LEWISTON – Bates College has long touted its claim to have “welcomed men and women” since its founding in 1855 as “the first co-educational college in New England.”

What it doesn’t trumpet is that the college tried to get rid of women early on.

Bates would almost certainly have become all-male before it ever handed a diploma to even a single graduate except that one woman — Mary Wheelwright Mitchell — refused to leave.

One persistent woman kept Bates College open to all 1

Mary Wheelright Mitchell  Muskie Archives, Bates College, photo

Her determination created a stir, but in the end, Mitchell won out “and the doors thus set wide open for women have never since been closed,” as a biography of the college’s first president put it.

Many of the colleges that Bates considers its peers kept women away for generations.

Bowdoin in Brunswick, for instance, didn’t admit women as members of its classes until 1971 – an entire century after Colby College in Waterville, ahead of its time as well, agreed to accept women.

But it was Mitchell who ensured that Bates’ legacy of inclusion, present at its founding, never failed, though it faltered.

Oren Cheney, the driving force behind the founding of Bates, wrote in 1857 that its first students were going “to find things in an unfinished state. But, generally, it is with institutions of all kinds as with children – first creep, then walk.”

He said then that young men and women “ready to come and share” in the sacrifices and struggles of establishing the college would be welcome. Students of both sexes answered his call.

As Bates began shifting during the Civil War from its 1955 origins as a Free Will Baptist seminary, its classes had, as suffragist Emeline Burlingame’s biography of her husband, Cheney, put it, “girls as well as boys — fine scholars, ready and ambitious to go on.”

One persistent woman kept Bates College open to all 3

An early photograph of Bates College from about 1870.

The first class to enroll in the chartered college, in the fall of 1863, had six women and 16 men.

At first, the biography said, the young men “made no objection” to the presence of women in their ranks, but over time “the ridicule which they had to endure from every direction made them feel that, not only for their own comfort would it be best for the girls to leave.”

“It seemed to their boyish minds an absolute impossibility for the college to be successfully founded if the girls remained,” Burlingame wrote in the 1907 biography.

“The situation was gradually disclosed to the young women, and after some animated discussions and dignified protests all of them withdrew, leaving the young men, as was supposed, in undisturbed possession of the field,” the book said.

One of the women who quit, Emma Willett, later married George Chase, who graduated in 1868 and subsequently became a president of Bates. He later confirmed the idea of coeducation was ridiculed at the time.

But when Bates’ third class entered the college in the fall of 1865, two women were among them. One soon gave up, leaving just a single woman.

Whether women would ever graduate from Bates, it seemed at the time, rested on the only one who refused to give in: Mitchell.

Sitting on his front porch rocking chair as an old man, dignified and slightly deaf, Cheney recounted Mitchell’s story to a reporter whose account showed up in the Lewiston Daily Sun in 1939, 36 years after the Bates founder died.

Cheney told the interested reporter that Mitchell, born in 1840, “came to Lewiston to work” from her family’s home in Dover.

“Her parents’ homestead was mortgaged and she made it her task to lift this burden,” Cheney said. She took a job in the mills in Lewiston to earn money for both her family and her education.

Mitchell, he said, “came to Bates knocking for entrance,” and “fitted herself” for its academics and won a spot in the class that entered in 1865.

Burlingame wrote that Mitchell, arriving at Bates in 1865, “persisted in claiming and maintaining her right to the opportunities which broad-minded men had gained for her” despite the “uncongenial atmosphere in which she found herself, in spite of occasional slights and constant ill-concealed dissatisfaction with her presence.”

She simply refused to “relinquish the hope that had been awakened by the liberal charter” of the college, the biographer said.

One brief account of her time at Bates said that one of the other women at the school said Mitchell “did not seem to care for friends, but went her own decisive way, probably feeling little regard for young women who had not sufficient stamina to stand their ground against the objections of men unwilling to have women graduated in class with them.”

“Her unconquerable determination brought to the new and struggling institution a serious problem,” Cheney’s biography said, one that wasn’t solved without many difficulties.

“The college had a name to make, a reputation to establish,” Burlingame noted.

It had three classes at the time with more than 20 young men attending, she wrote.

“How would they like to have a woman graduate as their equal?” Burlingame asked. “Public sentiment would have to be braved.”

At the time, she said, higher education for women was unfamiliar and a woman’s sphere limited.

“Could the college afford to brave the criticisms from other institutions because of what would be called an erratic course?” Burlingame wrote. “There were enough slurring remarks already in circulation among friends of other colleges about ‘Bates Academy.’”

She said the ordinary judgment of the day was that to succeed, Bates needed to “conform to the customs of other long-established institutions.”

One persistent woman kept Bates College open to all 5

Oren Cheney, the founder of Bates College. Bates College Digital Library

Cheney, an ardent abolitionist, “was entirely ahead of his time in his ideas as to woman’s God-given freedom to do anything for which she has the ability, and freely expressed in his written articles his sympathy with her work in reforms of the day,” she said.

His school, too, “was permeated with the spirit of a denomination which had never refused a worthy woman any service in the church, whether it was a part in the prayer-meeting or ordination to the Christian ministry,” Burlingame said.

Nothing in the college charter barred Mitchell.

In the end, she got to stay because “there was no good reason for refusing her,” Burlingame said.

“There could be no personal objection to Mary W. Mitchell,” the biography said. “She was well qualified to enter” and her character flawless. Her willingness to go to work to earn the money to attend “surely showed energy and ability worthy of any development she desired.”

Mitchell, Cheney noted, “was made of plucky stock.”

Once the decision had been made that Mitchell could stay, Cheney went to Augusta to ask the governor to let him give her one of 10 available state scholarships “to help so brave a girl,” his wife wrote.

When he got the money, feeling elated, he called Mitchell over.

“Here is a present I have brought you, Mary,” he remembered telling her, according to the story in the Sun.

Burlingame said that Mitchell took the scroll from the college president, “deliberately untied the ribbon, unrolled it, saw what it was, quietly rolled and tied it,” and then handed it back to Cheney.

“I cannot take that, Mr. Cheney,” Mitchell told him. “Give it to the brethren. I can take care of myself.”

“She was just so independent,” Cheney told the Sun reporter.

There’s little information about what it was like at Bates in those early years.

An 1866 account in The Portland Daily Press noted that “the experiment of educating young men and women in the same classes seems to be working successfully at Lewiston.”

The first two college classes to graduate from Bates, in 1867 and 1868, contained only men.

But in 1869, Mitchell earned her diploma to become the first woman to earn a degree at racially mixed Bates.

An account of the commencement that ran in the Lewiston Evening Journal hailed Mitchell as “the first lady graduate from a New England college and we rejoice in the persistent efforts and success” she had in winning college honors.

The paper said that Mitchell read “an excellent part” on American civilization as part of the ceremony.

It also praised Maine for furnishing a college that “has allowed and satisfied her laudable ambition.”

In her thesis, the Journal said, Mitchell “gracefully thanked the class for standing by a woman at the risk of their own reputation.”

The paper noted that when Cheney conferred, one by one, each of the graduates with a diploma, “an outburst of applause from an ardent knot of women’s rights friends showed that these excellent enthusiasts regard the occasion as an epoch of progress.”

It hadn’t been easy – and criticism of women at Bates continued for years, with men connected to other institutions sneering at it for allowing women, African-Americans and others not seen as wholly acceptable.

In Burlingame’s book, she mentions some of the scorn for the college’s resolute inclusiveness despite the furor, recalling “a little dialogue between unnamed friends of another college.”

One of them asked how many college students Bates had the year Mitchell graduated. The answer he got was, she said, “Five, and a n****r and a woman.”

Cheney later called the furor surrounding Mitchell as “the great struggle in the history of the college.”

Joshua Chamberlain, a Civil War hero who took the reins as Bowdoin’s president in 1871 after leaving the governor’s office in Augusta, may have had Mitchell in mind when he used his inaugural address to urge his college to admit women.

“In this sphere of things, her rights, her capacities, her offices, her destiny, are equal to those of man,” Chamberlain said. “She is the Heaven, appointed teacher of man, his guide, his better soul.”

His eloquence failed to convince the guardians of Bowdoin’s legacy. But it may have helped convince Colby to open its doors to women that same year.

After Mitchell graduated, she taught in Worcester, Massachusetts, then briefly wound up as a professor at Vassar College. The 1879 Herald of Health called Mitchell “a fine classical and mathematical scholar.”

In 1877, Cheney said, Mitchell attended the commencement at Bates, where he thinks she was poet of the alumni association.

She ultimately opened a school for young women in Dorchester, outside Boston and then taught in Laconia, New Hampshire.

Burlingame said Mitchell “married a man of culture and they lived a very retired life,” raising a daughter, Sara, and son, Robert, with husband Frank Birchall, described as an Englishman by Cheney.

Her pastor told Burlingame that Mitchell – who took her husband’s last name — once told him of her 12-year-old daughter “equally at home in reciting Latin grammar or in making a loaf of bread.”

Cheney said the girl had “great intelligence and practical knowledge,” the Sun reported.

Mitchell died in 1898. She is buried in Dover, Maine’s McAllister Cemetery.


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