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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, February 25, 2024

A chronicle of coeducation at Tufts

Metcalf Hall, a dormitory which once housed Jackson College students, is pictured on April 18, 2022.

Like many schools across the country, Tufts today is a coeducational institution. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Tufts’ progression from an all-male institution to its current state has been quite complex. Following the broader historical discourse on gender equality, rather than a linear development, Tufts’ inclusion of women students saw multiple waves. 


Russell Miller’s book “Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts College 18521952” outlined the historical reception to coeducation on Tufts’ campus. Miller wrote that The Tufts Collegian, the first undergraduate publication, partook in this discussion by presenting both sides of the literature to its audience in 1874.

Published in 1873, “Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for the Girls” by Harvard physician Edward H. Clark argued women were too frail to enter a space of intense intellectual activity.

Virginia Drachman, a professor in the history department at Tufts, commented on the gravity of Clark’s argument.

“It hit white, middle-class families in a way that … many other publications that have been more within the medical community did not,” Drachman said. 

In response to Clark’s book, Julia Ward Howe published “Sex and Education, a Reply to Dr. E. H. Clark’s Sex in Education.” The book argued against Clark with works written by mostly women scholars.

By the 1870s, some higher education institutions had begun to integrate female students into their schools. 

At Tufts, when the question of coeducation surfaced among the Tufts Trustees and board members, the decision was repeatedly postponed. University President Elmer Capen remarked that “the friends of co-education, therefore, ought not to complain that doors of the College are closed against women until they are prepared to tender the requisite sum for this purpose.” 

“Some male students were also worried that if women came onto campus that there would be strict social rules imposed,” Drachman said.

Coinciding with the first wave of feminism, the subject of coeducation resurfaced in the discussion of the Tufts Executive Committee. On April 24, 1892, the Committee unanimously approved the enrollment of women. On July 15 of the same year, Tufts College officially established itself as a coeducational institution, opening its doors to men and women. Nine women entered the college that fall.


Tufts’ transition into a coeducational institution was initially smooth. According to a report by Capen in 1896, “there [had] been no friction arising from [women’s] presence in the classrooms, and they [had] not increased materially the difficulties of administration … their work [had] been as well done as the work of the men.” 

Upon their arrival, however, a new issue arose — the need for residential space. During the first three years of coeducation, the non-local female students resided in faculty houses and off-campus residences due to insufficient funding. 

Thanks to a donation made by Albert Metcalf in 1893, Metcalf Hall, a modest yellow building located at 56 Professors Row, was constructed to house 24 female students with a matron living on the first floor. Drachman commented on the importance of the matron, acting as a mother figure, and more importantly, a source of supervision. 

“It’s a big deal for parents to feel comfortable to send their young single daughters away from home, to live on a campus where there are men who are young and single,” Drachman said. “Not only are they concerned about Edward H. Clark’s argument about too much intellectual study might break down their health, but they are also concerned about their daughters being protected.” 

However, this protection also led to heavy restriction. For example, in Metcalf, male visitors were required to visit during designated hours only, and the visits took place in the dorm common room. The restraints imposed on female students’ social life gave Metcalf the title “Bird Cage.” 

As for academics, female students generally excelled — five memberships to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society were all awarded to women. This new presence of women and mixed-gender classrooms prompted a wave of discomfort among some male liberal arts students.

Despite male contempt, Tufts’ transition to a coed school prevailed as the number of male enrollments remained stagnant. Succeeding Capen, University President Frederick Hamilton attributed the decline in growth of Tufts’ College of Letters (now School of Arts and Sciences) to coeducation. 

“The reputation in New England was that Tufts was becoming practically a school for women because there were so many women there and that men were hesitant to go there … and many men still preferred separate all-men colleges like Williams [College],” Drachman said.

An opponent of the impacts of coeducation at Tufts, University President Frederick Hamilton insisted on the separation of the sexes. The Committee of Segregation, appointed to submit a feasible plan to resolve this matter, eventually suggested the founding of Jackson College for Women, funded by a generous donation from Cornelia Jackson, an advocate for women’s higher education. Operated under the same board of Tufts College trustees, Jackson College was officially instituted in 1910.  


“I would argue that on the one hand, it was backtracking. And on the other hand, it really benefited women,” Drachman commented on the emergence of Jackson College. “When women create their own institutions, and they usually create them because they’ve been excluded from others historically, it grows out of discrimination. But it provides an opportunity for women to come together to create leadership positions to run things the way they want to run them." 

The voices of women students were centered at Jackson College. In addition to assuming leadership roles and proposing a separate student handbook, deanships were created to attend to the needs of Jackson’s students, a part of the national trend of creating deanships for women students.

The separation of colleges initially sparked a sense of relief and freedom from both male and female students. 

The Tufts Weekly on April 21, 1910 recorded that male students marched around a bonfire, while, according to alum correspondence on April 13, the female students celebrated by “illuminating the hall with Japanese lanterns and spent the greater part of the night on the roof rejoicing.” 

Drachman spoke about Jackson students’ feeling of belonging in its early years.

"They were alums of Jackson. … There were a lot of Jackson alums who were very proud of having been a Jackson student. … People were very loyal to Jackson,” Drachman said. 

Suzanne Cashman (J’69) recounted her experience as a Jackson student. 

Cashman recalled her residential life: “Our dorms, as in the girls’ dorms, were down the hill and on one part of campus away from the guys.” On top of the physical separation, there were visiting policies — “It was restricted how often we could go into the boys’ dorms. … The doors of those boys’ rooms had to be open.” — which the students would tactfully get around. “The trick the guys did was they threw a towel over the top of the door and then close the door to the extent that they could with a towel over the top of it,” Cashman said.

In addition to the curfew and a sign-out system to keep track of the female students, students took turns staffing the telephones, one on each floor, according to Cashman. Students would either inform their floormates about their calls or take a message for their absent peers. 

Cashman also underlined the dress code of female students. 

“We had to wear skirts for the first three years that I was in school, when we were on the hill,” Cashman said. “We could wear pants outside of the iron gate [on Professors Row]. … It was a very ‘in loco parentis’ kind of approach to us.” 

However, there was a huge change in the school restrictions during Cashman’s undergraduate years.

“By the time I graduated … girls could wear pants, you could be in boys’ dorms during the week, and you didn’t have to sign out as often — that had loosened up,” Cashman said. 

Unlike Jackson College’s previous salient role at Tufts, the divide between Tufts and Jackson College blurred over time. 

“Tufts is where I really wanted to go, and I know it was Jackson College specifically, but I’ve always felt that I was at Tufts,” Cashman said. “I never felt like I was at a separate school. I felt it was very coeducational.” 

In 1980, Tufts reestablished a fully coeducational model, absorbing Jackson College. Marsha Alperin (LA’81) recalled feeling less tied to Jackson College as previous generations. 

“I went to Tufts thinking it was just Tufts. I never for one second thought I was a Jackson, or there was a Jackson even. … I can’t think of anything that stands out that would make me think I was in a different school than my male counterparts except that my diploma says Jackson,” Alperin said.  


Although Tufts officially became coeducational in 1980, female students’ undergraduate degrees still bore the name “Jackson.” This persisting presence of Jackson’s name on female students’ diplomas sparked controversy. In 2000, the Daily saw a feud between a student and a professor regarding the inclusion of Jackson College on diplomas. 

Larissa Johnson wrote in a piece titled “A Sexist Degree Debacle” that the different degrees — Jackson College for women, the College of Arts and Sciences for men — received by women were a manifestation of gender inequality.

“It is a clear violation of both federal and state law to award a degree that contains language whose inclusion is solely based on the gender of the recipient. Never would this practice have continued for so long if the criteria was race, ethnicity, or religion,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson’s article received a heated response from Jeffrey Taliaferro, the then-assistant professor in political science. “[Johnson’s] rant, posing as a noble call to arms, may divert our attention from addressing real issues of discrimination and equity,” Taliaferro wrote.

The debate soon came to an end two years later. A Daily article published on April 1, 2002, broadcasted that “the ‘Jackson College’ name will not appear on the diplomas of female graduates this May.” While female students in 1962 petitioned to add “Jackson College” to their diplomas, its abolishment in 2002 marked the official end of Jackson College in Tufts’ history.