The Debate Over Sex Segregation

By the turn of the century, undergraduate admissions and the percentage of women students were increasingly rapidly.  By 1902, women were in the majority of students elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.  Disturbed by these trends, the administration pursued a controversial policy to limit the coeducational experience for undergraduates, who had followed the same curriculum during the University's first decade.

In February 1902 the University Senate voted thirteen to eight to approve what Harper referred to as the "so called segregation" of the sexes in the first two years of undergraduate study.  Men and women would be admitted to the University on equal terms but would be instructed in separate classes until their third year. 

Objections to this proposal poured in from faculty, parents, friends, and neighbors of the University.  That July, fifty-eight University instructors-including Marion Talbot and John Dewey-urged a reconsideration of the proposal. They complained that the plan was a vague and misguided "first step in the overthrow of co-education."  The dissenters valued the "intellectual association" of young men and women in the classroom and argued that sex segregation was a step backwards for women's education in general and a blow to the self-esteem of women undergraduates in particular.

Despite complaints, the Board of Trustees approved sex segregation in the Junior College in time for the 1902-03 academic year.  Some administrators simply explained sex segregation as "a matter of expediency," given the crowded conditions in Cobb Hall's classrooms.  Critics of sex segregation countered that administrators and board members feared the "effeminizing" impact of increasing numbers of women undergraduates.  Marion Talbot even reported to President Harper that she heard rumors  "the women will soon be put off the campus."  A topic of unending administrative debate, Chicago's attempt at "adapted coeducation" ended without fanfare just a few years later.