Back Then

When Richmond College opened its doors in 1830 to young Baptist men studying arts and sciences, the suffrage movement was still decades away. But women were inching open other doors, and Baptists concluded that they should educate their daughters, too. In 1854, Richmond Female Institute was born.

A precursor to Westhampton College, Richmond Female Institute provided a junior college education to women hungry for an academic experience high school couldn’t satisfy. Still, they could not earn bachelor’s degrees like their Richmond College counterparts because, in the eyes of the general public, their purpose was to become wives and mothers.

Frederic Boatwright, an advocate for women’s education equality, had a divergent view as a professor at Richmond Female Institute and then president of Richmond College. In 1894, he began pushing for Richmond College to admit women. As president, he convinced the Board of Trustees to grant opportunities to qualified women for the 1897–98 school year, although the first three women wouldn’t matriculate until the fall of 1898.

But Boatwright wasn’t satisfied. With the support of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, he led an effort to establish a women’s college under the Richmond College administration. The association determined that the Richmond Female Institute — now called Richmond College for Women — had “far outgrown its accommodations.” More young women were asserting their right to education, and Boatwright thought they should benefit from Richmond College’s resources, even if it dissatisfied prospective male students.

Some Richmond College students did not want women at their school. After female students created the Coed Club, male students formed the Anti-Coed Club. That didn’t stop women from earning degrees as some of their male peers fumed.

Though Boatwright personally supported coeducation, where men and women take classes together, he publicly supported a coordinate system of separate classes within the institution for men and women. However, he decided not to pursue it “until the college was strong enough, financially, to legislate in the face of public opinion,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. In 1911, his idea to create a nearly autonomous women’s college garnered enough financial support to begin construction on the land the University of Richmond occupies today.

Graduates of the dissolving Richmond Collge for Women were eligible to apply for Westhampton College when it opened in 1914. For decades afterward, alumnae of Richmond College for Women and the Richmond Female Institute joined Westhampton College alumnae for social events to celebrate their successful struggle for education and the sisterhood that came of it.