From Special Collections/University Archives: The First Women of the University

Since the time the University at Lewisburg (former name of Bucknell University) was established in 1846 in the basement of the Baptist Church in Lewisburg, women were included in the educational endeavors of the University. At the Baptist Church, male and female students were seated in the same room, but segregated by the placement of seats in the classroom. In 1848, when the University moved its students to “the Hill” and into the Academy Building, the first building constructed on campus, female students did not join male students in the move to  the new campus. A few years later in 1852, the Female Institute was established to exclusively educate women at the University. Located in the Casey Mansion on South 2nd Street, Lewisburg, the Female Institute was administratively part of the University and offered an academic curriculum to young women, earning women a diploma and not a degree.

The Female Institute’s enrollment was rapidly expanding  and there was also a desire to bring the Female Institute program closer to the University’s campus. The Female Institute Building, named Larison Hall in 1927, was completed and ready for occupancy on September 20, 1857 and was the first building on the women’s campus. Although the Female Institute program was now located on the University’s campus and closer to  male students enrolled in the University and Academy program, women students continued to conduct their academic and personal lives separately.

Men attending the University were granted a degree, however, women students graduating from the Female Institute continued to earn only a diploma. As time passed, some Female Institute graduates earned the right to enter the University as students. Beginning in 1882, the University was exploring ways to integrate the education of  women and men with the Board of Trustees thoroughly addressing the admission of women to the University for the first time. The Trustees asked the Committee on Instruction and Discipline to consult with faculty and report on the changes that would be necessary to permit Female Institute students to recite with the male Academy students. A year later, the Trustees asked President Hill to take steps to secure joint instruction. President Hill presented the matter to the faculty on September 5, 1883, and the faculty voted to admit three young women to the freshman class for the purpose of pursuing studies in the Classical Program. These women were Lizzie Lanning, Frances Rush, and Annie Hay who became the first women  students admitted to the University in its history.

The following year, the Trustees voted that the Female Institute students could be admitted to the University to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. This decision opened the door for a Female Institute student, Miss Chella Scott, who entered the college as a part of the junior class after already graduating from the Institute. On June 24, 1885, Chella Scott was the first woman to graduate from Bucknell. She obtained a Bachelor of Science degree and graduated with honors at the head of her class, where she was the only woman among fourteen students.

In the same year the first female  earned her degree from Bucknell, the University appointed its first female faculty member, Miss Edith Hedges,who taught elocution at the Female Institute. At the time, Miss Hedges was  one of ten faculty at the University. According to a excerpt from the 1919 L’Agenda, the aim of the Elocution Department under the guidance of Miss Edith Hedges, was to develop grace and ease, a pleasing voice, clear articulation, and correct enunciation. Selections from standard authors were studied and recitals were held twice a month in which the students appeared before the class and an invited audience. The study of elocution became a foundation for modern day public speaking classes.

As a result of these women’s bravery and accomplishments, the University officially became coeducational in 1883, and was so forth and forever after 1885, in both students, faculty, and staff. They paved the path to equal education and have allowed me to sit here today writing this blog about this aspect of Bucknell history. If you would like to find out more information about the history of women at Bucknell, visit the Special Collection/University Archives on Lower Level 1 of the Bertrand Library.


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