First ladies’ determination broke down education’s gate

During a period of construction and expansion at GW in the early 1880s, Maria M. Carter surprised the burgeoning University’s administration with an unexpected gift.

She offered GW $5,000 to endow a scholarship for a woman. Unsure how to accommodate the socially progressive request, administrators refused the money until a plan for the education of women could be agreed upon.

But even before Carter’s proposal, the question of women attending GW had been looming on the horizon.

The morning after the opening law school exercises Oct. 13, 1869, the Washington Morning News reported that one well-known women’s rights supporter had caused a stir by announcing that she intended to “endeavor to be admitted to the (law) school.”

The article stated, “It was noticed that the idea of female students was met with approbation from many of the sterner sex, who are doubtless contemplating what pleasures they will have in going through the mazes of legal disquisitions in the company of the fair and lovely characters whose presence in the school room will be so comforting . by all means, let the ladies initiate themselves as students of law.”

The law school faculty did not agree.

By 1883, the professors proclaimed, “the admission of women into the law school was not required by any public want.

“In the whole history of the institution only one woman has applied for admission, and her wants were amply supplied by the law school of Howard University in this city,” the faculty said in a resolution, according to Bricks Without Straw: The Evolution of George Washington University by Elmer Louis Kayser.

Women also were refused admission to GW’s medical school, where administrators said that “because of inadequate space (accepting women) would be a physical impossibility.”

But gradual change came with time.

Administrators in the Columbian College suggested that the college make some courses available to women, to ascertain the demand for women’s education.

If demand was found to be greater than these limited courses could provide, the administrators agreed that they “should throw open the doors of the college without restriction on the ground of sex.”

Four women, Ellen W. Cathcart, Sarah S. Scull, Alice J. White and Clara Bliss Hinds, were admitted to the medical school in 1884.

In the administration’s decision to admit the women, it was noted “no objection on the part of male pupils has been made to the admission of females.”

Three years later, Hinds was the first woman ever to earn a degree as a doctor of medicine from GW. The next year, Elizabeth Preston Brown and Louise Connolly became the first two women graduates of the Corcoran Scientific School.

By 1888, the college faculty voted to admit its first full-time female student, Mabel Nelson Thurston, who would later become the namesake of what is today’s freshman residence hall.

On July 23, 1963, the University announced its intention to transform the Park Central Apartments at the corner of 19th and F St. into a “superdorm” for women, with a 1,000-person capacity.

It marked the first time female students had the option to live on campus. Over the years, curfew and dress restrictions were imposed on female students to combat what faculty found to be “a strain on modesty.”

By 1986, female undergraduates outnumbered their male counterparts, and they have ever since.

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