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School Records: Researching Women's Colleges, Part 1 - Overview

School records, from primary grades through college, are a rich but under-utilized source of genealogical information. This is the first of an ongoing series exploring the various subjects, categories, and sub-categories related to school records, helping researchers identify and locate these valuable and interesting sources.


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School records, from primary grades through college, are a rich, but under-utilized source of genealogical information, which may be because they are so varied and scattered. Schools come and go, records may have been kept or destroyed, and those kept may be incomplete and widely dispersed. For this reason, a single article dealing with school records is not sufficient. Instead, this will be an ongoing series, dealing with the various subjects, categories, and sub-categories related to school records aimed at helping researchers identify and locate these valuable and interesting sources. But where to begin . . . how about at the head of the class?

Quninne May Shay, an ancestor in my own family, was born in 1887 in Albequrque, New Mexico. After the death of her mother in 1902, Quinnie went to live with family members in Livingston, Illinois and was said to have attended the "Illinois Normal School." We do know Quinnie went on to teach school and so presume she graduated, but so far have been unable to find evidence of her attendance at what would have been the school nearest her, the Illinois State Normal University (now Illinois State University). Although certainly not attending the elite schools of the East, the teachers and stories of teachers that weave a path through our family history make for an increased interest in the study of teaching schools. Most women's colleges -- yes, even those elite schools of the East, had their beginnings as humble teaching seminaries.

Brief History of Women's Colleges

With some exceptions, women's colleges were founded primarily during the early 19th century, many as teaching seminaries. Early teaching seminaries were private institutions, although some were public institutions chartered by states. Not all teaching seminaries, however, were "church schools" founded by a particular religion, as the name implies. Rather, in the U.S., most early teaching seminaries were started by forward-thinking women interested in advanced educational opportunities for women, among them Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts.

As a rule, women were not admitted to institutions of higher education; the teaching of women was focused more on domestic refinement than academics. The one "socially acceptable" pursuit for women was teaching, but the field was limited -- unmarried women only could become teachers. Some early teaching seminaries did not outlive their founders, while other went on to become full-fledged colleges, and many women's colleges later became coeducational institutions. For more information on when certain colleges were formed and how they evolved, see the Timeline of Women's Colleges, a chronological listing of schools comprised exclusively or almost exclusively of women.

As female colleges evolved, various types of schools emerged. Understanding more about the type of school your ancestor attended or the area in which she was living may aid in surfacing records.

Normal Schools

Normal schools, which have a long history, were teaching schools aimed at providing teaching standards or "norms" to improve quality of teaching in public or common schools. Many early normal schools were charted by states, one of the earliest founded in Lexington (and later moved to Framingham), Massachusetts, now known as the Framingham State University. The Illinois State Normal University in Bloomington, Illinois (now Normal, Illinois) and the Normal College of the City of New York (later Hunter College), were among the growing cadre of state-chartered normal schoools.

Coordinate Colleges

Coordinate colleges were female colleges associated with all male schools such as the Evelyn College for Women, associated with Princeton University; Barnard College with Columbia University; and Radcliffe College with Harvard University. Many of these so-called coordinate colleges later became fully coeducational.

Seven Sisters Colleges

The Seven Sisters colleges were prestigious liberal arts colleges in Northeastern United States -- what we might today call Ivy League schools. The Seven Sisters included, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley -- all founded between 1837 and 1889. Two of the schools, Radcliffe and Vassar are no longer women's colleges, and the remaining schools have renamed themselves simply, "The Sisters" -- the crème de la crème of women's colleges, with many distinguished alumnae.

Historically Black Female Colleges

Historically black female colleges developed primarily in the Southern United States, organized as teaching seminaries or normal schools. One interesting exception merely bordering the South, was a school founded in 1851 by Myrtilla Miner, a white woman and abolitionist, established in Washington D. C. as a teachers' training school for black girls. The school, later known as District of Columbia Teachers College-Miner Branch is now part of the University of the District of Columbia. Among the most well known black women's colleges are Bennett, Spelman, Barber-Scotia, and Huston-Tillotson, although the latter two have become coeducational. The mission of these teaching schools evolved over the years to include a liberal arts education with an emphasis on leadership and serving one's community.

Religious Colleges

Religious colleges, in general, were private institutions established to preserve the faith, and typically combined an element theology and spiritual guidance with general education. One of the earliest female religious colleges, Bethlehem Female Seminary (later, Bethlehem College), was founded in 1752 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Hebrew Technical School for Girls (now the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women) established in 1885 taught mostly young, immigrant Jewish women from Russia the practical skills of fitting and sewing, millinery, bookkeeping, and typewriting. The school became nonsectarian in 1964.

Perhaps the most prevalent of religious women's colleges are those established by Catholic sisters -- not to be confused with "sisters' colleges" focused primarily on the training of nuns. Catholic women's colleges, initially set out to serve the needs of a working class community, focused largely on the training of teachers and nurses, and later evolving into liberal arts colleges. Many Catholic women's colleges went on to become coeducational. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, founded in 1841, is the nation's oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women.

Many types of records exist for researching women's colleges, among them various alumni records; yearbooks and graduation lists; faculty and administrative records; in addition to programs and activities. Next time, in "School Records: Researching Women's Colleges, Part 2," we will explore the various types of college records and what they might contain. In Part 3, we will discuss how to locate them. The good news is there are a number of resources for finding these records and ways of searching that might turn up some golden finds.

Other Articles in this Series

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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