First lady: Mary Low's legacy
On a hot and muggy day in 1875, the College’s senior class valedictorian stood before the class of 1875 at their commencement ceremony. For one of few times in the College’s history, however, the valedictorian was not permitted to address the rest of the graduating class. Instead, the valedictorian merely recited the class prophecy in Latin while the salutatorian gave the address. This unusual arrangement was due to the fact that the the valedictorian was wearing a dress. She was the first woman to be accepted to the College, and although she outperformed the 19 men in her class, she was not allowed to speak at commencement. Her name was Mary Low Carver, and she was one of the very first women in the U.S. to obtain a college degree.
Despite the fact that Low has been called “the grandmother of coeducation at Colby,” most students only know Mary Low as “the dorm over by Foss.” So who exactly was Colby’s first female student, and what made the college decide to accept female students after accepting men for 58 years.
In 1871 the College was suffering from dire financial straits. In his book The History of Colby College, Ernest Marriner notes, “As the [Civil] War progressed, the financial condition of the college grew steadily worse. In spite of the valiant efforts of…members of the faculty, who turned themselves into door-to-door beggars all over the state, very little money was collected.” The trustees knew that they needed to draw in new students, but the war had drastically decreased
the number of eligible college-aged men in Maine. In an attempt to rescue the College financially, the trustees decided to open enrollment to women.
The College accepted only one female student the year following this decision, Waterville native Mary Low Carver. Low, the second daughter of Ira Hobbs Low and Ellen Caffrey Low, attended both public school and the Classical Institute. After teaching for three years, Low enrolled at the College. During her first two years at the College, she was the only woman. She stated, “The unmodified coeducational system of [her college years] placed us all, men and women, on terms of perfect equality. We recited and attended all college exercises together and contended on the same terms for all honors and prizes.”
Two years after her acceptance, other women began to enroll at the College. In December of 1874, Colby’s five female students came together to found the Sigma Kappa sorority. The sorority provided its members with literary and intellectual support, and was an integral part of campus life.
Low graduated as both the valedictorian of her class and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Although her academic achievements should have secured women’s acceptance to the college for years to come, her success had the opposite effect. In 1890, only a few years after Low graduated, the Board of Trustees proposed to divide the college into two gender-segregated divisions, and sought different curriculum requirements for female students so as to prepare them for their future roles as homemakers.
Low vehemently opposed the trustees’ proposition, which she viewed as a step backward in the fight for gender equality in education. In a letter to fellow alumna Louise Coburn, Low asked, “We can’t change anything, but is it right and best for us to remain silent and readily assent to this?”
Low then composed a sixteen-page document outlining the importance of coeducation. She encouraged the College’s female graduates to sign the pamphlet, and she in fact succeeded in securing about two-thirds of the women’s signatures. But the effort didn’t persuade the Board members to change their minds, and the College was segregated by gender until the 1960s.
Aside from this activist effort, Low’s life after Colby was relatively low-key. She married Leonard D. Carver of the class of 1868, and the couple had two children, Dwight and Ruby. Dwight died during childhood, and Ruby followed in her mother’s footsteps by enrolling at the College and joining the Sigma Kappa sorority.
Low worked at the Maine State Library for 20 years, devoting much of her time to developing a card-cataloging system. She spent her free hours giving public addresses on literature and history and traveling in Europe with her daughter. She lived the last years of her life in Cambridge, MA with Ruby and her husband.
Mary Low’s academic success set the bar high for other women, and she demonstrated an unparalleled commitment to coeducation at the College. Years after she received her own degree, she continued to encourage and motivate other women. In a half-centennial speech at Sigma Kappa, Low urged her sisters to “carry on the light, the little torch we were privileged to kindle so long ago…guard the flame with care…so shall it shine.”