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An Advocate for Change

Harvard and the Early Republic: A Profile of Elizabeth Cary Agassiz

By Natalie duP. C. Panno, Crimson Staff Writer

In 1883, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz asked the Massachusetts elite to donate to her controversial cause of ladies’ education by explaining the difference between what was affectionately known as the Harvard Annex and its sister institutions:

“It may, and no doubt will, be asked, why we desire to establish a college for women in Cambridge when several successful ones exist elsewhere; when we have Vassar, the Boston University, Smith, and Wellesley. 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.”

Bold words. Slightly more than a decade before, President Charles W. Eliot had dismissed any notion of Harvard’s duty to educate women, saying in 1869, “The world knows next to nothing about the natural mental capacities of the female sex.” Still, there were attempts to address the matter. In 1871, the Women’s Education Association of Boston decided to organize a conference on women’s education for the following year and again were rebuffed by University professors and officials. Their minutes note: “We were told not to disturb the present system of education, which is the result of the wisdom and experience of the past, and bears so large a part in the molding of our republican life.”

The late nineteenth century saw a growing interest in female higher education: All of the Seven Sisters, save Radcliffe, were granted college charters before 1890. Of those six, only Barnard gave the degree of a men’s college (Columbia). The remaining schools were independent.

Just as Harvard has the reputation of always doing things differently, so, too, did Radcliffe. The college finally obtained a charter in 1894. Its tardiness to do so, and the unconventional nature of a Radcliffe degree countersigned by Harvard’s president, is a remnant of its founders’ long-term goal: to provide women with a Harvard education.

Radcliffe College’s founding was the work of many, but Agassiz carried the energy and vision needed to grapple with Harvard’s administration. The wife of famed naturalist Louis Agassiz, she spent her later years as the voice of a revolutionary movement looking to gain the endorsement of America’s oldest bastion of higher education. Agassiz’s efforts would help establish an institution with official connections to Harvard that provided women with an education on par with their Harvard counterparts and the credibility of a degree countersigned by the University’s president. She then presided over that institution for its first decade.

Elizabeth Agassiz was born in Boston in 1822. A sickly child, she was homeschooled. She met her husband, a widower, through her sister, the wife of a Harvard professor, and was married in 1850. Agassiz’s first brush with educational leadership came in 1855, when the couple established a girls’ school to augment their income. The school closed in 1863; in 1865, the couple went to Brazil, resulting in the famous 1867 publication of “A Journey in Brazil,” derived from her notes on his research. After her husband, for whom she acted as editor, secretary, and confidante, died in 1873, Agassiz devoted herself to her cause: female education at Harvard. In 1879 she joined the committee that would become The Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, known as the Harvard Annex.

Prior to the establishment of the Annex, a small group of motivated women had been able to form associations with professors, enter special courses of instruction, pursue individual graduate-level work, attend summer school, and sit for separate examinations. Harvard professors had long supplemented their wages by instructing interested women, while the University itself offered various programs of study, without the promise of an actual degree, throughout the nineteenth century. But by the 1870s, with the advent of a growing public debate on formalized female education, informal options for these women, often the wives, sisters, and daughters of Harvard’s intellectuals, dwindled.

The Annex began with 27 students, most pursuing advanced study, and 13 professors, repeating their Harvard lectures. It was based in a Cambridge residence, and local families hosted students. The committee hastened to assure Harvard that despite its meager beginnings, aid was unnecessary. Arthur Gilman, the committee secretary, wrote to Eliot: “The ladies are all opposed to coeducation and […] very glad to make the experiment without involving Harvard, but when success has been achieved we shall be glad to give the glory to her.”

Though the Annex offered no degree, the public and press latched onto the Annex as the first step, or mis-step, in bringing women to the school. While some applauded the group’s compromises in establishing the program, others demanded stronger engagement with the University. The committee opted for the former path and, in 1882, the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women was founded, with Agassiz as president, in order to raise an endowment. Despite difficulty fundraising, Agassiz refused to consider the establishment of a separate school with its own faculty, maintaining that entrance to Harvard would come in time.

The school’s pecuniary problems persisted, and, in 1893, after much work by the committee, Agassiz entered into talks with Eliot and the Harvard Corporation about the Annex’s future. Harvard’s reply to the committee’s offer, which included fully transferring its endowment and its property to Harvard, was lukewarm. Harvard’s treasurer wrote, “I have no prejudice in the matter of education of women and am quite willing to see Yale or Columbia take any risks they like, but I feel bound to protect Harvard College from what seems to me to be a risky experiment.”

After some negotiation, the Corporation agreed to the founding of a separate college that granted degrees countersigned by Harvard’s president. Eliot suggested naming it after Lady Mowlson, née Ann Radcliffe, whom the University had just rediscovered as its first female donor. Radcliffe was formally established in 1893 but, as with every step, the committee’s compromise provoked debate. In 1894, the Harvard Board of Overseers voted to ensure that no women should be granted either a Harvard A.B. or post-graduate degree, while Annex alumnae decried the college’s establishment and its new ties to the university down the street.

At that year’s Commencement, Agassiz urged graduates to be worthy of the new connection:

“It is my dearest wish for you all that Radcliffe College by her bearing [...] by her simplicity and refinement of manners, by her fidelity to scholarship in its more comprehensive and liberal sense, should worthily serve the older institution by which she is adopted. This trust is yours, and I hope you will hand it down to successive classes, enriched by traditions of your own, such as may befit association with what is best and noblest in the records of Harvard University.”

Agassiz resigned from the post of president in the fall of 1899, from honorary president in 1903, and died in 1907. But Agassiz’s fight, shared with Gilman, the committee, and countless students, instructors, and friends, to give women a Harvard education, would continue for another century. In 1999, after decades of slow change and continued negotiations, Radcliffe College was formally dissolved, the position of Radcliffe President disappeared, and the diplomas of all female students carried one, not two, presidential signatures.

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