Artist Maggie Libby ’81 refers to the process that led to her recent exhibit, "Where Are the Women? Portraits of Colby Women, 1875-1904," as "an excavation."
First Libby sifted through scant archival materials to get a sense of the personalities and characters of these early Colby alumnae. Building on a single image, in some cases, she moved from drawings to mixed media, adding layers until she was satisfied with the work. The result is a collection of portraits—some poignant, some haunting, some revealing a remarkable inner strength—of women who were pioneers blazing the way for the legions of alumnae who would follow.
The portraits include Marion Thompson Osborne, Class of 1900, daughter of Sam Osborne, a beloved College janitor and a freed slave. "I can't imagine the kind of courage that Marion must have had," Libby said.
Osborne is joined in the exhibit by Bertha Louise Soule, the only woman to graduate in the Class of 1885, and by Louise Helen Coburn, one of the first five women to come to Colby and a member of the Class of 1877. Also portrayed is Mary Caffrey Low, whose name graces Mary Low Hall. Not only was Low the first woman to attend Colby, arriving in 1871, she also spearheaded the unsuccessful opposition to a plan to divide Colby into men's and women's divisions. Coordinate education, as it was called, established the two divisions in 1890 and existed (at least on paper) until 1969.
Some faculty and trustees opposed enrolling these women, who, on at least some occasions, were subjected to grueling entrance examinations that male applicants were spared. Even the redoubtable Mary Low, valedictorian of the Class of 1875, was not allowed to give the valedictory address at commencement. She was allowed to recite a set Latin piece before a male classmate gave the address.
Colby was among the first previously all-male colleges to admit women, and yet the College, like its co-educational counterparts, maintained separate deans for men and women until the 1960s.
At the exhibit opening in March, Libby, the slide curator at Colby, noted that on campus she saw very few women in photographs. The Presidents Room in Miller Library, where her exhibit was displayed, usually is lined with portraits of past Colby presidents—all men.
Libby vowed to bring Colby's overlooked alumnae out of the shadows. "There are other women I want to do," she said. "The more time I spend with them, the more fond I'm becoming of certain people."