The Great Enterprise

By Peter Bronski

We have plenty of Female Colleges (so called) in this country but they are Colleges only in name—they have no funds, no libraries, cabinets, museums, or apparatus worth mentioning. If you will establish a real College for girls and endow it, you will build a monument for yourself more lasting than the Pyramids … it will be the pride and glory of Po’keepsie, an honor to the State and a blessing to the world.”

1860, Milo P. Jewett, Vassar’s first president, writing to Matthew Vassar

When New York State approved the charter in 1861 for what was then known as Vassar Female College, it was an educational milestone ripe for superlatives: revolutionary, progressive, cutting-edge. Prompted in part by Milo P. Jewett, a Baptist minister, and Jewett’s wife, Jane Augusta, to put his considerable fortune toward the advancement of a higher purpose, Matthew Vassar, a dutiful Christian, prayerfully considered the future of his inheritance (and his legacy), and came to a single grand conclusion, as evidenced by his 1861 communications with the Board of Trustees:

Founder Matthew Vassar

“It occurred to me, that woman, having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development.

“I considered that the mothers of a country mould the character of its citizens, determine its institutions, and shape its destiny.

“Next to the influence of the mother is that of the female teacher, who is employed to train young children at a period when impressions are most vivid and lasting.

“It also seemed to me that, if woman were properly educated, some new avenues to useful and honorable employment, in entire harmony with the gentleness and modesty of her sex, might be opened to her.

“It further appeared, there is not in our country, there is not in the world, so far as is known, a single fully-endowed institution for the education of women … I have come to the conclusion, that the establishment and endowment of a College for the education of young women is a work which will satisfy my highest aspirations, and will be, under God, a rich blessing to this city and State, to our country and the world.”

Such a perspective set Matthew Vassar and his namesake college apart. The result was a kind of instant acclaim for his bold new venture. In a 1866 New York Times article about Vassar’s first commencement, the writer noted:

“It commences almost like a fairy legend, ‘Once there was a very rich and a very good man,’ … Matthew Vassar … and his conclusion was the founding and endowment of this magnificent institution, which is not only a monument to his individual liberty but a landmark on the road of progress toward light and liberty in this broad Continent of ours.”

This 1860s postcard heralded a new age in women’s education, even as it conveyed a more traditional image.

Matthew Vassar’s charge, though, was not just to create a college for women, but to create a “real” college for women, one that strived for—and attained—the highest academic standards, such that the New York Times, in an 1867 article about women’s education, proclaimed:

“The only institution within our knowledge which aims at the best style of womanly education, as its sole object, and with the great advantage of adequate material resources, is the noble College founded by Mr. Vassar of Poughkeepsie.”

By the end of the 19th century, Vassar College fully came into its own. Like the girls who matured into women during their time on campus, Vassar emerged as a more evolved, more mature version of its younger self. That “mature” college left an indelible mark on women’s and higher education, and even the broader expanse of society. But it was a society not yet ready to fully embrace the type of women Vassar produced.