“…regardless of sex or color.”

From the first, Cornell University’s founders believed that the new university should include both male and female students. The Morrill Land Grant Act intended “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.…” Cornell’s Charter is deliberately gender-neutral in its choice of words, using the words “person,” “applicants,” and “students.” In the motto of the University, the use of the word “person” repeats and emphasizes the words of the Charter.

Both Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White had long been highly supportive of educational opportunities for women. Cornell had provided support for the establishment of Cascadilla Place, a water cure sanitarium with a medical course to train women doctors and nurses. In 1862 he supported the bill to charter Vassar College, and two of his daughters attended Vassar. White was influenced by the Syracuse abolitionist Samuel May, who exhorted him to “have both sexes educated equally, well-educated together.…” While teaching at the University of Michigan, Andrew Dickson White supported coeducation, although Michigan did not accept women until 1870.

There were no women students in the first Cornell classes. The first woman student, Jennie Spencer of Cortland, won a state scholarship in 1870, but according to the story, with no lodging available near the campus, she had to withdraw. In the fall of 1871 at least two young women, Emma Sheffield Eastman and Sophie Philippa Fleming, attended Cornell classes, and in March of 1872, the trustees officially voted to admit women.

Ezra Cornell’s support of education always meant educational opportunities for all. He eloquently expresses his views in his February 17, 1867 letter to his four-year-old granddaughter, Eunice:

I want to have girls educated in the university as well as boys, so that they may have the same opportunity to become wise and useful to society that the boys have.

I want you to keep this letter until you grow up to be a woman and want to go to a good school where you can have a good opportunity to learn, so you can show it to the President and Faculty of the University to let them know that it is the wish of your Grand Pa, that girls as well as boys should be educated at the Cornell University.

Emma Sheffield Eastman from New Hampshire, who had transferred from Vassar College, became the first female graduate of Cornell in 1873. After teaching science and math for a year in Portland, Maine, she married Leroy A. Foster and worked for woman suffrage for much of her life, dying in California in 1932.

Henry Sage, a wealthy New York State businessman and a trustee of Cornell, wrote to Andrew Dickson White: “When you are ready to carry out the idea of educating young women as thoroughly as young men I will provide the endowment to enable you to do so.”

White was elated to learn that Sage intended to fund a building but, understanding that the subject was controversial, proposed a study. The Board of Trustees designated White and Sage to visit coeducational institutions. Based on these trips and on extensive correspondence with other educators, White compiled a report detailing the positive effects of coeducation and concluding with one final and compelling argument. As a state-chartered and federally endowed institution whose Charter specifically used the word “persons,” Cornell must “try the experiment of educating the sexes together in the University.” In 1872 Sage provided $250,000, and in 1875 Sage College for Women opened.

Pictured in “Sage Maidens of Cornell,” Jane Datcher (second row, second from left), her cousin Charles Chauveau Cook, and George Washington Fields (all Class of 1890) were the first African-American students to graduate from Cornell. Datcher was the daughter of freeborn blacks who resided in Washington. She studied in private schools run by the city’s black community, then attended Cornell, eventually teaching high school chemistry in Washington, D.C.

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The number of women at Cornell stayed at around 400 until 1910-1911, but with the addition of the home economics curriculum in the College of Agriculture it increased rapidly, reaching 734 in 1915-1916. This 1916 photograph of the seniors in the Department of Home Economics includes the College of Home Economics founding directors, Martha Van Rensselaer (third row, seventh from the left) and Flora Rose (third row, eighth from the left).

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With the construction of Sage College, the Sage College Association was established in the 1880s, continuing from 1917-1971 as the Women’s Self-Government Association (WSGA). The women played their own sports, produced their own plays, and formed their own rules for guidance and penalties for misbehavior. Curfews were a way of life for women, until the WSGA lifted all curfews in 1969. This notice lists exceptions to curfews in 1922.

In May of 1925 the Women’s Self-Government Association established its own newspaper, The Cornell Women’s News. This 1926 issue announces the opening of the women’s wing in Willard Straight Hall, which was dedicated in 1925. It was not until 1936 that women were allowed to eat in Willard Straight’s cafeteria, and 1943 before the men’s lounge (the Memorial Room) and women’s lounges (the international lounge, the art gallery and the music room) were made available to all faculty, students and staff.

The Intersession Program on Women was a controversial conference that joined area residents, staff, students, and male and female faculty in heated debate regarding the politics, psychology, and equity of women. One of the first accredited courses focused explicitly on women, “The Evolution of Female Personality” was offered in the College of Human Ecology in 1970. It drew 250 undergraduates and 150 auditors. This course helped initiate the Cornell’s Women’s Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences two years later.

Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972 states:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Regulations interpreting Title IX required schools to provide equal opportunity for both sexes to participate in intercollegiate athletics. With the elevation of women's sailing to the varsity level in 2014, Cornell now sponsors 37 intercollegiate programs (18 for men, 19 for women). The number of varsity sports offerings is fourth among all schools in the country.

Photo by Colin Keil ’15 shows team captain Jennifer Borshoff ’15 and Lindsay Gimple ʼ17.

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