For its first sixty years, The George Washington University was by and large a white, male institution known first as Columbian College, and by 1873 as Columbian University. Women were given little if any consideration in the school’s early years, until the university moved its campus to the downtown area of Washington, DC. As the school took ownership of its new building in 1884, four women were admitted to the Medical School. One of these women, Clara Bliss Hinds, became the first female graduate of GWU in 1887.
The faculty of the Medical School, however, soon felt it was “a strain on modesty” to allow women and men to work together in medical school. The Medical School soon returned to its practice of denying admittance to female students, barring coeducation between 1892 -1911, when it began graduating women through its nursing program.
Meanwhile, the undergraduate school selected a lone female student for admission in 1888. Her name was Mabel Nelson Thurston, and it was in her second year that the school opened admission to other female students. Eleven women enrolled in 1889. These women, in addition to the admittance of a woman to the Scientific School, would collectively and respectfully be referred to as “The Original Thirteen.” Ms. Thurston graduated in 1891. Today, a dormitory stands on the Foggy Bottom campus of GWU, named in her honor.
Though the school was slow in admitting women (the Law School refused admittance to women until 1913 with the lone exception of Emma Bailey who graduated with an LL.M. degree in 1902), many women became a part of the social fabric and identity of The George Washington University. Early records reveal their acceptance into what was once a boys club, and though descriptions of these early female students reveal a chauvinistic attitude among the men, the transition appears to have been a relatively smooth one.
It is important to note, however, that the women gaining admittance to GWU were white. By and large, women of color remained barred from admittance to any of the programs at GWU until the school officially desegregated in July 1954. The first Black woman to graduate from GWU was Leah Brock McCartney in 1954, while the first African American male to graduate from GWU was Samuel Laing Williams, in 1884. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, GWU made small allowances to admit Black men in some of their professional schools. This practice was abandoned soon after the turn of the century, until official desegregation.
For additional information about recent research on women in the GW archives ask us about the President's Archival Research Project.