Wheaton welcomes male students
The July 1872 Rushlight reported that Mrs. Metcalf had tutored Harry Cobb, son of the Steward and Horsemanship teacher, and another girl and boy from Norton, every morning in her office. The Rushlight editor opined that “with the approval of the trustees the halls of Wheaton will probably soon be opened wide to both sexes.” Instead, Cobb was formally enrolled in regular French and drawing courses in 1873-74.
More remarkable, during the period of 1870s and early 1880s, approximately ten young Norton men were enrolled in the regular Seminary program. None of these males received degrees from Wheaton, although several remained long enough to advance from the preparatory course through the junior and junior middle classes. By completing the second year of Wheaton’s curriculum, they were ready for admission to any American college or university, the very purpose for their enrollment.
Although the first names of these young men did not appear in the student lists in the catalogues, an occasional sublisting of those taking special courses such as French, Latin, or drawing inadvertently used their first names. At no time were there more than six male students.
What was behind this temporary change in admission policy? Laban E. Wild, the son of George Wild Sr., was one of the young men who attended Wheaton for four years. Not only did he share the first name of Eliza Baylies Wheaton’s late husband and adopted son, his father was a cousin of Laban Morey Wheaton and acted as his business agent and secretary. George Wild, and later his son Alfred continued to perform these functions for Mrs. Wheaton. Young Laban Wild needed to prepare for admission to Brown University, and because Norton lacked a high school, attending Wheaton Seminary was his only means of obtaining the educational background he needed. His family’s connection to Mrs. Wheaton guaranteed that he would be granted special consideration, but he would not have been allowed to be the lone boy attending the Seminary. Other young men of his age were no doubt invited to join him at Wheaton.
Paul C. Helmreich, Wheaton Professor of History Emeritus, and author of Wheaton College, 1834-1957: a Massachusetts Family Affair, has identified other reasons for the Seminary’s 19th century experiment with coeducation. In April 1873, Mrs. Wheaton offered a gift of $12,000 toward boarding facilities, and three months later the Board resolved to “enlarge the accommodations in this Seminary as the emergencies of the institution and progress of education demand.” Why? Perhaps they knew that Wellesley and Smith Colleges would soon open with established endowments and offering Bachelor’s degrees to women, creating serious competition for Wheaton. Perhaps they realized that the larger towns surrounding Norton (Mansfield, Taunton, Easton and Attleboro) had high schools, while Norton and towns to the south (Dighton, Rehoboth, Berkley and Swansea) did not. The Trustees may have considered filling this gap for young men as a means to increase Wheaton’s enrollments and income, as well as the Seminary's reach and influence. The Trustees minutes never actually mention coeducation. Why not? Perhaps they acknowledged that few men would choose to obtain a Seminary certificate rather than a college degree, and were not, at the time, prepared for the inevitable result of Wheaton becoming a college preparatory school.
For further details, see Paul C. Helmriech, Wheaton College, 1834-1957: A Massachusetts Family Affair, Cornwall Books, 2002.