Many Kenyon students would describe the College as a “bubble,” having little contact with the greater community, and this was particularly true when Kenyon was an all-male institution. Kenyon opened its doors to women in 1969, and female students were finally an integral part of the community, participating not only academically, but also in campus life and previously all-male traditions. This was not the first time, however, that women were educated in Gambier. From 1887 to 1937, a preparatory school called Harcourt Place Seminary for Young Ladies and Girls existed where Norton, Lewis and Gund Residence Halls stand today. The school had a tense relationship with Kenyon, even though they were adjacent institutions.
According to an article by former Kenyon President Robert A. Oden, the school was originally home to Bishop Charles Pettit McIlvaine, who succeeded Philander Chase, both as Bishop of Ohio and as president of the College. After he moved, his house became the Harcourt Place School of Boys, which closed in the early 1880s, before it became a seminary school for girls. “There is even a sense in which Harcourt Place Seminary can be called the location of Gambier’s first college education for women, this because the seminary’s faculty was supplemented by no fewer than four Kenyon professors and because the seminary did offer a two-year post-high-school course,” said Oden.
The school had a positive reputation outside of Gambier, as many of the women who attended went on to attend prestigious co-ed colleges. Unfortunately, Harcourt shut down during the Great Depression, and the closure was hardly mourned by Kenyon students, according to Linda Urban ’70 in a 1969 Collegian article. She claimed that the Harcourt students and Kenyon students had barely gotten to know each other.
While Harcourt Place Seminary for Young Ladies and Girls was adjacent to campus, there was very little overlap between the communities. A look into the Collegian archives reveals that the male students made little effort to make the female students at Harcourt feel welcome, and Harcourt itself, as an institution, had many rules in place to ensure separation. Shortly after the school was founded, faculty at Harcourt grew concerned that male students were harassing the girls, so a rule was implemented that the girls were only allowed on Kenyon’s campus on Thursdays. A moment that sparked further controversy was when they were not allowed to attend Kenyon’s Junior Promenade. “The officials at the school outlawed the event because the ‘forbidden round dancing’ would be allowed. In retaliation, the Kenyon men arranged to transport girls from a Columbus finishing school,” wrote Urban. An 1887 issue of the Collegian made it clear that Kenyon students were frustrated with Harcourt’s strict policies, though this just caused them to withdraw from any relationship with the school rather than oppose the enforced divide. “It is fair to say that the great majority of students have now no desire to associate with the young ladies of the seminary not that they do not appreciate the young ladies themselves and would be glad to form their acquaintance, but … they do not care to be placed under obligation to, nor receive favors from the seminary authorities,” wrote one student. Though Kenyon was clearly unable to foster a relationship with the school, 30 years after Harcourt’s closure the College was finally able to integrate women into the community, where they now make up 56% of the student body.