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Mary Low is the grandmother of coeducation at Colby. In 1871, she enrolled as the college's first female student. It had been only two decades since the nation's first women's rights convention, and it would be another half century before women gained the right to vote. Her presence at Colby helped crack the gender barrier of higher education, but it would be another century before many other New England men's colleges would admit women. Her impact stretches beyond mere enrollment. Mary Low maintained a life-long dedication to improving Colby as an institution for women.
In 1929, The Colby Echo revisited the courageous act of Mary Low's enrollment and her life. It was reported that "Low was determined that she would take full advantage of all the opportunities that came her way and so she sought a college education. Although she was condemned and criticized by many for her unconventional venture, she courageously remained, working diligently on her studies." The Echo also reported that she "was treated with deference and respect by her fellow-classmates. They truly admired her for her spirit, intellect, and personal charm."
Mary was the only female student for her first two years at Colby. In 1873, she was joined by three other women. Louise Coburn was among this second group and, along with Low, became a life time advocate for women at Colby. For Low and Coburn, women's education was truly coeducational, and it remained so in the early years. After almost two decades of pioneering success, questions arose as to whether women should pursue the same academic program as men. Eventually the school did succumb to pressures to push women aside.
Ernest C. Marriner, author of The History of Colby College, attributes the changes to the success of those first women. "No small part of the agitation that arose later in regard to the retention of women in the College was prompted by the fact that they persistently ran away with the honors."1 If that is the case, Mary Low's academic record is definitely to blame. When she graduated in 1875, Mary was one of the first women in New England to receive a full-fledged bachelor of arts degree. She was valedictorian of her class, and won Phi Beta Kappa honors.
The achievements by Colby women didn't seem to matter to their opponents. Colby President Albion Small introduced a plan of coordination, consisting of a male and female division, a compromise of sorts among those who did and did not support a female presence at the college. President Small's plan was inaugurated on June 30, 1890.
Mary Low, Louise Coburn and others responded with a letter of protest, signed by 19 women graduates, stating:
"The College seeks to justify itself by an alleged act of higher generosity. She will establish within her precincts a college for women, in which they may go to even higher achievements. But by that decision the College confesses that she made a mistake twenty years ago, and thus places her present alumnae in the anomalous position of being the visible evidence of that mistake."
They concluded their letter with a bold declaration: "The issue is not whether men and women can recite together, whether men and women shall study this or that. It is simply the issue whether the men are willing to take the risk of having women surpass them in scholarship."
But the response did not come without some soul searching by Low and Coburn, and serious consideration as to whether they should speak up . In a letter written to Coburn on August 7, 1890, Low wrote: "It seems to me that there are many reasons why it is right for me to speak." Among them, she didn't want to uphold the impression given by President Small "that everybody and even the girls themselves desire this change."
It is also important to note, Mary Low was the author of the letter delivered to the Trustees, quite the opposite of what is recorded in Ernest Marriner's version of Colby's history, which states: "The text of this powerful statement is said to have been chiefly the work of Louise Coburn, although Mrs. [Mary Low] Carver certainly collaborated in the final writing."2 It may have been presented this way, because Coburn's family was highly influential. Low's letters to Coburn acknowledge this: "We do want you to help us. It seems as if we can't have it otherwise. Your name and influence would have the weight of a dozen of the other names."
Their bold and eloquent letter, even with Coburn's support, was to no avail. The Trustees refused to reconsider their decision. And when fall semester began in 1890, the coordinate system went into affect.
The system of coordination slowly drifted back to a system of coeducation. By the 1960s Colby "was in fact co-ed but the paper work had never been done," explained former Dean of the College Earl Smith, who has served Colby in various ways since 1962. In 1969, Colby became officially coeducational.
In honor of her devotion to women's education, Mary Low's name adorns one of Colby's oldest dormitories. After Colby, Mary became accomplished in the field of library science. She created the Maine State Library's first systematic catalogue, and excelled as a writer. Low married Leonard Carver, the Maine State Librarian.
In 1916, Colby presented Mary Low with a honorary doctorate. Though she would never realize her desire that the school return to coeducational status during her lifetime, she did live to see women become two thirds of the student body at Colby in 1924. Mary Low Carver died March 4, 1926.
1 Ernest C. Marriner, The History of Colby College (Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1963), 432.
Photo courtesy of Colby Special Collections.