Maria Mitchell for Students

Vassar College–the Early Years

No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman.’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?”  Maria Mitchell

In 1861, when

Matthew Vassar founded Vassar College, there were few opportunities for women to continue their education past their teenaged years. Before Vassar, no schools had been specifically founded as colleges for women. The most famous site of higher education for women was Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which was founded twenty-four years earlier and provided one of the most advanced and complete female academic educations of its time. Because women were not allowed to attend universities or colleges alongside men, schools needed to be created especially for, and only for, women.

Vassar Observatory

Maria’s observatory and apartments at Vassar College. (Collection of Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association)

Matthew Vassar was clearly impressed with Maria’s success as a scientist, and saw her as a role model for intelligent and ambitious women. She was the first professor hired to teach at Vassar College when it officially opened in 1865. She lived at the observatory with her father.

Maria soon found that her role there was not only as a professor, but also as a mentor and guide for the young women. Maria was expected to act not only as a teacher, but also, in some respects, as a guardian and a motherly figure. Before leaving their daughters at their new school, the mothers begged Maria and the other teachers to take special care of each one and to make certain that they did as they had been told. One urged Maria to make sure that the “lady principal,” Miss Lyman, insist that her daughter curl her hair, since, “‘she looks very graceful with her hair curled.’” Maria couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that she was supposed to be in charge of her students’ development as “proper” young ladies.

Maria Mitchell's First Astronomy Class at Vassar

Maria Mitchell’s First Astronomy Class at Vassar

Within the first few years, Vassar students had many opportunities to conduct research and observation. Maria took her students on study trips to observe solar eclipses, with the first trip taking place in August 1869 to

Burlington, Iowa. Some time later, in 1878, she took students to Denver, Colorado to see a second total eclipse of the Sun. She was known for keeping students up at night past their curfew so that they could observe with her, and she enjoyed a close relationship with many of her astronomy students. She had a reputation for expecting much of her students, but she was a favorite professor of many. She treated her students as equals; she famously said, to her classes, that, “We are women studying together.”

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