Wesleyan Female College of Wilmington, Delaware: A College before Its Time?

By Taggart, Robert J. | American Educational History Journal, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Wesleyan Female College of Wilmington, Delaware: A College before Its Time?


Taggart, Robert J., American Educational History Journal


Opening in 1837, Wesleyan Female Seminary became by 1855 one of the small number of colleges for women in the United States. The question is to what extent Wesleyan was a true college as that word was understood at the time, along with the wider issue of what constituted a college as the concept became transformed during the nineteenth century. In his famous study, Thomas Woody was unimpressed with the early female colleges (Woody 1929). However, he overestimated the permanence of the definition of a college as an institution which was, in fact, evolving in its curriculum and purpose as noted by the expansion of both electives and scientific studies in men's colleges of the middle 19th century (Brubacher and Rudy 1958, chap. 6).

The original Wesleyan Female Seminary opened as a private enterprise under the tutelage of President Reverend Solomon Prettyman. The Philadelphia and Baltimore Conferences of the Methodist Church supported it as best they could by means of a stream of pronouncements to the many Methodist Churches in the region asking them to support the new school by sending donations and their daughters to the school. Female seminaries had existed since the late colonial period. They were meant for daughters of the wealthy as finishing schools rather than as institutions of intellectual rigor. The young women were often quite young and took subjects at the elementary level, along with "accomplishments" such as piano, embroidery, and vocal music. Seminaries were designed to fit young women for marriage and rarely offered Latin or Greek, the staples of the male college. The seminaries were also known for a heavy dose of religion, close ties of the teachers to students in a home-like manner, and careful control over all aspects of student development (Horowitz 1984, 32).

Wesleyan Female Seminary opened in October, 1837, the same year as Mary Lyons' Mount Holyoke Seminary. As in all seminaries of the time, students were being "prepared for life" as mothers and wives, not for college (Woody 1929, I, chap. X). The school was founded by the Philadelphia and Baltimore Conferences of the Methodist Church, which formed more than 200 schools and colleges for women by 1860 (Duvall 1928, 66). The new seminary was so successful that it moved to a new building and grew to 111 students and nine instructors by 1842 (Catalogue 1841-42).

For a seminary, the Wesleyan had a high-quality curriculum, even though it did not provide college degrees. It offered subjects beyond that found in most seminaries, including several authors in Latin (Catalogue 1837-38). It also offered subjects that were part of the new male Newark College's curriculum (now the University of Delaware): Greek Testament, geometry, chemistry, natural philosophy, astronomy, and geology (Catalogue of Newark College, 1837-38). One must be aware, however, that most students at Wesleyan would have studied French, Spanish, Italian, or German rather than Latin and Greek, unlike students at Newark College (Catalogue 1837-38; Catalogue 1838-39).

At this time in the nation, there was an interest in founding female colleges. Thomas Woody suggests that Georgia Female College graduated the first students from an all-female college in 1839 (Woody 1929, II: 161). By 1860, more than 50 schools for women called themselves colleges, including Mary Sharp College of Tennessee (Woody 1929, II: 160-67). President Z. C. Graves of Mary Sharp stated the justification for women's colleges as beyond preparation for marriage. He insisted that a college education would make a young woman "what she was designed to be by her Creator, a thinking, reflecting, reasoning being, capable of comparing and judging for herself and dependent upon none other for her free unbiased opinions" (Woody 1929, II: 142, citing Mary Sharp Catalog, 1853-1854).

Elmira (NY) Female College offered college degrees by 1859, and Ingham University granted degrees in 1857, both requiring Greek and Latin in a four-year course of study (Woody 1929, II: 145-46). …

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