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First Women at GW

Women in the Schools of Law and Medicine

When James Welling became President of then-Columbian College in 1871, he instituted many changes. Under his watch women were admitted for the first time. As Elmer Louis Kayser described it in his book Bricks Without Straw:

But the most significant evidence of a new age was the invasion of the University's academic halls by women. Toward the end of Dr. Samson's administration Mrs. Maria M. Carter had offered a gift of $5,000 to endow a scholarship for a woman student. In the early days of the Welling administration this gift was courteously refused until some plan for the education of women could be fixed upon. That the question had been a matter of some public attention is evident from a report of the opening exercises of the Law School on October 13, 1869, in the columns of the Washington Morning News on the following day:

The noticeable feature of the evening however, to the community at least, was the presence in the school of the irrepressible Mrs. Lockwood, of Union League Hall - women's rights discussion notoriety. It is understood that she is anxious to study for the bar, and will endeavor to be admitted to the school. It was noticed that the idea of female students 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 schoolroom will be so comforting. . . . By all means let the ladies initiate themselves as students of law. When they get admitted to the bar, and come to be members of legislatures and members of Congress, etc., we will have less spouting in the halls of legislation, and a greater regard to honesty in public matters. The "rings" will then, perhaps, have to give way to a better condition of things, and the millennium be nearer than most people suppose.

The Law faculty, however, had a different view. The report of the committee of five, authorized by the Corporation on June 18, 1881, suggested that the question of admitting women be referred to each of the faculties of the several schools for recommendations to the Corporation, the College alone excepted, admission there being reserved for the decision of the Corporation "on its own wisdom." This report was accepted in 1883, and at the annual meeting of the Corporation the following year the president presented the results of his consultation with each of the faculties. The Law faculty declared that "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 the Howard University in this city."

The Medical faculty said that because of inadequate space it would be a physical impossibility. With added accommodations, the admission of women would probably be favored on certain conditions, not yet particularized, "for that woman has a mission in the medical service of the future, can hardly admit of question." The faculty of the College believed that the real proportions of demand should "be ascertained by offering opportunity of a monthly examination in college studies to all such as shall be found capable and willing to pursue them, and if as a result of such tentative proceeding, it shall be found that the want is greater than can be supplied in this way, that the Corporation should throw open the doors of the College without restriction on the ground of sex." In addition it was generally felt that the Corcoran Scientific School being open to women, it was not necessary to arrange for female education under the auspices of the College.

The question, however, was not to be allowed to rest. In a letter of December 10, 1884, four women - Ellen W. Cathcart, Sarah S. Scull, Alice J. White, and Clara Bliss Hinds - asked to "be allowed to enter their names as applicants for tickets to the course of Lectures delivered before the Medical students of Columbian University." On the following day this letter, with one signed by the dean and all the full professors, was sent to the Board, requesting authority to admit the four women on the same footing as men were admitted. The faculty went on to explain:

Since it may appear somewhat wayward on the part of the Faculty to have changed its decision since the last meeting of the Board of Trustees, it may be stated: That the signers of the foregoing petition having, by permission of the Faculty attended the lectures this winter (but without matriculation or other official recognition) and having found that the inconvenience from want of proper retiring rooms (which the Faculty had thought would be an obstacle to their attendance) is not in reality an insuperable difficulty, but one with which they (the ladies) are quite willing to put up, the objection on the part of the Faculty to the admission of female students is withdrawn. So far the conduct of the male students toward the female ones has been uniformly polite as stated by the ladies themselves, and no objection on the part of the male pupils has been made to the admission of females.

The Board granted the authority. Clara Bliss Hinds, class of 1887, was the first woman who received the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University. A year later the Board issued its mandamus for the conferring of the degree of Baccalaurea (sic) of Science on the first two women graduates of the Scientific School, Elizabeth Preston Brown and Louise Connolly.

In 1892, the Medical faculty asked that coeducation be ended after seven years of trial. All proposals to solve the problem on the basis of a separation of the sexes in all instruction and operations involving "what the faculty deem a strain on modesty" seemed impracticable. They would involve either dual instruction or the establishment of a women's medical school, neither of them feasible from a financial point of view.

The Original 13

The first woman to enroll at Columbian was Mabel Nelson Thurston, for whom Thurston Hall is named. On September 24, 1888, the faculty voted that she "might enter the College course by paying the matriculation fee and standing examinations once a month with each of the members of the faculty." In the following January the College faculty voted to permit her to have her examinations at her home.

In September, 1890, the Board of Trustees noted that the preceding year it had accepted four women as nonpaying students and extended the same privilege for 1890-1891. Miss Thurston having blazed the trail, the Board accepted coeducation in the College as a fait accompli, as seen in the rules and regulations adopted by the Corporation on June 16, 1890:

That no student under twenty-one years of age shall be admitted to Columbian College unless he or she shall pursue studies in at least three schools of the College, and shall embrace in his or her selections at least twelve hours of attendance on recitations or lectures per week.

The same set of rules and regulations betrayed a continuing concern about coeducation. The faculties of the College and the Scientific School were to be visited by the appropriate committees of Trustees to receive their advice and consultation in matters of discipline "and in particular to consider what additional rules, if any, may need to be established in view of the coeducation of young men and young women in the same classes and in the precincts of the same building."

The Original 13 in classical Greek attire

The “Original 13” is the name given to this first cohort of women to attend the university as undergraduates. They wereNina D. Bradley, B.S. 1892
Margaret H. Brewer (not listed in alumni directories)
Edna Anne Clark, B.S. 1893, M.S. 1896
Lucy Edith Cogley, B.S. 1893
Louise P. Cook (not listed in alumni directories)
Eva Virginia Heth, B.S. 1891, A.B. 1892, A.M. 1893
Sarah Elizabeth Mason, B.S. 1893
Emma B. Moses (not listed in alumni directories)
Mary Charlotte Priest, A.B. 1893
Florence S. Shipman, A.B. 1892
Nilla B. Shute (not listed in alumni directories)
Frances Estelle Throckmorton, A.B. 1893. A.M. 1894
Mabel Nelson Thurston, A.B. 1891, A.M. 1893


These women were the impetus for the creation of one of the longest running organizations at GW – the Columbian Women. In 1894, a fire at Ford’s Theater took the life of the father of Mary Chapin. So that she could continue her education, the women students, under the guidance of Professor Charles Munroe, formed a group called “Columbian Women,” and raised money for Mary to finish her studies. Membership was open to women students, alumnae, and wives of faculty, trustees, and officers of the University.

The following is an excerpt from the 1891 year book, The Columbiad:

On the twenty-second of September, 1889, the names of women were signed for the first time on the register of Columbian College.

A year before, one girl had tried the current of the College course and had pronounced it safe. The next year six other girls followed in her footsteps. When the roll was called for the last time before the holidays, there were thirteen girls who answered “Present”

First, Miss Bradley, our mathematical girl and prize talker, endowed with power to bring very dignified men down to the level of ordinary mortals;

Miss Brewer, the Independent, who, born on the prairies of the West, takes her fanciful sobriquet from the devotion of the only Cricket of the Fort. Though only a “Dot,” she is still great enough to influence the lives of the many, great enough even to form the subject of an hour’s lecture in Psychology;

Miss Clark, our quiet girl, the ready champion of all that is good and true; Miss Cogley, the “Baby” of the “Thirteen,” who takes all the petting she can get, quite as a matter of course;

Miss Cook, the first president of the “Thirteen,” our athletic girl, devoted to all kinds of sports;

Miss Heth, noted for her scholarly attainments, her sense of humor, and unfailing good temper;

Miss Mason, our petite girl, who, set forth in official language, has “the power of exciting laughter in others, while suppressing it in herself”;

Miss Moses, our Shakespeare student, our elocutionist, who, by her look or gesture, assumes any part at will;

Miss Priest, an untiring worker on all College plans, an unfailing source of new ideas, the successful wooer of the fickle muse;

Miss Shipman, our Greek prodigy, the ever ready helper of those whose footsteps falter in the paths of knowledge, where she walks so serenely;

Miss Shute, our merry girl; the girl with a laugh is she, a sweet, merry laugh that rings out always and everywhere; a laugh that fills her luminous eyes, that comes from a heart glowing with youth and gladness;

Miss Throckmorton, our star, whose steady light shines so calmly over our stormy paths, the friend of all, the soother of ruffled spirits;

Miss Thurston, lastly she who was first, she who made it possible for the “Thirteen” to be; our first girl graduate, of whom we are so proud:—

These, “The Original Thirteen,” who worked their first collegiate year in fear and trembling, and the next year with added courage. These the girls who for two years have fought their battles and won their victories under the orange and blue, and who in the coming years will fight and conquer under the same bright colors, with the same watchword

“Orange for hearts that are brave hearts, Blue for hearts that are true.”

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