On March 3, Olivet College hosted an event to advocate for and inspire young women as leaders. As part of the Presidential Women’s Leadership Initiative, Olivet College presented “Cultivating Women Leaders: Embracing Our Inner Strength.” Olivet students, as well as prospective students who attended the event, took part in breakout sessions and discussions about what it takes to be a female leader, and had the opportunity to listen to successful Olivet College alumnae, as well as keynote speaker, two-time Olympic silver medalist Danielle Scott-Arruda.
Even before this year, Olivet College’s commitment to the success of women has been evident in its history. While our culture has seen women in history as lagging in educational, civic and other opportunities, Olivet College stood as an opportunity for women since its founding. While other higher education institutions were exclusive to white males who could afford tuition, Olivet was founded for all people, regardless of gender, color, or social status. In past Olivet College catalogues, female students at Olivet can be traced back to at least 1845. In fact, in 1846, the student population at Olivet was a whopping 54 percent. Women received the same education as their male counterparts at Olivet; they learned alongside men, and took the same classes, like inorganic chemistry, Greek and Latin, among other uncommon subjects for women to be learning at the time. In fact, Olivet College’s first graduates were three women who make up the class of 1863: Mary N. Barber, Sara A. Benedict and Sophia A. Keyes.
The late 19th century shows a high percentage of female students at Olivet, and by the early 20th century, OC Archives materials show that the college became similar to what we see today, with the term “Women’s Department” left behind in the 1800s. Women’s opportunities were not exclusive to white women. At Olivet College, international women attended as early as 1909 (it is also possible Olivet had international women students before this date).
During the early days at Olivet, women also had the opportunity to be involved and lead outside of the classroom as well. Soronian was established as one of the nation’s first female literary societies at Olivet; it was originally founded in 1847 as the Young Ladies’ Literary Society, named the Erodelphian Society in 1856, before evolving into the Soronian Society in 1868.
Athletics at Olivet also provided women with opportunities. Organized athletics for women can be seen at Olivet College as early as the late 1800s. As a founding member of the MIAA, not only did Olivet College help found America’s first athletic conference, but women began competing and winning within a decade. Unfortunately, there are few sources about women’s athletics dating so far back, but Olivet College catalogues do show women who were MIAA Champion tennis players from 1898-1910.
Ultimately, it is nothing new for Olivet to care about its female students just as much as its males. In fact, here, it is tradition. The Cultivating Women Leaders event is proof that Olivet College has, and will continue, to be an institution that develops great leaders and successful alumnae.