The First College for Women in the West ~ by Kathleen Denly

When we think of the western frontier, few of us picture a young woman seated at her desk, studying English grammar, yet many would argue that the West was shaped as much by education as by anything else. Thus, when I learned of the pioneering institution known at its inception as the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Benicia, California, I was immediately intrigued. Established in 1852, it was the first school of higher learning created for women west of the Rockies and continues today as Mills College.

Despite the word seminary in its name, the school’s purpose was not to prepare its pupils to be priests, ministers, or rabbis. It was established to fulfill the perceived educational needs of the daughters of California’s Protestant Christian families. The original trustees were concerned that the pioneering families of the West were forced to choose between forgoing a higher education for their daughters or sending them on a long ocean voyage to New York, potentially severing family ties.

Thus the school was established while the gold rush was still in full swing and Benicia was California’s capital. According to the school’s early catalogues, its aim was “to train healthy, companionable, self-reliant women—those prepared to be useful and acceptable in the school, in the family, and in society.” To that end, the teachers deemed it important for their students to “be able to spell correctly, to read naturally, to write legibly, and to converse intelligently.” The young ladies of the school performed regular recitations at which family and select members of the public were often invited to attend. In addition to an English course of study, the school offered what they called “ornamental branches” of study which included “instrumental music (pianoforte and guitar), drawing, crayoning, painting (in water colors and oils) and ornamental needle work.” (Keep, 1931)

Initially many of the school’s students came from the nearby cities such as San Francisco, Marysville, Sacramento, and Stockton, but most came from Mother Lode camps such as Hangtown, Park’s Bar, Rough and Ready, Angels Camp, and more. A few students also came from the southern part of the Golden State, which is where my heroine, Clarinda Humphrey, hails from in my novel, Sing in the Sunlight. Keeping in mind the incredible fluctuation of fortunes and social status going on in California during this time period, the idea of young women from such varied backgrounds coming to Benicia to learn and live beneath the same roof is fascinating. What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall of the Young Ladies’ Seminary in those early days.

I think I’d have planted myself on the shoulder of those early principals first, though. It seems they had a terrible habit of forgoing their duties to pedagogy in favor of matrimony. The romantic in me is incredibly curious about how those courtships began and progressed. Further adding to my curiosity surrounding the school’s romances is the manner in which the school’s students were required to attend church.

Escorted to church each Sunday by their principal, the students were required to sit at the rear of the church in the upper gallery near the organ so that they would be out of sight of the young men present. My guess, though, is that more than one man gained a crick in his neck during services. What do you think?

Source:  Keep, R. (1931) Fourscore Years, A History of Mills College



I’m excited to share with you that Sing in the Sunlight, book two of my Chaparral Hearts series which features the Young Ladies’ Seminary, is currently on preorder.

So today, I’m giving away a signed copy of Waltz in the Wilderness, book one in the series. Leave a comment below to enter. (International Winners will receive a digital copy of the book & signed bookmark in place of printed book. Void where prohibited.)

How influential was your college experience, or lack of it, in creating who you are today?


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54 thoughts on “The First College for Women in the West ~ by Kathleen Denly”

  1. I never had the opportunity to go to college. I’m more street smart than anything. Learning first hand is somewhat better I think.

  2. I paid my way by working while attending college and graduated on time. I value my college degree a lot and it helped shape me in endless ways. On my mom’s side, I was the first 4-year graduate. On my dad’s side, only my cousin Sheryl had a 4-year degree, at that time–she now has a Master’s. We were the first people in my family with 4-year degrees (I don’t think anyone had a 2-year degree, one cousin went to a med tech school, and we’re all women!


  3. Never went to college but did go to business school. I think I’m much more street smart, always on the lookout for a good deal when shopping but also now how to stretch a dollar as far as you can. College is great for some but I’m glad for the smarts I have.

  4. What an interesting history California has. Benicia is just down the road from me here in Antioch. I went to college as an adult working wife and mom so my college experience was night classes and late nights studying. I’m not sure it shaped me much but it did provide knowledge in topics I wasn’t familiar with and the degree allowed me to change careers.

  5. My college education certainly helped shaped me. I was a poor girl from the Appalachian Mountains who miraculously had a love for language and history. I had always loved to read and knew how to study, so that helped. I became a teacher and went on to get my Master’s degree. Education is a gateway to new beginnings and wider vistas.

  6. My college experience was extremely Important in defining who I am today. I had one particular professor who changed my life. He is the sole reason I took a gamble in life and moved from Texas To Kansas to start a career which I never dreamed would have me still in Kansas 26 years later.
    So I’d say my college experience was life changing and has truly aided me unto the person I am today.

    • I always wondered how you ended up in Kansas, now I know. I’m not so sure I would have had the courage to do that. There was a point when my Daddy wanted me to move to Florida to work at a baby Calf farm but I just didn’t want to head off that far on my own.

    • Isn’t it amazing how God can place that perfect person in our lives to say exactly what we need to hear at the exact time we need to hear it? I’m curious what career kept you in Kansas and why you love it so much. 🙂

      • I came up here to work for a huge swine operation. I was alway a horse & cattle fall, but I fell in love with piggies in college. So I spent 20 years working on pig farms. I know, it’s not glamour jus, but it truly was a job I loved.
        The last 6 1/2 years I’ve been a Livestock Inspector for the State Of Kansas and it’s my swine career which helped get my foot in the door to this amazing job that takes me all over SW Kansas, I inspect feedyards, dairy’s, and of course Swine operations. I love it! .

  7. Well, my college experience led me to meeting my husband, so that’s been a big influence in my life. 🙂 Beyond that, my degree in education I feel has made me a better mother as I’ve been able to help my children learn and grow, as well as recognize their unique strengths and weaknesses.

    • Hmm. Yes, I would think a husband would have some effect on a woman’s life. 😉 I know what you mean about your education helping you raise your kids. I took several classes through a community college with the idea of earning my teaching degree. I never completed the degree (long story) but the things I learned in those classes has made be a better teacher for our four children whom we homeschool.

  8. Most things I learned was first hand. I didn’t have any college experience until I was in my forties so it didn’t help much on influencing my life. So that education didn’t help much with my life.

  9. I didn’t attend college. I got married and raised a family. I have read extensively and learned a lot of common sense. Have not missed a college education.

    • College definitely isn’t a necessity for everyone and I can’t think of much that’s more important than raising a family. We’re raising our kids to see college as an optional tool that can come in handy depending on the career path they want to pursue.

    • Thank you! College isn’t a necessary part of life, but if it’s something you’re interested in, I don’t think it’s ever too late to try. I’ve heard of people in their eighties going to college. So long as a person wants to learn in that environment and has the means to do so, I say, go for it. 🙂

  10. I have quite a few college hours and need to go back and finish my degree someday. I unfortunately landed a great job as the the store cash room auditor at a Dillard’s Department store when we lived and I was attending the University of Texas at El Paso, UTEP. With that and getting married I made the mistake of not completing college. That decision to not complete my degree affects me to this day. I’m disabled with Multiple Sclerosis but I’m at a good point for the first time in this 16 year journey and if I had my degree and could get a high enough paying job with great benefits I could go back to work. With the high expenses of my illness due to procedures, medications, tests, doctors visits and such I can’t afford to go out and get an everyday job that doesn’t pay enough or more importantly have the benefits needed to replace my Social Security Disability Check and Medicare benefits. It’s a hard position to be stuck in.

    • Having a degree does open many doors that would otherwise be closed, but I’ve been hearing about more and more industries being open to considering life experience and self education in place of a degree. I’m so sorry that your illness has limited your life as it has. I’ll be praying that God opens the right doors for you. 🙂

  11. Welcome. Congratulations on your newest book. This is an interesting post. Yes I agree, I bet also that a lot of young men would get cricks in their necks. I mean – hello – pretty, available, church going girls. I went to Jr College. But I only studied French, Art, and Piano. This was only for one year. Than I went to work for my dad. A year later I started dating my now husband. We have now been married for 37 years 🙂

    • Thank you so much. I chuckle every time I imagine that church scene. Bonjour! I took three years of high school French and two years in community college. I love the language, but living in Southern California–especially writing characters set here in the 1800s–makes me wish I’d studied Spanish instead. Fortunately, I have several good friends who are native speakers and help me check the Spanish I include in my stories. Sounds like you’re pretty happy with your life, so I’d say you made the right decisions. 😉

  12. Through my college experience, I met some wonderful friends, I was able to become a teacher and work with precious children.

  13. My college experience led to life long relationships. It developed my love for music and singing. Remember the hippie era … well, I learned that hippies weren’t so bad after all. I loved my college days. So enjoyed your blog today. I agree, I bet a few guys got cricks in their neck checking out the girls. Some things just don’t change. Happy Thanksgiving to your family.

  14. My college experience gave me independence. I learned to rely upon myself, to try new things and to save my money. I loved the experience.

  15. My college experience helped me come out of my shyness shell and I went on to become a teacher.Heaven knows you can’t be shy and talk in front of teens all day.

    • You know it’s funny, I can talk to a room full of kids (any age) until the cows come home, but put me in front of a group of adults and I literally start shaking. I push through it and actually don’t mind the experience, but it gets my adrenaline pumping out of control every time.

    • I think it’s important for people to be aware of their learning styles. It’s great that you know yours and are confident about doing what’s right for you. I’m glad you found the post interesting. 🙂

  16. This is so interesting. I assumed women had to go back East to go to college back then. I did go to college and became a registered nurse. That has definitely impacted my life in many ways.

    • Yes, that’s what would have thought as well until I found out about this school. Their ideas of essential subjects to study were a bit different than what you’d find in today’s colleges, of course, but the school was still pretty progressive for its time.

  17. Kathleen, Thank you for this fascinating post! I have an Associate’s Degree in Office Administration. I went to college close to home. Your cover is gorgeous!

    Happy Friday!

    • Thank you. I’m so glad you found the post fascinating. You and I could have some talks over office administration. I spent some time working as an office manager for a real estate company in one of the wealthiest cities in our county. I have got some humdinger stories to share, let me tell you. 🙂

  18. I never went to college but wish I would have! My choice would have been Michigan University. GO BLUE!!!!

  19. They used to say “college broadens your horizons” and it certainly did for me. Being at a Land Grant University there were students from all over the world. I worked with a girl from Ghana, got to know a man from Guyana and became friends with an exchange student from Sweden. There was also a very diverse population of students from the US. Because we were Land Grant there were farm kids like myself only there thanks to scholarships and on campus jobs and there were rich kids driving Corvettes and Jaguars. It was an eye opening experience that I am very thankful for. One of the things I learned is not everyone needs a four year degree. Some students were there because of parental pressure and it was a struggle for them emotionally and academically. They would have been much happier at a two year school or a tech program or working.

    • I completely agree that each person needs to choose the path that’s right for them. I had a similar experience of broadened horizons through my time with the Youth With a Mission. I did their Discipleship Training School right after graduating high school and met people from all over the world. I still keep in touch with many of the people I met then. My particular team wound up volunteering in an orphanage in China. Nineteen years later I adopted my daughter from China (different city/orphanage).

  20. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post, I loved reading it and I learned some things I didn’t know . I did not go to college, I did want to become a nurse, but I never pursued it, I guess I followed my heart of being a wife and a mother of which I would not trade for anything in the world. Your books sound like great reads, I know i have been eyeing your book A Waltz in The Wilderness for a while, your book covers are Beautiful. Have a Great weekend and stay safe. God Bless you and your family.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Both my mother and my sister are nurses, actually. (Although my mom is retired.) It’s a very demanding profession, especially this year. However, being a wife and mom are just as important. I’m glad you don’t regret your choices. I, too, am pleased with the covers for my novels. The designer my publisher hires is very talented and easy to work with. I hope you enjoy a happy and healthy holiday season.

  21. Kathleen, thank you for uninteresting post. I had to check on Mills College, primarily to see if they had retained any of the old buildings. They have and the old main building has been beautifully restored and is Mills Hall, the administration building with President’s office and student areas. It is a lovely, small school. It is still a woman’s college at the undergraduate level, but does allow men for graduate school.
    As for my college experience, in many ways it wasn’t much different from high school. I lived at home and rode to classes with my parents. I continued my babysitting jobs to pay for school. The main difference was more flexibility, extra activities, and the cost. I really enjoyed the clubs I belonged to and the opportunities they presented. It did prepare me pretty well for my becoming a Peace Corps volunteer working in elementary science education. It would have been nice to have lived on campus for at least one year, but even way back then, it was more than I could afford.
    Stay safe and healthy. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  22. Thank you for sharing such wonderful information. I had no idea. It is wonderful that an importance of education was place on women in the west during this time. I know from my family history, a lot of children were lucky to receive a sixth grade education because they were needed to work. There was not an importance of education in the family.

  23. I enjoyed reading your post. Congratulations on your new book! I only went to jr. college. I then went on to work in my parents property management business.

  24. I had the chance to go to college, took a few classes at a local college, realized it wasn’t for me, and quit. All I really wanted was to do was to be a mama! So that’s what I did! ? Great post! I’m looking forward to reading your new book!

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