Home » Season 3 » The History of Coeducation in America and at St. Mark’s

The History of Coeducation in America and at St. Mark’s

By Sarah Robertson, VI Form

The History of Coeducation in America and at St. Mark’s

Gender inequality has been an enduring issue in America. In 1848, there was a call to end discrimination when women signed the Declaration of Sentiments at the the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.[1] But, it was not until 1920, seventy-two years later, voters ratified the 19th Amendment, the right for women to vote. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, prohibiting discrimination, exclusion, and denial of benefits based on sex in all federally funded education programs.[2] It took until 1972 for coeducation, for the government to protect education of students of both sexes together. Though these strides were positive, they were certainly drawn out. The progression towards coeducation, both in the United States as a whole and at St. Mark’s School in particular, was similar: slow, always a step behind. However, both America and St. Mark’s ultimately have become strong, healthy, coeducational environments.

The history of coeducation in the United States stems from old fashioned ideas about female behaviors and women’s role in society. In 1650, when, beginning with Massachusetts, the general courts of the colonies decreed that all children be able to read, skills a girl may have learned included literacy for the purpose of reading the Bible and religious instruction, but formal education still was not required.[3] So, Dame Schools, schooling opportunities for ordinary girls, gained traction.[4] However, these schools, were not full fledged institutions, but rather, more comparable to day care centers.[5] They provided rudimentary instruction in reading and practical skills for a small fee.[6] And, as the name suggests, these schools segregated girls from the boys. Even when education for girls developed, and females were allowed to attend town schools, they only attended after the regular school day or during the summer time.[7] As time progressed, women’s educational opportunities began to expand, slowly but surely, assisted by the Republican Motherhood ideal and movement.[8]

At the same time, the New England boarding school started to take shape. A religiously motivated attention to education as well as the greater population density, creating an easier ability to provide for formal schooling were two elements that molded these schools. The creation of boarding schools was for both boys and girls, but again, girls did not receive education at the same standard. When it was planned for girls to start being educated, outside of learning from their mothers, Dame Schools, or after hours at the town schools, the reason was to create proper young ladies that would flourish in society by learning appropriate behaviors and mannerisms.[9] In the mid 1700s, a very small percentage of women had the chance to attend boarding schools for young ladies.[10] Equivalent more to finishing schools than the typical New England private boarding school, girls lived in the house of the headmistress and assisted in food prep, washing, and tending house.[11] The few hours of instruction per day focused primarily on the area of domestic education and ornamental arts; teaching girls how to become mothers, hostesses, and housewives, rather than independent women.[12] They were not primarily or even generally academic. Rather, these lessons versed women in the arts and expertises of “sewing, embroidery, geography, languages, music, painting, dancing, drawing, and sometimes, arithmetic.”[13] Parents would give girls the opportunity to experience this education, not for the school’s academic merit, but because these skills were important for fashionable ladies and were associated with wealth at the time.[14]

It was not until the early 1800s that a movement for meaningful women’s education emerged. Different from these “finishing schools”, new educational opportunities allowed girls to be trained to become teachers and take challenging subjects such as math, composition, and logic.[15] The schools grew from the households of headmistresses into legitimate boarding institutions, mostly founded by religious groups.[16] These schools, established in the early 1800s, included the Bethlehem Female Seminary (now known as Moravian College), the Single Sister’s House, (now Salem College), Georgia Female College (now Wesleyan College), and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College), the oldest of the Seven Sisters, and the first school established and concepted to be an institution of higher education for women.[17] But even though the academic rigor increased, the educational focus for women heavily emphasized marital and motherly preparations, fulfilling the virtue that Republican Motherhood stressed.[18] But even though equality had not yet arrived, strides were still being made by those pushing for change. As a teacher named Priscilla Mason remarked on the subject of the increasing opportunities for women to enter jobs, such teaching, “men had denied us the means of knowledge, then approached us for want of it.”[19] Funding ideals for girl’s schools were much different from those of schools for boys. Boys were receiving, as one noteworthy preparatory school wrote, the “highest quality academic education, instill[ing] good character, build[ing] leaders, and inspir[ing] lives.”[20] Most founders build their schools upon these values today. But girls could not share these values until the educational system became the more academically focused form of education that their male counterparts enjoyed.

The first coeducational schools themselves did not appear in America in significant numbers for many years after the country’s founding. Coeducation first existed in younger levels of learning. The predecessor to Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania opened first as a coed secondary school in 1787. Coed Westford Academy in Massachusetts was founded by the town of Westford in 1792.[21] After these, others began to emerge, with American Colleges and Universities beginning to follow suit in the early nineteenth century. In 1837, the progressive school Oberlin became the first college to accept women, and in 1855, the University of Iowa became the first coeducational public university.[22] Yet, widespread coeducation debates across the United States did not commence until the middle of the nineteenth century.[23] The founding of private and public coeducational institutions occurred steadily beginning in 1835, continuing to present day. In addition to this development, the rate of switching from single-sex to coeducational status was also relatively consistent from the 1860s through the 1950s.[24] This transition took so long for most American schools not only due to gender discrimination, a common theme over the entirety of America’s history, but also due to the fact that parents did not want their daughters to be educated alongside boys. There were first the social stigmas, that boys would be a disruptive distraction, a hinderance to the girls’ education.[25] There was also emerging scientific knowledge that backed the claim that separate education is more effective.[26] The reasons for such a conclusion were simply that girls and boys learn differently.[27] Some scientists believe that their brains develop at different times, and each gender is born with different biological impulses, such as that male brains excel at mathematics and spatial activities, while girls digest more sensory data, and have better control impulse behavior.[28] Males are thought to be harder to teach, having more difficult time with learning and discipline, as well as increased aggression and competition, due to their brain.[29] Females, however, use their more active brain to find greater success in the classroom.[30] These biological and neurological differences from birth lead to differences in learning techniques, as well as the social behaviors each gender was taught early from birth.[31]

But despite these facts, most which keep many single sex institutions running and successful, America made the strong shift to coeducation in the 1960s. Supporting the movement towards gender equality, ideas such as “creating a realistic environment for students duplicated in the real world”, and “removing the stereotypical mentality of the teacher, allowing multiple ways to teach and learn to be utilized in the classroom” fueled the movement further.[32] This would lead to many positive results for women, in adulthood. Increasing educational opportunities for women and allowing access to the same curriculum and schooling as men has lead to a betterment of women’s social and economic positions in America. Though social traditions and lingering discrimination prevent some women from pursuing high paying, high level jobs in fields such as engineering, technology, and science, women have exponentially increased their numbers in the work force, especially the number of those in higher paying jobs, usually as a result of a high level of education.[33]

Coeducation arrived at St. Mark’s School much later than the emergence of the national trend. Private institutions in Southborough, Massachusetts were only just beginning to take these steps, as Fay School, the primary school down the road was taking its first steps concurrently with St. Mark’s.[34] But coeducation did not arrive instantly, nor was the transition seamless. The first talks of bringing women to St. Mark’s was through coordinate education. Pierson F. Melcher, then the head of St. Margaret’s School in Waterbury, Connecticut, considering the arrangement, came into contact with St. Mark’s. But the plan fell apart when the trustees of St. Margaret’s decided to dissolve its boarding department instead.[35] In August of 1972, the same year as Title IX was passed by congress, Mr. Melcher and a group of St. Margaret’s boarders came to St. Mark’s, establishing their own school just a mile from the campus.[36] This school was called the Southborough School, and it would be an all-girls school in a coordinate agreement with St. Mark’s. A coordinate agreement would mean that students would benefit from the high level academics at St. Mark’s by having the opportunity to take numerous science and language classes at the school.[37] The two institutions would collaborate academically, artistically, and socially.[38] The Southborough School had its own dormitories connected by boardwalks, as well as an old Southborough mansion that housed classrooms, a library, and dining facilities. While these boardwalks connected the students physically, they symbolically connected them as well, as reflected in the school’s ideas and practices.[39] The Southborough School was very democratic, allowing decisions to be made “Town Meeting” style by consensus.[40] The school was a collaborative and cooperative community, interconnected by their desire to learn, flourish, and grow.[41] The school, though formed after the period of the national movement for coeducation, was still extremely progressive for its time. Pursuing a high level of young women’s education, the school bred girls who were independent leaders, much like the ideals of early male private schools.[42] But although the school was incredibly innovative in this facet, the instruction of traditional “motherly” or “housewife” preparatory values remained, such as the student involvement in meal preparation, dishwashing, and cleaning.[43] Nonetheless, the Southborough School was innovative in the field of women’s education, for its combined philosophy, a conjunction of being progressively communal and having a solid academic grounding, and its missions, to prepare graduates for college and the world beyond.[44] It was a true pioneer in coordinate and co-education.[45]

But compared to the long history of both America and St. Mark’s, Southborough School only lasted for a brief amount of time. In 1977, the coordinate agreement would morph into a merger of St. Mark’s and the Southborough School, forming one single coeducational institution. Southborough School students became full-time students at St. Mark’s, and their old school dissolved.[46] This was the mark of full coeducation at St. Mark’s, but the journey to this point was a long and arduous process. There were multiple drawbacks that arose when considering coeducation. St. Mark’s students, teachers, and trustees believed that these drawbacks would make coeducation a detriment to the school. The first, most pressing issue was the economic setback, as St. Mark’s provided the capital for the Southborough School buildings.[47] Because the Southborough School was associated with monetary value, the school would lose this investment if the two institutions were to merge. If campus of the Southborough School was disused by students and teachers, the money used to create the institution would have been wasted, in the eyes of trustees. Other concerns came from those familiar with St. Mark’s and its strong sense of tradition. Some were worried that the male culture, male dominated environment, and social prejudices it created would overwhelm the women.[48] The next issue arose from compatibility. One school was grounded in convention, while the other practiced liberalism and innovation. It was unclear how such different ideas for education could merge. But, this issue was refuted by a trustee when they noted the contribution of the Southborough School from St. Mark’s, how it led to the boy’s reexamination of their own school’s educational practices, and how the positive influence of the school had modified St. Mark’s philosophy and approach.[49] Even though the two schools were so different, populated by two different sexes, one school staunchly traditional, the other was alternative and progressive, the two schools agreed that over time they would cooperate more and more. Hesitation was not one sided, but experienced by both schools.[50] But what the Southborough School would need leading up to and following the merge in order to make it successful was recognition. Yearbooks leading up to 1977 show barely any traces of females.[51] The male dominated culture that the board had worried about would have to be permeated by the other gender, and there would need to be cooperation, not only by the females, but especially the males.[52] And this cooperation, slowly and surely, developed into a strong relationship. Now, less than a half century later, St. Mark’s has a roughly fifty/fifty male:female ratio. Coeducation, with all the worries surrounding it, ended up being successful. And though the Southborough School ended, it truly embodied its phoenix symbol and motto “In my end is my beginning.”[53] It rose from the metaphorical ashes of the Southborough School, and created the beginning of coeducation at St. Mark’s.

But the Southborough School and its spirit continues to live on in the vibrancy of St. Mark’s and its flourishing collaborative coeducational atmosphere. Though it is remembered physically by plaques and signs around the main building of St. Mark’s and the neighboring Choate house, it is remembered now in the fact that women continue excel and succeed within the walls of the school, going on to successful careers in college and the world beyond.[54] Yes, the transition may be described as arduous, but reason for that may have been the British, episcopalian roots of St. Mark’s. Southborough School could have been described as radical, especially when compared with the traditional St. Mark’s, that clung, rooted to long-established educational practices and values. When the coeducational movement was just beginning in America, its progress was hindered by the views of Europeans, who would travel to the country and be confused, as such practices had barely emerged in their continent at the time.[55] Coeducation occurred later in Britain and other European countries than it did in America.[56] These European views on coeducation are reflected in St. Mark’s slow evolution to accept the practice. St Mark’s, with a strong Episcopalian, British background, must have shared these same common European beliefs, therefore slowing its transition to educating both sexes. Nonetheless, coeducation, both at St. Mark’s, as well as in America, has become widely accepted and practiced by institutions today. Though both all boys and all girls schools and colleges continue to exist, they exist mostly for the difference and growth, cognitive abilities, and developmental reasons discussed, and for the most part, do not have invidious discriminatory intentions. All in all, though a slower version, St. Mark’s could be described as a microcosm of America in regards to coeducation: small advances were made, progress occurred, and suddenly, now in the twenty first century, it is almost like the schools never separated the two sexes, learning and flourishing the the same environment cohesively now and for generations to come.

IMG_1800Sarah Robertson is a VI Form day student from Southborough, Massachusetts. She enjoys art, soccer, and tennis.






“Coeducation.” New World Encyclopedia. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Coeducation.


“The First 10 U.S. Colleges to Go Co-Ed.” Collegestats.org. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://collegestats.org/2013/01/the-first-10-u-s-colleges-to-go-co-ed/.


Goodwin, Joanne L., ed. Encyclopedia of Women in American History. Vol. 3. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2002.


Hall, Edward Tuck. Saint Mark’s School: A Centennial History. Lunenburg, VT: Stinehour Press, 1967.


“History.” Groton School. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.groton.org/Page/About/History.


Lind, Amy, and Stephanie Brzuzy, eds. Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.


Mays, Dorothy A. Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2004.


“Mixed Sex Education.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 6, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mixed-sex_education.


Noble, Richard. Fences of Stone. Southborough, MA: Peter E. Randall, 1990.


Noble, Richard E. The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark’s School. Hollis, NH: Hollis Publishing, 2015.


“Putting the “Co” in Education: Timing, Reasons, and Consequences of College Coeducation from 1835 to the Present.” scholar.harvard.edu. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/goldin/files/putting_the_co_in_education_timing_reasons_and_consequences_of_college_coeducation_from_1835-_present.pdf.


“Seneca Falls Convention Begins.” History. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/seneca-falls-convention-begins.


“Southborough School.” St. Mark’s School. Accessed November 16, 2015. http://www.stmarksschool.org/alumniae/southborough-school/index.aspx.


Students, comp. St. Mark’s Lion Yearbooks 1972-1977.


“Title IX and Sex Discrimination.” U. S. Department of Education. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html.


“Title IX Overview.” The Department of Justice. Accessed December 3, 2015. http://www.justice.gov/crt/overview-title-ix-education-amendments-1972-20-usc-1681-et-seq.


Tyack, David, and Elizabeth Hansot. Learning Together.


“Women’s Rights Movements.” NWHP. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.nwhp.org/resources/womens-rights-movement/detailed-timeline/.


Plaque in Outer Forbes, St. Mark’s School.


“Timeline of Women’s Colleges in the United States.” Wikipedia. Accessed

December 17, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/



[1] “Seneca Falls Convention Begins,” History, accessed December 3, 2015, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/seneca-falls-convention-begins.

[2] “Title IX and Sex Discrimination,” U. S. Department of Education, accessed December 3, 2015, http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html.

“Women’s Rights Movements,” NWHP.

[3] Dorothy A. Mays, Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2004), 127-129.

[4] Ibid, 127.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. Republican Motherhood was the ideal that women must be schooled in virtue so they could teach their children, both male and female.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 128.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Timeline of Women’s Colleges in the United States,” Wikipedia, accessed December 17, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_women%27s_colleges_in_the_United_States.

The Seven Sisters ia an association of historically women’s colleges in northeastern America.

[18] Mays, Women in Early America, 129. See definition for Republican Motherhood in footnote 9

[19] Ibid.

[20] “History,” Groton School, accessed December 6, 2015, http://www.groton.org/Page/About/History.

[21] “Mixed Sex Education,” Wikipedia, accessed December 6, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mixed-sex_education.

[22] “The First 10 U.S. Colleges to Go Co-Ed,” Collegestats.org, accessed December 3, 2015, http://collegestats.org/2013/01/the-first-10-u-s-colleges-to-go-co-ed/. “Mixed Sex Education,” Wikipedia.

[23] David Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot, Learning Together, 114.

[24] “Putting the “Co” in Education: Timing, Reasons, and Consequences of College Coeducation from 1835 to the Present,” scholar.harvard.edu, accessed December 6, 2015, http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/goldin/files/putting_the_co_in_education_timing_reasons_and_consequences_of_college_coeducation_from_1835-_present.pdf.

[25] “Mixed Sex Education,” Wikipedia.

[26] Amy Lind and Stephanie Brzuzy, eds., Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008), 134-136.

[27] Ibid, 134.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, 135.

[30] Ibid, 136.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Coeducation,” New World Encylopedia, accessed December 6, 2015, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Coeducation. “Mixed Sex Education,” Wikipedia.

[33] Joanne L. Goodwin, ed., Encyclopedia of Women in American History (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2002), 84-85.

[34] Richard Noble, Fences of Stone (Southborough, MA: Peter E. Randall, 1990), 337.

[35] “Southborough School,” St. Mark’s School, accessed November 16, 2015, http://www.stmarksschool.org/alumniae/southborough-school/index.aspx.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Richard E. Noble, The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark’s School(Hollis, NH: Hollis Publishing, 2015), 564.

[40] “Southborough School,” St. Mark’s School

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Plaque in Outer Forbes, St. Mark’s School.

[46] “Southborough School,” St. Mark’s School.

[47] Noble, The Echo of Their, 564.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Students, comp., St. Mark’s Lion Yearbooks 1972-1977

[52] Noble, The Echo of Their, 564.

[53] “Southborough School,” St. Mark’s School.

[54] “Southborough School,” St. Mark’s School.

[55] Tyack and Hansot, Learning Together, 116.

[56] Ibid, 116.





Search Volumes