Elizabeth Female Academy could be U.S’s first women’s college

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 29, 2009

According to historian Jeanne Middleton Forsythe, in the book “Natchez before 1830,” “One of the myths of Southern history, and one particularly associated with the Natchez region, is that all white women aspired to be the stereotypical plantation mistress and therefore spent all of their time mastering needlepoint, the mint julep, and the 22-inch waistline.”

However, with the establishment of Elizabeth Female Academy in 1818, the Methodist church gave many young ladies in the area the opportunity of receiving a liberal education not available to most young women at the time.

The Mississippi Legislature officially chartered and incorporated the Elizabeth Female Academy in February 1818.

The charter stated that it was to be established near the town of Washington, and named in honor of the founder, Elizabeth Greenfield Roach.

According to historian Linda Walker Green, Roach donated the buildings and 104 acres for the school’s establishment.

According to Methodist Bishop Charles B. Galloway, in a 1902 article he wrote for the Mississippi Historical Society about the academy, it was the first institution chartered for the higher education for women in the South — maybe even the United States and the first to offer degrees to women.

However, this claim is disputed by some scholars, who argue that it was chartered as a secondary preparatory school, and that Wesleyan College in Georgia was the first college for women to earn their degrees.

However, it must be argued that the curriculum for the senior class was at the college level for the first session. Classes included chemistry, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, botany, Latin, Aesop’s Fables, Sacra Historia and Roman illustres, while the second session classes offered intellectual philosophy, evidences of Christianity, mythology, general history, Latin and Caesar’s Bella Gallacia.

Students who successfully completed these courses were awarded a diploma for the degree of Domina Scientarum. Elizabeth Female Academy granted these degrees many years before the founding of Wesleyan College.

Before the founding of the academy, many young ladies attended school at nearby Jefferson College. It was founded in 1802, but actual classes did not begin until 1811.

However, once Elizabeth Female Academy started in November 1818, Jefferson College lost its female students. This loss of tuition hurt Jefferson College financially and forced the school to modernize its curriculum to attract more male students, which included its first military program in 1829.

Over the next 25 years, the school educated many young ladies in the Natchez area.

However, the depression of the early 1840s hit the institution hard, and many students were not able to pay tuition.

This loss of students and finances forced the institution to close its doors in 1843, bringing to an end what Bishop Galloway called “the mother of female colleges.”

Clark Burkett is a historian at Historic Jefferson College.