The Magazine of South Carolina

A New Class of Women


   Dr. Caroline Whitson, Columbia College's new president

Breed Leadership Institute

Art students at work

The soccer team at play

Students enjoy a moment of relaxation

The Barbara Bush Center for Science and Technology

By Jim Poindexter Jr.

It was a bold and progressive move. On February 8, 1854, representatives of the South Carolina Methodist Conference voted to establish Columbia Female College in Columbia in order "to educate young women for fruitful service to church, state and nation." Their enlightened decision came in an era when the topic of women’s education was hotly debated. In 1853, attendees at a Phi Beta Kappa address had been told, "The best diploma for a woman is a large family and a happy husband." The same year, an article in the Southern Christian Advocate argued that both sons and daughters must be well educated because "the yoke matrimonial sits heavily upon those between whom there exists a marked intellectual disparity."

Almost 150 years later, Columbia College remains dedicated to providing exceptional educational and leadership opportunities for women. With 38 majors, 23 minors and a premedical program, the college is a place where a community of women studying together fosters academic excellence, increased self-esteem and developmental success.

Columbia College is recognized as a national leader in the field of leadership development for women. The college’s Leadership Institute, established in 1990, consists of a leadership studies component for students - including a popular leadership minor - along with a lifelong leadership development component for women of all ages. In addition, the college offers diverse opportunities for students to apply and refine their leadership skills through on- and off-campus organizations and activities. The goal of the Leadership Institute is to train women to assume positions of leadership within their professions and communities, to be responsive to innovation and change throughout their lives, and to embrace a global society. The institute has been recognized for excellence by both the Kellogg Foundation and the Women’s College Coalition.

"The core values of Columbia College have not wavered since its founding 150 years ago," says Dr. Caroline Whitson, who became the college’s 17th president July 1, 2001. "The college continues to emphasize leadership development for women, building a collaborative community of scholars, learning in a global context, enhancing diversity, and service to the community. We want every one of our students to emerge from their years at Columbia College with the knowledge, leadership skills and courage to make a difference in her world."

Throughout its history, Columbia College has experienced both triumph and tragedy. Its story is one of an institution that has relied on its strength and endurance to become one of the leading liberal arts colleges for women in the South.

Columbia College officially opened as Columbia Female College on Plain Street (now Hampton) in downtown Columbia in 1859. That first semester, 121 women were enrolled, taught by 16 faculty members. Courses leading to a diploma included grammar, composition, arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, geography, history, botany, Latin, philosophy, religion, physiology and astronomy. For additional fees, students also could take French, music, drawing, painting and ornamental work.

Just six years later, the college was forced to close when Union troops marched on Columbia. It was saved from the torch only because music professor W.H. Orchard, having heard that all unoccupied buildings would be burned by a certain hour, left his home to stand in the doorway of the college where he could be seen by the troops.

After reopening in 1873, the college embarked on a three-decade growth period. The faculty and student body steadily increased in size, and the curriculum was expanded. An alumnae association was organized in 1882 - the fifth of its kind in the nation.

During the 1880s, tuition, room and board was $100 per year. For an extra dollar per month, washing could be procured. Students were required to dress in black during the winter, plain white muslin in the spring and summer, and white or colors while attending night exhibitions and other occasions - unless they were in mourning. Room inspections were held daily at 7:30 a.m., followed by breakfast and mandatory chapel services. Evening prayers were recited after supper. The "retiring bell" rang at 9:30 p.m.

In 1895, the college suffered the first of three fires that figure prominently in its history. Though minimal in damage, the fire was a harbinger of greater disasters to come.

Nevertheless, the turn of the century marked a high point for Columbia College. By 1900, the college was filled to capacity with more than 200 students, even though tuition had increased to $150 per year. In 1904, flush with a gift of land from F.H. Hyatt and community contributions, the college moved to its present site in north Columbia. Years later, Dr. Daniel McFarland, recalling the new campus, wrote:

What a proud sight it was. There were two hundred and twenty-four rooms in the new buildings. The hallways measured nearly a mile. The high dome above the Administration building could be seen at a great distance. There was an indoor gymnasium and the buildings all had steam heat and electricity. Few women’s colleges in the South could equal this new plant in size and beauty.

But four years later, the college lay in ruin. On September 9, 1909, fire destroyed the west wing, the three-story main administration building, science hall, dining room, music rooms, art studios, gymnasium and kitchen. Gone, too, were a new pipe organ, 39 of 40 pianos, and all the school’s furniture.

Remarkably, the college managed to open the fall session on September 23, as scheduled. Faculty, staff and students were moved to the old college buildings downtown. Construction of new facilities began immediately, and by September 1910, the Eau Claire campus was restored.

In coming years, the college struggled financially but continued to progress. During the 1920s, a separate building for the library was completed, the first alumnae were elected to the Board of Trustees, and the endowment reached $100,000 for the first time. After weathering the Depression, the college was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in 1938.

In the 1950s, an ambitious building program produced two dormitories, a student center, a classroom/administration building and Cottingham Theatre. In 1954, the college celebrated its centennial with a year-long series of events. Highlighting the celebration was The Columbia College Centennial Pageant, a historical drama written and directed by faculty member Anne Frierson Griffin and involving more than 100 faculty, students and staff.

Disaster would strike again, however. Shortly after midnight on February 12, 1964, flames erupted in Old Main, which housed dormitory space for 224 students; a 600-seat auditorium; the departments of music, art, business and English; business and faculty offices; classrooms and a small chapel. As firefighters battled the blaze, frightened students gathered in College Place United Methodist Church, where Dr. Wright Spears, president, told them, "Nothing has been destroyed that cannot be rebuilt." No lives were lost, but the fire caused $2 million in damage and destroyed a beloved campus landmark.

Again, Columbia College recovered. Buoyed by renewed interest and community support, the college continued its building program, opening a new library in 1967 and a physical education center four years later. Enrollment increased, and in the 1980s, the college created a new Evening College and additional graduate programs for both women and men.

Today, Columbia College consistently ranks as one of the top 10 regional liberal arts colleges in the South. Enrollment is 1,400 students from 21 states and 13 countries, approximately half of whom live on campus. Among the college’s notable features are a 12:1 student-faculty ratio, a nationally recognized honors program, and unique opportunities for field experience and travel/study in the U.S. and abroad. Forty-five percent of Columbia College alumnae enter graduate, law or medical school.

"Columbia College offers a unique choice in higher education," Whitson says. "The college is one of only 70 women’s colleges remaining in the United States. As a single-gender institution, we are able to provide learning and leadership experiences to young women that aren’t available to them at larger, coeducational colleges and universities."

The advantages of single-gender education for women are well documented. Research shows that men often receive preferential treatment in classroom situations. Even the brightest young women are sometimes hesitant to speak up in a coeducational environment, and teachers - both male and female - are more likely to call on male students.

At a women’s college, that kind of disparity reportedly does not exist. Women in single-gender institutions participate more fully in and out of class, have more opportunities to hold leadership positions, report greater satisfaction with their college experience, develop higher levels of self-esteem and score higher on standardized achievement tests. They also tend to choose traditionally male disciplines such as the sciences as academic majors.

Elizabeth Boozer, a senior majoring in speech language pathology, believes she is getting a better education at a women’s college than she would at a larger, co-ed university. "Because we are more comfortable in the classroom," she says, "we are able to explore topics and have discussions that would never be possible if there were male students in the room. We can talk openly and learn about the issues that are important to women."

Boozer, an honors student from Batesburg-Leesville and student leader at Columbia College, says an important advantage of attending a women’s college is the leadership opportunity. "Until my freshmen year at Columbia College, I knew of only a few female classmates who were leaders of student clubs or organizations. Here, all of the leadership roles on campus are held by women."

Whitson points to a real need for higher education focused on women. "Women’s colleges prepare women, personally and professionally, for the many roles they will assume in life. Columbia College will continue to concentrate on helping its students to become leaders in a technologically advanced, global community."

In a shaded corner of the Columbia College campus stands a gazebo supported by eight stately columns. Erected in 1979 as a gift from alumna Alawee Gibson Tucker, the columns recall the fire that destroyed Old Main in 1964. After the fire, only the columns of Old Main were left standing amid the ashes. Today, they are symbols of the strength and endurance of Columbia College.


For information, visit the the Web site at or call (803) 786-3012.


Jim Poindexter Jr. is publications and Web site designer for the Columbia College Office of Public Relations.


* Jane Castles Brooks, '58
* Nancy Burch Bunch, '72
* Judy Jones Cannon, '74
* Kathryn Verdery Cannon, '55
* Janet Alexander Cotter, '56
* MaryAnn Smith Crews, '59
* Ellen Claussen Davis, '72
* Sara Brabham Eastman, '42
* Helen Nelson Grant, '81
* Anne Turner Harrell, '57
* Clelia Derrick Hendrix, '41
* Annette Williams Lynn, M.D., '75
* Betty Ulmer McGregor, '51
* Dianne Smith McKay, '74
* Emil Burns Mitchell, '84
* Margie L. Mitchell, '83
* Rev. Dianne A. Moseley, '67
* Liz Johnston Patterson, '62
* Rebecca Baker Pugh, '62
* Mary Chandler Roper, '30
* Ann Buckwalter Salter, '55
* Shelby Davis Sansbury, '64
* Linda Sue Neal Smith, '64
* Carol Stackhouse, '74
* Mae Blackwell Thomson, '59
* Alawee Gibson Tucker, '39
* Patricia Cave Whitaker, '55
* Bootsie Harvie Wynne, '83

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