Going to Columbia from Home: the 1880s Edition

Have you ever had that nightmare where you show up to class only to find that it’s the day of the final exam and that you haven’t been to any of the lectures all semester long? For the Columbia College women students in the 1880s, that was their college experience.

Collegiate Education of Women Circular of Information, 1883. (CT5 I) University Archives.

In 1883, Columbia offered the Collegiate Course for Women as an official means for women to partake in the undergraduate program. The women students needed to pass the same entrance requirements for Columbia College as the male students and they could enroll in the same courses as the male students. The only difference – a key difference – was that the women were not allowed to attend the lectures with the male students. The women would meet with the professors at the beginning of the semester (one interview), receive a copy of the syllabus and the required readings, and they were “permitted to study at home for the course examinations.” [1] Imagine going from the readings to the final, with no lectures and no class meetings. Nothing in person, not even via Zoom. And even if there were professors who wanted to schedule a lecture for the women students, those lectures could not be held on campus. As a former student in the program described it, the Trustees of Columbia “[saw] fit to offer degrees to women without any means of instruction.” [2]

Remarkably, a few intrepid and driven women did manage to complete Columbia degrees in this program. In 1887 Mary Parsons Hankey was the first woman to receive an undergraduate degree from Columbia College. [3] At Commencement, according to the Spectator, Hankey “was greeted with warm applause as she was led on the platform” and received bouquets of flowers. Hankey had secured a position at Mrs. Reed’s School but, unfortunately, she died of pneumonia not even a year after receiving her degree. And, even more unfortunately, some Trustees felt that her example proved that four years of college work were just too much for women.

From 1883 to 1889, the Collegiate Course for Women enrolled 99 students and awarded 8 degrees, 6 of which were BAs. One of the many discouraged young women who tried the program and eventually withdrew, Annie Nathan Meyer, went on to become one of the key forces in establishing a liberal arts college for women: Barnard College.

Barnard College Class of 1897, from 1893-1894. Barnard College Archives.

For more information about the Collegiate Course for Women and the history of women at Columbia, check out Julie Golia’s essay on Coeducation at Columbia.


[1] Thomas, M. Halsey. “College Alumnae.” Columbia Alumni News, January 1944, 14.

[2] Meyer, Annie Nathan. Barnard Beginnings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1935, 39.

[3] Winifred Edgerton Merrill was the first woman to receive a degree from Columbia. She completed a PhD in Astronomy in 1886, one year before Hankey.