Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rebecca Gratz: NOT the First American Female College Student

Of all the "Tall Tales about Rebecca," this is one of the most annoying. Unlike the deathbed scene between Rebecca and Matilda Hoffman which was the product of faulty memory, the college girl story is based on enthusiasm run amok and a disregard for easily accessible facts.

Sadly, it starts with a primary document from the era: the roll of Franklin College, Lancaster, PA, January to April, 1788. On it is very clearly written the name of Richea Gratz, Rebecca's older sister, who was at this time fourteen years old. Someone, in the first half of the twentieth century, saw this and read it as "Rebecca Gratz." Perhaps since "Richea" had virtually died out as an American girl's name, the reader thought it was a misspelling of Rebecca or a form of "Rivka," the Hebrew version of Rebecca.  No one seems to have checked the Gratz family records to see if there was possibly another daughter with this name nor even taken cognizance of Rebecca's birth date: she was seven years old in 1788.

In any case, the Rebecca story was publicized and struck a chord with Jewish women who were heading off to coeducational colleges and universities. Ironically, in the scholarly literature, Richea had already been identified as the Gratz sister at Franklin -- but the truth was the story of the better-known Rebecca as the first female college student was too good to go away, and the competing versions co-existed.

Then someone noted that there were at least two other girls on the roll with Richea who could also claim the honor of first college student, so Richea and Rebecca shared a new title, the "first Jewish female college student."

But there is more. Although in its articles of incorporation, Franklin College was authorized to grant degrees, it was in its first years divided into two sections. One took students advanced enough to do college work, but the other, which Richea attended, functioned as a high school rather than a college.

So stop telling this story about Rebecca or Richea. Neither should get a "first" for going to a high school that happened to be called a college. I know it is very powerful story for women but we have gotten past the "coed" stage and now comprise the majority of college students in the United States. Franklin & Marshall College, which superseded Franklin College, has every right to be proud that the school was admitting girls in 1788, but it needs to be clearer on what exactly Franklin College was at the time.

In truth, the admission of females to a male secondary school in 1788 is astounding, and the import of this moment in history has been lost in the bogus Rebecca Gratz story. Now that we have dispensed with that myth, it's time to ask, "How did those girls get into Franklin College and why did their parents let them go to a boys' school?"

For answers, see "Girls at Franklin College."

(You can see a reproduction of the page of the Franklin College roll which contains the name "Richea Gratz" on page 14 of Franklin & Marshall College, by David Schuyler and Jane A. Bee. It is on Google Books. History of Franklin & Marshall College, by Joseph Henry Dubbs, gives an account of the college's early years. It is also on Google Books.)

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