Who were the Women Attending Berkeley in 1880-81?

In Scholarly Pursuits (now available), I set the mystery on the University of California campus at Berkeley during the spring term of 1881. The university, first opened in 1863, didn’t enroll any women until 1870, and between 1874 and 1881, only ten percent of the bachelor’s degrees granted by the university went to women.

This is not surprising, given that one of the decade’s most popular books was Sex in Education (1873), a book by Edward Clarke, a Harvard medical school physician, who argued that women who were educated in the same fashion as men would face an inability to conceive and produce healthy children, life-long illness, and possible death. Clarke only produced anecdotal evidence to support his claims, nevertheless, his views gave a veneer of science to already held prejudices against women attending institutions of higher education, particularly co-educational institutions like Berkeley.

As a result, in 1880, less than a third of young people who attended four-year colleges or universities were female and only nineteen percent of bachelor’s degrees granted by these institutions were granted to women. And the University of California at Berkeley followed national patterns when it came to women’s enrollment.

For example, in the academic year, 1880-1881, less than a third of the currently enrolled students were female. To translate this into actual numbers, there were only 216 students enrolled as undergraduates that year, sixty-two of them female. In addition, only slightly more than half of the women who were enrolled were full-time students (compared to the male population of students, where eighty-five percent were enrolled as full time students that year.)

Women were definitely in the minority wherever they went on campus.

For instance, there were only four women in the whole senior class in 1880-81, and the two of them who majored in chemistry were probably the only two females in their upper- division science classes.

Since the primary characters in Scholarly Pursuits were freshmen, I am going to examine this group of women, the graduating class of ’84, in more detail.

At the start of the year, there were fourteen women listed freshmen, only eight of them registered as regular, full-time students. Eight of those fourteen freshmen women (fifty-seven percent) eventually obtained bachelor’s degrees, which was actually a fairly good percentage, given that only twenty-four percent of the men who started with them in this class made it to graduation.

These fourteen women were young. The youngest was Adelaide Graham, who was only fifteen when she started out, and the oldest were the twins, Mabel and Maude Walcott, who were nineteen.

While these women apparently didn’t agree with Edward Clarke and his belief that the use of one’s brain would damage a woman’s reproductive ability, neither was there much evidence to suggest they were particularly radical in their goals for attending the university. None of these young women were majoring in one of the sciences, in fact all but one of them were taking the literary versus the more difficult classics course of studies in the College of Letters. And, according to the Illustrated History of the University of California, 1868-1895, among the women from this class who graduated, nearly two-thirds of them were listed as having married, and the only occupation any of them listed was teaching, which was generally seen as the occupation that was most compatible with motherhood.  

Berkeley at this time didn’t have any sort of university-sanctioned housing or dormitories for its students (see my blog post on how this deviated from other contemporary universities). This meant that most of them had to find housing for themselves. Angie Bemis, Blanche Newell, and Margaret Scobbie, the three women who commuted from San Francisco, and Bella Taggart, who commuted from Oakland, may have been living with their parents, and Helen Gompertz, and Carrie LeConte, who were the children of Berkeley faculty members, were definitely living at home. 

However, based on the information I found in the local Berkeley directory, the rest of the students seemed to be living in some of the boarding houses that had sprung up on the edges of campus, including Mabel and Maud Walcott and Louise Brier, who were boarding along with siblings who were also attending the university.

With such a small number of women starting out in the class of ’84, it would have been easy for them to get to know each other. First of all, the entire freshman class (all sixty-eight of them) were required to take the basic English and Math classes held in one of the large North Hall lecture rooms. 

North Hall, U.C. Berkeley

The accepted convention in this period was that women sit together in the front of the classroom and this ensured they would get to know each other. It also meant that each morning as they walked to the front of the room, they would be painfully aware of the fifty or more young men watching them as they did so––most likely aware that many of these men were not particularly pleased with the presence of women in their classes.

However, this would also encourage them to develop strong friendships with the other women, as they sat together, walked with each other to the next class, or perhaps used their breaks between classes to go down the hill to get a pastry at the Golden Sheaf Bakery, just west of campus.

After their English and math classes were over, over forty percent of the freshman would peel off to take either the more rigorous Latin and Greek classes required of classical studies majors or the expanded math and chemistry classes required of students in one of the departments of the College of Sciences. The rest (about forty students and thirteen of the women) would stay together for the truncated Latin class for the literary studies majors. This group would then split further because they could chose between French or German for their required modern language as their fourth class their freshman year.

For fictional purposes, I had two of my female characters, Kitty Blaine and Celia Beale, taking the classical studies course, whereas in the real freshman class there was only one woman, Bella Taggart, who did so. This would have meant that in her Greek and Latin classes she would have been the only woman present (along with the seven men taking these classes). 

The fourteen female freshman would have also had opportunities to meet some of the other forty-eight women on campus, even if they didn’t take classes with them. They would have passed them on the stairs of North Hall, met them in the Ladies Lounge of South Hall (which contained the classes in the sciences), or in the temporary library that was housed in that same building. 

After classes were over, some of these first year women might have even struck up a friendship with an upper class woman who was an exercise enthusiast at the Harmon Gymnasium, which was open to women every Wednesday and Friday afternoons while the male students were marching around campus as part of their required military drills.

Illustration from 1880 Blue and Gold Yearbook

In contrast, there were lots of opportunities for Berkeley men to socialize with each other outside of class. They had the weekly military drills, the rifle club, baseball and football teams, all-male glee clubs, and the five male fraternities, not to mention Bachman’s, the local Beer Hall. 

There were, however, a number of extra-curricular activities that Berkeley women could attend, where they could meet women from the other graduating classes, as well as get an opportunity to socialize with men.

In 1880-81, there was the small University Bible Students club, the newly formed Philosophy Club, the various graduating class glee clubs, the Durant Rhetorical Society and the Neolaean Literary Society and the meetings of the “class unions,” where all the members of a graduating class would gather.

None of the first year women attended either the Bible or the Philosophy Club, but ten of them belonged to the Class of ’84 Glee Club, along with sixteen men from their class. Only one of the first year female students, Isabella Miller, was a member of the Durant Rhetorical Society, while three of the part-time students, Lizzie Beggs, Louise Brier, and Alice Chapman, belonged to the Neolaean Literary Society (although in later years five other of their female classmates would join.)

The Durant and Neolaean societies held weekly meetings, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the reason so few of the young women joined was because of how busy they were with their school work. Given the popular idea promulgated by Clarke and others that  too much academic work would damage a woman’s health, it could be that those women taking a full-course load feared over-extending themselves with extra-curricular clubs. Surely they would have been aware of how many of the previous class of freshmen (thirty percent) had failed to make it through the end of year exams and matriculate on to their sophomore year.

The difficulty in finding time outside of the classroom to study would be particularly true for those students who, like Laura Dawson, one of main characters in Scholarly Pursuits, commuted to campus from San Francisco. The three hour round trip between San Francisco and campus (which would include taking a ferry across the Bay and then a train to Berkeley), on top of at least four hours in classes, wouldn’t leave them much time to go to the library, exercise at the gymnasium, sing in the glee club, or attend a weekly literary society meeting.

It could be that some women were also hesitant to join organizations where they would have been even more of a minority than they were in the classroom. Both of the literary societies had only recently permitted women to join at all. The year before, the Durant Society had no women members, and I suspect that one of the only reasons that Isabella Miller felt comfortable joining this society (where women were less than a fifth of the membership) was that her brother belonged.

The Neolaean Society seemed more welcoming. In 1880-81, a quarter of the members were women, one of them an officer, and while that year the society’s glee club members were all men, by the next year, half of them were women. 

However, this was not to say that every male was welcoming. Many of the men on campus were still uneasy about co-education in general, and the Blue and Gold yearbooks frequently included unflattering comments about and illustrations of Berkeley co-eds, with constant references to them as old maids.

From the 1881 Blue and Gold Yearbook

These negative attitudes by some of their male classmates (which are a plot element in Scholarly Pursuits) might explain why four years later, all of the class of ’84 women who answered the yearbook survey of seniors gave their political affiliation as “women’s rights.” It also might explain why only one of the women in this freshman class, Mable Walcott, ended up marrying a fellow Berkeley student—a young man, I might say, who didn’t impress me greatly when I noticed that his response on this same senior class survey to the question about whether or not he supported co-education, simply answered “yum, yum.”

In short, the young women of this freshman class would have been very aware that society in general, and many of their fellow students specifically, thought that they shouldn’t be at Berkeley. The fact that they obtained their degrees at over twice the rate of their fellow male classmates, demonstrated just how dedicated they were to prove everyone wrong.

Scholarly Pursuits is now available in print and on all major retailers!

M. Louisa Locke

8 Replies to “Who were the Women Attending Berkeley in 1880-81?”

  1. About the extra curricular activities, except for those who were daughters of a faculty member you didn’t precise the social economical status. For the ones who didn’t have long commutes, were they middle class ? Upper ? Did some of them had a job or familial responsibilities they couldn’t escape ?

    The same way, Laura is stubborn (In a good way) and do as she want, but how many women, outside of the poorer who worked late or night shifts, were really free to go out late at evening or night ? ________________________________ De : M. Louisa Locke Envoyé : jeudi 7 mars 2019 15:55:11 À : annayl@live.fr Objet : [New post] Who were the Women Attending Berkeley in 1880-81?

    loulocke posted: “In Scholarly Pursuits (now available), I set the mystery on the University of California campus at Berkeley during the spring term of 1881. The university, first opened in 1863, didn’t enroll any women until 1870, and between 1874 and 1881, only ten perce”

    1. All good points. I don’t have much biographical information on the 14 women–so I couldn’t determine their class status, however, I doubt if any of them were working at the kind of jobs Laura held. It was much more likely that they came from middle class homes–where their families recognized their scholastic aptitude–and college was something for them to do while waiting for marriage. However, studies of college educated women (like Jane Addams who founded Hull House)have found that many of these women did pursue careers, or at the very least became very active in reform movements- even if they did marry–not content to being like their mothers–primarily confined to duties of wife and mother.

      The men were a different matter. Studies of college men in general pointed out that there was a growing divide between the sons of business and professional classes attending colleges and universities (where joining the fraternities was a way to further their class connections) and those coming from poorer–often rural farm families–where this university education was seen as the best way for them to get a better job–often in mining, engineering, etc–and improve their economic status. One source suggested a significant number of men commuted to the campus, and many of them had jobs back in San Francisco or on campus–and they wouldn’t have had time (or the money) to belong to fraternities or engage in extra-curricular activities.

      The patterns for women were probably different. First of all, I suspect that few of the wealthiest families sent their daughters to the university–they were probably more likely to send them to Mills Female Academy. And a poor family who felt they could spare one of their daughters would most likely support their decision to become a teacher – and this meant they would have either sent them to the normal classes at the San Francisco Girls High, or the San Jose Normal school. In my own research on 1880 census I found a striking number of the teachers in San Francisco were the native born daughters of Irish immigrants–so this was definitely seen as a route to upward mobility.

      So I would imagine that most of the young women at the university were from the middle classes. Servants at home would limit these families’ need for their daughter’s domestic work, and the university could be seen as a good place fo find an up-and-coming young professional or businessman to marry.

      Again, thanks for your thoughts on this. Always interesting process for me to go through to balance what I can prove historically with the fictional demands of a good mystery plot.

  2. Fascinating. Such schools as Bryn Mawr, however, depended on wealthy benefactors. Indeed, women from wealthy families established Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore to be a “feeder” school for the College.

  3. I have read all of your books about the family since I lived in San Francisco for 32 years. It was fun to follow them as they traveled the streets that I know so well, so I pre-ordered this latest book. I am deeply disappointed. Had I understood that this book was about Berkeley, a town I detest, I would have passed it up. I will be more cautious in future.

    1. Dear Joseph, I am sorry that you weren’t able to figure out from the product description that this would be the setting–although there are a good number of chapters set back in San Francisco with Annie and Nate.

      However, since in 1880 Berkley was tiny, only 4 complete buildings, 216 students and not at all like it is today, I wonder if you couldn’t get past your dislike of the 20th century (or contemporary) city and university

      I do think that you would find that the plot line is not at all complimentary of the institution and many of the students in 1880–in fact, my fear was that I might offend people who are big Berkeley supporters. 🙂

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