Stepping Out: Women Go to College

Until the 1830s, college was not a widely available option for women. Troy Female Seminary, founded in 1814 by Emma Willard, was one of the earliest schools to provide women with an educational equivalent to men’s college. Mississippi College was one of the first co-educational colleges to admit women in 1831, followed by Oberlin College in 1837.    

Women’s roles expanded during the Civil War; they oversaw households, businesses, schools, and community affairs while men were away. This began a shift in attitude, and after the war, higher education became accessible to more women. The Land-Grant College Act of 1862 created public colleges accessible to women, and Vassar, Smith, and Bryn Mawr were all founded as private women’s colleges to prepare women for teaching and community work.

Viola Stow, ca. 1860

Viola Stow (1841-1912) 

1859 or 1860 

Carte de visite 

Viola Stow (1841-1912)

Viola Stow was born in 1841 near East Enterprise, Switzerland County, Indiana, a rural farming community near the Ohio River. She was the third of four children and only daughter of Uzziel and Catharine Stow. Stow’s parents valued education, and as a young girl she studied at the community school in Stowtown. The school was maintained by local residents, but the community often had difficulty retaining teachers. This led to sporadic instruction during Stow’s youth. 

At age 15, Stow began a three-year course of study at Elizabethtown Female Seminary in Ohio, a boarding school 16 miles from Cincinnati. The school’s mission was to cultivate “earnest and independent thought,” to teach habits of “order, economy, punctuality and industry,” and to qualify women to “enter any Sphere that Providence may assign.”    

Stow’s friends were all from rural farming communities in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. She and the other girls from Switzerland county travelled upriver by steamboat to reach the school, where they lived during the school term.   

Teaching Women
Stepping Out: Women Go to College