What Are America’s First Coed Colleges Doing Today?

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By Vanessa Salvia

Before the widespread acceptance of coed colleges, women faced struggles even if they were admitted. Once in a classroom, the women had no guarantee that they would be acknowledged or allowed to participate, by either their professor or their classmates.

The United State’s first colleges to admit women all did so under very different circumstances and at different times. But what unites them now is their embracing of programs that support a diverse student body, including navigating modern issues such as gender and identity.

The founder of Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, would have preferred a men’s college, said Erin Dix, Lawrence’s archivist. When the school began admitting women in 1849, Wisconsin was still a territory with no nearby city.

“Practically, it made the most sense to have a school for both men and women to draw settlers to the area,” Dix said.

Kimberly Barrett, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Lawrence, is particularly proud that efforts have resulted in a 13 percent increase in the number of women faculty over the past three years.

“We have also recently received two large grants to increase the number and success of women students in STEM,” Barrett said. “We will begin a Women on Campus Conversation group in the fall to allow employees to share strategies for thriving on a campus given that gender equity is still an aspirational goal.”

An anti-slavery church founded Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, in 1847. Otterbein was among the first to welcome students of color and is also the first college to open with women as both faculty and students.

Suzanne Ashworth, Otterbein professor of English and women’s gender sexuality studies, said their IT team has developed systems allowing transgender students to use their chosen name on school resources such as Blackboard and email lists.

They’ve also had to figure out how to protect a student’s “deadname” (birth name) from being revealed anywhere they aren’t legally obligated to use legal names. Most college IT professionals probably never thought they would be on the front lines of diversity inclusion, but as gender identity and fluidity becomes more accepted, they are.

“It’s really significant,” Ashworth said. “Our residence life officers, our HR and Title IX officers, and our IT team have been instrumental in stewarding the processes so that we can ensure that our trans and non-binary students who go by a chosen name that may differ from their legal name aren’t outed, or ‘deadnamed,’ in our email and other non-legal campus ID systems.”

At Otterbein, Ashworth was integral in the university’s effort to adopt a domestic partnership benefit before the legalization of gay marriage, and the university kept the progressive and inclusive policy even after marriage equality. “Not everybody wants to get married,” she explained. Lately efforts are directed towards things like gender inclusive bathrooms and making gender inclusive pronouns more visible on campus.

Willamette University

in Salem, Oregon, offered coeducation at the secondary level from its founding in 1842 and integrated college classes since 1853. Willamette’s first graduate was a woman. They continue that open-mindedness today with programs that welcome all students.

“My position is new,” said Jade Aguilar, Willamette University’s Vice President of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. “Just the fact that we have a diversity officer position now, having someone whose full-time job it is to oversee inclusion and to be a resource, is important and a big deal.”

Willamette is actively working to accommodate students with altered abilities of all types as well as those whose gender and identity changes during the years before or during their college experience.

At Willamette, Aguilar is overseeing programs that have trained 12 staff members to promote equity, validity and diversity. New committees have formed to support undocumented students as well as provide more support for first-generation students.

Antioch College

, founded in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1850, became the 10th U.S. school to go coed, in 1853. Today it’s approximately 60 percent female and 40 percent male, with some non-binary students as well.

“Antioch College was the first college in the country to adopt an affirmative consent policy, the Sexual Office Prevention Policy,” said James L. Lippincott, Antioch’s Director of Alumni and External Relations. He’s proud of Antioch’s programs, which include Month of Sex.

“Organized by students, this event provides education, awareness and other programming associated with sex, gender and identity,” he said.

Lippincott is also proud to report that the college has strong programs offering awareness and training, such as Diversity Week, and a Toxic Masculinity task force working group.

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