Monday, April 6, 2015

Champlain College: Empowering Women Since 1878

NEW RESEARCH INTO THE EARLY HISTORY of Champlain College has revealed that the College has admitted women since its establishment in 1878. Champlain was founded as the Burlington Collegiate Institute and Commercial College, a private, for-profit school offering professional business training and college prep classes. An advertisement for the 1878-1879 school year boasts:  “This institution offers unsurpassed facilities to either sex to obtain a thorough education in either English commercial or classical branches, and prepare students also for any first-class college.”

A coed classroom at Champlain College (then known as the Burlington Business College), c. 1905
Courtesy Dean Howarth, Class of 1968

In the late 1870s, only about thirty percent of American colleges and universities admitted women. What is more, the very concept of higher education for women –much less coed higher education –was still very much a matter of debate. In 1873, only five years before Champlain was established, Boston physician Edward Clarke argued that higher education for women on a level equal to men’s should be discouraged, as rigorous intellectual activity would deplete their health and ability to have children. Clarke proposed that a separate, watered-down curriculum be designed for women.

Yet commercial colleges like Champlain College were a different beast than traditional four-year undergraduate institutions. They provided a comparatively short-term, economical, and practical course of study that primarily attracted students from the lower and middle classes. Starting in the 1840s, hundreds of commercial colleges were established across the country as the growing economy led to an increased demand for office workers trained in bookkeeping, penmanship (for legible business correspondence), stenography (shorthand), and later, typing and telegraph and telephone operation. Commercial colleges appealed to many nontraditional students seeking entry into the developing clerical field:  young men with limited means or education, veterans returning from military service, workers aspiring to move up the career ladder, and, by the 1870s, women who needed to earn a living.

Office work, particularly entry-level secretarial positions, provided new professional opportunities for women – appealing alternatives to the primary occupations open to them for much of the nineteenth century: domestic service, sewing, textile machine operation, and teaching. As a result, female students were an important demographic for commercial colleges, most of which were coed by the 1870s.

Illustration from a 1916 Champlain College [Burlington Business College] brochure
Champlain College Archives

Female enrollment in commercial colleges increased dramatically in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, mirroring the growing acceptance of women stenographers, typists, and bookkeepers. Nationally, 15% of commercial college students were female in 1882, and that had risen to 34% by 1898. In 1885, the earliest year for which Champlain’s enrollment details are known, only 9 out of 62 students, or 14.5%, were women. In 1898, 41 out of 98 Champlain students, or 42%, were female. It is clear that in the late nineteenth century, Champlain offered important educational opportunities for women, empowering them to enter the business world and begin to chip away at its glass ceiling. 

- Erica Donnis, Special Collections Director

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