Friday, September 11, 2009

Early Hartford College for Women History

In honor of the upcoming reunion, A Home Coming for Women March 4-6, 2010, the University of Hartford Archives at the Mortensen Library will be presenting a series of short articles about the history of Hartford College for Women. These articles were prepared by Margaret Mair, University of Hartford archivist, using materials in the archives. Unless otherwise noted, all images are the property of the Univesity of Hartford.

Chapter 1 The Great Depression and the Noble Experiment 1933-43

Mount Holyoke in Hartford 1933-39

Hartford College for Women was founded as Mount Holyoke in Hartford, Conn. in 1933 to meet the needs of young women in the Hartford area who were unable to afford the cost of a four year degree at a residential college. The Great Depression had forced many girls to put their dreams on hold; the new college afforded them the possibility of pursuing those dreams. At a time when funds were short, many families opted to educate their sons, but not their daughters. In the early days, the college was often referred to affectionately as “The Noble Experiment.” As it evolved, the new college for women was known by many names: Mount Holyoke in Hartford, Hartford Junior College, Hartford College, and eventually Hartford College for Women.
This article has three goals. The first is to provide a brief factual account of Hartford College for Women from its beginning as “Mount Holyoke in Hartford” in 1933 until its metamorphosis into The Women’s Education and Leadership Fund of the University of Hartford in 2006. The second goal is to place the history of HCW within the context of the development of women’s education and the junior college movement in the United States. A third goal is to trace HCW’s relationship to other Hartford-area educational institutions, particularly the University of Hartford.

As the archivist of the University of Hartford, I have spent the last several years organizing the historical collections of HCW. Reading through correspondence, newsletters, and memos, and sorting through mounds of photographs, I have become acquainted with the legacies of a vast array of inspiring individuals. HCW was led by fascinating women and men, produced scores of talented alumnae, and fostered many creative educational projects. Some of those projects have evolved and continue to operate in the greater Hartford community to this day. Alas, it is not possible to mention everyone who served HCW or to describe each one of its many pioneering ventures. I am forced to concentrate on chief administrators, selected long-term faculty, and the most enduring educational initiatives.

In preparing this article, I have relied upon unpublished histories of the college prepared by Oliver Butterworth, Bess Graham, Christine Lyman-Farquhar, and Helen Randall. I have also benefited from research conducted by Jane Barstow and Mary Merritt in conjunction with their 1983 oral history project and exhibit "A Woman’s Place; the First Fifty years of Hartford College for Women" and from A University for Hartford, A University for the World: A Short History of the University of Hartford compiled by Gordon Clark Ramsey and Humphrey Tonkin and published by the University in 1998. Many alumnae, former faculty, and administrators have shared memories with me. However, any opinions or interpretations expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone affiliated with Hartford College for Women or the University of Hartford.

It is not surprising that the idea of a two-year women’s college found favor in Hartford. New England gave rise to many noteworthy educational establishments for women. In fact, although exceptions existed, single-sex education was the norm for private colleges and secondary schools in New England. Hartford Female Seminary, a pioneering institution, was founded by Catharine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1823. Miss Porter's School was founded in Farmington, Conn. in 1843. After several years in New Jersey, Ethel Walker School was moved to Simsbury, Conn. in 1917.

New England was home to many of the earliest and most enduring women’s colleges. Smith College was founded in 1871. Mount Holyoke was founded as a seminary in 1837 and became a four-year college in 1893. Wellesley was founded 1870. Connecticut College was originally founded as Connecticut College for Women in 1911.
The earliest impetus for HCW came from the local YWCA. Blanche Babcock, president of the YWCA, and Bess Graham, the educational secretary of the Y, along with the Y’s education committee, initiated the idea of a local college for women. This group prudently sought the advice of educational experts and conducted thorough research into educational opportunities in the area.

The committee considered joining forces with Trinity College, the local men’s college. When approached about founding a coordinate college for women, President Remsen B. Ogilby at Trinity stated that Trinity already had its hands full dealing with boys. He referred the committee to Mount Holyoke’s president, Mary Woolley. Woolley in turn invited the group to South Hadley, Mass. for a discussion. Mount Holyoke had suffered a decline in enrollment during the Depression. Woolley and her colleagues were anxious to put their faculty to work in other colleges nearby so that Mount Holyoke could eventually draw these professors back when the economy improved.

One criterion of the early planners was that admissions requirement and the curriculum at the new college had to be identical to those of Mount Holyoke so that the Hartford students could transfer to colleges on a par with Mount Holyoke. Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley; all confirmed they would also accept transfers from the Hartford College.

Eventually an expanded committee consisting of representatives of Trinity College, the Hartford YWCA, and Mount Holyoke College drew up plans for the new school, which opened with 22 students in 1933. Classes were originally held in the YWCA building at 262 Ann Street. The curriculum consisted of ancient history, Latin, German, English, French, mathematics, speech, hygiene, and physical education, including basketball, swimming, and other sports. In 1963 Helena M. Gamen wrote to Bess Graham of her memories of the first class, "I have never had a more enterprising, motley, and original group of young students to work with.”

At first, Mount Holyoke in Harford only provided one year of study equivalent to the freshman year at Mount Holyoke. The earliest classes of Hartford students petitioned for a sophomore year in 1935, but Woolley declined to participate in the expansion of the program. She felt that the one-year program had been a success, but that it would be too difficult for Mount Holyoke to manage a full two years from South Hadley. As the economy improved and attendance grew at the home school, Mount Holyoke needed to regroup and focus on its core group of students in Massachusetts.

Enthusiasts in Hartford believed that the college could be maintained and expanded under local sponsorship. In 1938 Mount Holyoke ended their official control of the Hartford experiment, and the emerging college became a community project. By this time six classes had completed the freshman year in Hartford. In all, 129 students had completed the course, 45 had completed the remaining three years at Mount Holyoke, and 84 had transferred to other colleges.

A new committee evolved to consider the future of the school and this committee called upon the consulting firm of Tamblyn and Tamblyn for advice. The committee learned from Tamblyn and Tamblyn that in the Hartford area, 2220 girls graduated from high school each year. About 300 were qualified to attend college, but only about 180 could afford the fees. Girls graduating from high school found it difficult to obtain a higher education. Moreover, traditional women’s careers - including teaching, nursing, librarianship, and office work - needed some training beyond the secondary level.

Clearly young Hartford area women needed access to appropriate education. Trinity College planned to remain an exclusively male college. Although St. Joseph’s College had come into being under the auspices of the Sisters of Mercy in 1932, it had not yet been accredited. Therefore, the first St. Joseph’s students could not count on later acceptance into other schools.
Meanwhile, across town at the YMCA, Alan S. Wilson was developing a plan for a two-year coeducational school to be called “Hillyer Junior College.” Hillyer Junior College grew out of Hillyer Institute, an evening extension program housed at the YMCA. Hillyer Institute was originally designed for young working men who needed additional education and training to qualify for better jobs. Thus, Hillyer and HCW both had close ties to the YM/YWCA movement and came into being during a time of great interest in the two-year “junior college” idea. The junior college movement emerged in the early 20thcentury from the recognition that a high school diploma was insufficient training for many forms of skilled employment. Many junior colleges were originated in the belief that two years of college work could either qualify students for good jobs or enable them to pursue a four-year degree elsewhere.

In 1939, when the founders of Hartford Junior College (HCW) found out about Wilson’s plans, they requested that Wilson establish Hillyer as a single-sex institution for men, fearing that Hillyer might draw young women away from HCW. However, Hillyer Institute had already become coed in 1928. Reverting to single-sex education was not practical. Hillyer Junior College began offering an associate's degree in 1937. Hillyer evolved into a four-year baccalaureate degree program in 1947. In 1957 Hillyer would be one of the three schools that merged to form the University of Hartford.

During this period, the male trustees were among the most indefatigable supporters of HCW. Howell Cheney of the Cheney Mills family in Manchester, Conn. had been a Mount Holyoke trustee; he stepped into the breach when Mount Holyoke discontinued the Hartford program. In 1939 the college was incorporated as Hartford Junior College, and Cheney became the first chairman of the board. That same year, the school moved from the YWCA on Ann Street to a shingle-style house at 47 Highland Street in West Hartford, Conn. (now demolished). A two- year program was now offered and courses in chemistry, economics, sociology, European history, and the history of art were added to the curriculum.

Faculty from the local men’s colleges, Wesleyan and Trinity, had helped to supplement the faculty from the start of the new college and continued to do so. Although the college developed a strong core faculty of full-time professors, faculty from other institutions taught on a part-time basis throughout the history of the school.

There is no statistical information available regarding the religious and ethnic background of the students of Mount Holyoke in Hartford or Hartford Junior College during the early years. It seems likely that local Catholic girls were more likely to attend St. Joseph’s College, especially after St. Joseph’s received accreditation. However, a scan of early yearbooks suggests that Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish girls all attended Hartford Junior College. Although most students were of white, northern European descent, African American and other American women of color, as well as international students of East-Asian, Middle-Eastern, and Asian background, were also represented albeit in smaller numbers. In a 1983 oral history interview, alumna Paula Polivy recalled 15 students in her class. “Five Jewish, one black, one Persian, one Greek… in those days it didn’t mean a thing... We were all friends together… [It was] a marvelous place.”

First Dean Helen Randall 1939-40

Helen Randall, Hartford Junior College’s first chief administrator, was given the title of dean. Randall held a doctorate from Yale University and came to Hartford on leave from a teaching position in the English Department at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Randall was apparently somewhat remote from the students, although she was thoroughly dedicated to the college. Sheonly served one year before returning to teaching at Smith College, where she had a distinguished teaching career and eventually became dean in 1948. Randall retired from Smith in 1973 and died in 2000.
In addition to teaching and administrative duties, Randall endured a lack of privacy since she was given an apartment in the Highland Street House as part of her compensation.
Randall’s 1983 oral history interview details her perceptions of the earliest days. According to Randall, the college was on shaky financial ground from the very beginning. Randall was disappointed in the Highland Street house and believed it was a “makeshift arrangement.” Dorothy Pietrallo, one of the first trustees, recalled that the financial pressures “never eased.”
Randall, like Woolley, was particularly appalled by the inadequacy of the library. Randall bought many of the college’s books at an estate auction. Other books were donated by well wishers. Randall also purchased lumber and built the first bookshelves herself. Professor Oliver Butterworth recollected that the “library” in the Highland Street house consisted of bookshelves along the walls that were blocked by large pieces of furniture. According to Butterworth, students were reluctant to use a book if retrieving it entailed moving the furniture.

Randall remembered the students as “dressed in city clothes” but not having “much style.” She did feel that they were an earnest group of young people, and not given to “escapades or pranks.” Randall believed that the quality of education offered at the college was “commensurate with that of the best women’s colleges in the East.”

With the departure of Helen Randall in 1940, trustee Clement Hyde took over many of the carpentry duties at the college. He built additional bookshelves and cabinets when they were needed. Hyde taught physics and mathematics at Hartford High School. Many years later, when the new laboratories were named in his honor at HCW, his former Hartford High School students contributed $11,000 toward the construction, documenting the friendly association that had developed between the Hartford public schools and the college.

In 1940 the subject of cooperation with Hillyer College was raised again, but rejected by the trustees on the grounds that the educational missions of the two colleges were significantly different. Hillyer offered a terminal two-year associates degree. While Alan Wilson and his colleagues worked hard to develop a strong liberal arts curriculum at Hillyer, it remained primarily a technical and business school. Hartford Junior College, by contrast, was planned as a two-year foundational program that would lead to a four-year liberal arts degree.

Second Dean, Grace Frick 1940-43

A scholar of French language and literature, Grace Frick became the second dean of Hartford Junior College in 1940. She taught English at HJC in addition to fulfilling her administrative duties. A native of Kansas City, Mo., she was a 1925 graduate of Wellesley College. She received an master's from Wellesley two years later. Frick completed additional academic work at both Yale and the University of Kansas. She had taught previously at Stephens Junior College for Women at Columbia, Mo., and at Barnard College of Colombia University before coming to HJC.

Frick was faced with the impact of World War II which eventually reinforced the need for women’s education. Women stepped into careers formerly open primarily to men and took over family businesses as men departed for service in the armed forces. Although enrollment at the college dropped during the war, the trustees felt that they needed to keep the college afloat for the duration. They predicted that the next generations of women would increasingly expect education of a high caliber after learning during the war that they could handle professions and trades formerly viewed as masculine.

Today Grace Frick is best known because of her lifelong relationship with Belgian writer Marguerite Yourcenar. The two first met in 1937 in Paris. Later, while Frick was taking courses at Yale in New Haven, Conn., Yourcenar came to the United States to avoid the disruptions in Europe caused by the war. The two began to share an apartment in 1939 while Frick was teaching at Barnard.

Yourcenar later joined Frick in Hartford. Unlike Dean Randall, Grace Frick did not live on campus. She and Yourcenar lived together in an apartment building at 549 Prospect Ave. in West Hartford and kept the apartment until April 1951. Yourcenar taught at Hartford Junior College beginning in1941, teaching French literature and art history for free. The two women were active in the intellectual and artistic circles in Hartford during their years of residence. Youcenar also commuted to Bronxville, N. Y. during this period to teach at Sarah Lawrence College.

Frick initially left Hartford College for Women for a teaching position at Connecticut College for Women in New London, Conn. in 1943. Frick became Yourcenar’s translator and continued in that role until her own death. The two finally settled in 1950 at Mount Desert Island in Maine. Grace Frick died in 1979.

The first two administrators of the college had been exceptional scholars but had now moved on to careers focusing on teaching in the case of Randall and research and translation in the case of Frick. Although these first two deans had served very briefly, the administrator who followed Grace Frick would be the woman who most fully defined Hartford College for Women.


Barstow, Jane, and Mary Merritt. "A Woman’s Place; the First Fifty Years of Hartford College for Women." exhibit catalog and essay, University of Hartford Archives, Hartford College for Women Collection, 1983.

Butterworth, Oliver. "Hartford College: The First Twenty-Five Years." unpublished manuscript, University of Hartford Archives, Hartford College for Women Collection,1964.

Graham, Bess. "History of Mount Holyoke in Hartford." Unpublished manuscript prepared for the 25th anniversary of Hartford College foe Women, The University of Hartford Archives, Hartford College for Women Collection. 1964.

Lyman-Farquhar, Christine. "Bibi Constanem Esse." Unpublished manuscript, The University of Hartford Archives, Hartford College for Women Collection, 1988.

Rousseau, G. S.. Yourcenar. Life and times. London: Haus, 2004.

Savigneau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a life, trans. Joan E. Howard. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

University of Hartford. 1998. A University for Hartford, a University for the World: A short history of the University of Hartford.

University of Hartford Archives, Hartford College for Women Collection, especially Administrators Series.

The next installment in this series will be:

The Laura Johnson Years
Laura Johnson, Third Dean (1943-58) and
First President (1958-76) of Hartford College for Women


  1. I'm happy to find numerous useful info here in the post. I would really like to come back again right here for likewise good articles or blog posts. Thanks for sharing...
    Top MBA Colleges in Bangalore
    MBA Colleges in Bangalore

  2. Buy and sell new and used modern, outdoor, office, bedroom and home furniture.
    Choose from a great selection of gently used furniture for every room in your home.
    More here click here