At the dawn of the 20th century, the future of women at Colby was uncertain. Female faculty members didn’t teach male students, many male alumni opposed rising women’s enrollment, and housing men and women on separate campuses was getting serious consideration. Into this charged atmosphere entered Ninetta Runnals ’08, a dedicated student from Foxcroft, Maine, who was likely unsure of her place at Colby as a woman.
By the time she left the College 51 years later, she was a part of Colby history.
Runnals studied mathematics as a student and joined the faculty in 1920 after earning a master’s degree in education at Columbia University. Among those familiar with her story, she is revered as a staunch proponent of women’s rights and a major influence on the movement toward true coeducation.
“She was incredibly tenacious, fiery,” said Samantha Eddy ’13.
The history of women at Colby was not always given due recognition, though, and today faculty and students, Eddy among them, are working to draw more attention to the role women have played in shaping Colby.
While Runnals’ story has in many ways been hidden, Eddy has been able to piece together a compelling picture of the influential woman by combing through archival materials in Special Collections. Eddy learned from an entry in the 1908 Oracle that Runnals once earned a perfect exam score from a notoriously demanding professor. Her personal letters revealed a fractured relationship with then-president Arthur J. Roberts, which may have led to her to leave Colby for two years, only returning upon Roberts’ death. From trustee meeting minutes Eddy learned that in 1928 Runnals earned significantly less than male colleagues in comparable positions at Colby (in at least one case, 25 percent less).
Eddy was also able to get a sense not just for what Runnals accomplished, but who she was—a beloved mentor for women and a determined advocate for equality.
Runnals pushed for construction of a women’s union (later named the Runnals Building), integration of men and women in the same classes, equal pay for male and female faculty members, and balanced spending between men’s and women’s athletic programs. In fighting these battles she found herself faced with obstinate trustees and outspoken alumni who viewed Colby’s traditions through testosterone-tinted lenses.
“She wasn’t afraid to sit down with a bunch of very wealthy well-educated men and tell them that they were being prejudiced and biased in their behaviors,” Eddy said.
Her research into Runnals is part of an ongoing effort by Special Collections in Miller Library to offer students archival research opportunities. With financial support through the Colby Fund, Eddy spent summer 2012 working in Special Collections on the Runnals project. Colby’s published histories mention Runnals in a handful of paragraphs, but from archival materials Eddy was able to stitch together a 40-page white paper on Runnals, which she presented at the Colby Undergraduate Summer Research Retreat.
Developing a detailed view of Runnals meant following threads through multiple historical resources to figure out not only what Runnals was doing, but why. When Eddy learned in one source that Runnals was arguing for a new women’s dormitory, she explored elsewhere to gain more clues as to Runnals’s motivations. Fortunately, Runnals was an active and vocal member of the campus community, so her name turned up regularly.
“She was appearing in women’s dorms and housing applications and she was appearing in the board of trustees minutes and she was appearing in photographs next to newly erected buildings,” said Eddy. “Really more than anything with her I just had to make chronological sense of it, of when and why things happen and then put those events into a larger context of what was happening at Colby at this time.”
By focusing on personal papers and paying attention to the cultural contexts within which she worked, Eddy reveals Runnals to be a colorful personality who had a complex relationship with the College. It’s a full view of a woman who was instrumental in several aspects of today’s Colby experience.
Hear Theodora Weston '42 explain why Colby women today should thank Ninetta Runnals each time they hang clothes in a residence hall closet.
Runnals retired from Colby in 1949, spent six years on the board of trustees and remained involved with the College until her death in 1980. She was a driving force behind Colby’s evolution from separate-yet-equal treatment of women into a model coeducational institution. Eddy said she found in Runnals a research subject with whom she could empathize, as well as a leader who broke ground for the Colby women of today. Reading about Runnals—sometimes in her own hand—led Eddy to appreciate those who have come before her and the efforts that made her Colby experience what it is.
After discovering the journey Runnals undertook for future Colby women, Eddy said, “I realized how privileged I was to come to this institution.”