Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

A Gendered Approach

Nothing in the surviving records of Lehigh’s early years indicates that admitting women was ever discussed as a possibility while designing the school, which seems typical of the Victorian era.  With a relatively low proportion of men going to college, it makes sense that an even lower number of women attended any sort of higher education.  Lucas observes that for the few women’s schools in existence in the nineteenth century “almost all lacked sufficient endowments to assure their permanent survival, reflective perhaps of popular skepticism about the value of higher education for women” because “serious scholarship, it was widely believed, lay beyond female capabilities.”   However, this analysis is misleading as struggles of insufficient funding and enrollment were not exclusive to women’s schools.  For example, in the early nineteenth century, the Board of Trustees at Lafayette College was larger than the student body.

 The idea of women attending college was neither unheard of nor revolutionary by 1865 when Lehigh was founded.  As Frederick Rudolph explains, “The movement toward the higher education of women drew on a tradition of educational emancipation which went back at least to the effective and respectable schools of the Moravians at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1749."   Margaret Nash writes that by the 1850s “the idea of women attending college, though not without its detractors, clearly had become widely accepted."   According to the Report of the Commissioner of Education, by the 1870s there were 20 degree granting colleges in the mid-Atlantic region alone and 155 in total.  Even if not all of these institutions survived the century, their establishments indicate a widespread demand for the higher education of women.  In 1865, the same year Lehigh was founded, Vassar College first opened its doors to 353 women, a much larger student body than was to be found at Lehigh.  

It is possible that Packer thought women simply did not want to go to college, as he thought women did not want to vote.  The topic of letting women in at Lehigh was discussed in a faculty meeting at 1881 in response to a letter inquiring about admission for females, but the issue was unresolved.  For almost one hundred years, women who tried to register were politely directed to other schools that accepted them (including a French woman who was accidentally accepted after being mistaken for a man due to her name).  Regardless, the first female undergraduates wouldn’t enroll in Lehigh until 1971.  It is not surprising that Lehigh did not admit women, as most East coast colleges of the nineteenth century were not yet coeducational, but it is important to remember that admitting women was not as far-fetched as it may seem.

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