesley College to come out West and teach summer session. Following a wagon ride to the top of Pike’s Peak, Katharine Lee Bates wrote the words to the famous song “America the Beautiful.”
The first nonteaching administrator appointed at Colorado College was a woman. Ruth Loomis came from Vassar College in New York state to serve as dean of women. She was famous for setting moral standards and stressing social etiquette that “maintained a college for women in a coeducational institution.”
In 1906, the Student Government Association for Women Students was founded. This group was elected by the female students and enabled them to participate in the making of the rules under which they lived in the dormitories and conducted their social lives. It gave the young women the opportunity to run and serve in elected office without having to compete with men, which was considered an important value at that time.
The male students were forming literary and debating societies in the early 20th century. The women followed suit with their own such societies, which had names such as Minerva, Hypatia, and Contemporary. The women’s literary societies soon added social life to their calendars, hosting dances and picnics and putting on plays and musicals. In the 1930s, the women’s literary societies were transformed into sororities. Unlike men’s fraternities, women were not allowed to live in their sorority houses.
The Roaring ’20s left their mark on Colorado College. Shorter skirts, bobbed hair, and long strings of pearls came into fashion for the women, who revolted against outdated social rules such as the one that forbade men to visit women in the dormitories on Sundays. Jazz and dancing the “Charleston” were all part of the newly liberated, for the time, scene.
A treasured tradition at Colorado College was the Sunday serenade. On Sunday nights, just at the time the women were required to be back in their residence halls, the men would gather in the quadrangle formed by the four women’s dormitories and sing and dance for the women. Bands played and firecrackers went off as various groups of male students worked hard to provide the best entertainment. The female students took it all in, cheering and clapping from the windows and porches of their residence halls.
The first woman with a doctorate degree to teach at Colorado College was Leila C. Spaulding, who taught classics from 1911 to 1914. She received her doctorate from Columbia University and previously taught at Vassar and Bryn Mawr colleges.
The first woman to make a full career of teaching at Colorado College was Edith Bramhall, who received her doctorate in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Colorado College from 1920 to 1946.
An adventuresome woman, she served in France during World War I as a nurse’s assistant. She was the first woman elected to the Colorado Springs City Council, and she was an early and outspoken supporter of the United States getting into World War II to stop Adolf Hitler.
During World War II, the women of Colorado College did their share for the war effort by planting a large Victory Garden (vegetable garden) in the quadrangle in front of Palmer Hall.
The late 1940s to the 1990s produced the Colorado College that we know today. Men and women were allowed to dine together and live in coeducational dormitories. There were expanded sports opportunities for women and a Division I women’s soccer team. There were increased numbers of women on the faculty and in the student body. In 1993, the first woman was inaugurated as president of Colorado College.
Bob Loevy is the author of three books on the history of Colorado College.