A women’s seminary seems a radical thought in many Christian circles today, but religious education for women is part of Christian history. Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia is one such example. Modern Christians can learn from the history of this school about the importance of educating women and embracing equality in the classroom.
History / Herstory
The school began on the eve of the Civil War in 1842 as Augusta Female Seminary in the Stars Hollow-esque town of Staunton, Virginia, and has since been affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. The name later switched to Mary Baldwin Seminary (later University) to honor Mary Baldwin, one of the students in the first graduating class of 57 women. That same woman led the school through the trials of the Civil War and was a champion of women’s education in America.
Stories of her strong leadership during raids by Union soldiers survive to this day. She scared off intruders with a fire poker aimed like a rifle on at least one occasion. This same fearless leadership showed in her constant desire to improve the school. During her time as president, she used private funds to acquire new property for the school, provide musical instruments for the girls, and began a vegetable garden that the school still operates. Her commitment to education remains an example to all Christians to fight for the equal education of women.
Her legacy lives on in the words of former coworkers and students:
“She knew the sorrows of [her students’] hearts and how to win them to love and truth. Unmarried and childless she passed away, and yet in all the borders of this Southland her daughters will rise up and call her blessed.”
The school newspaper of Mary Baldwin, adorably called the Bluestocking, derives its name from an old adjective for any educated and intellectual woman. The ranks of Mary Baldwin bluestockings include Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day. Christian Peele, the youngest person to obtain a Master’s in Divinity from Duke University (2014) and a former White House intern, is also a Bluestocking. Another Bluestocking, Caroline Rose Hunt, a business maven born of the 1920’s, was the first woman to serve as deacon at her Presbyterian church.
These women had the privilege of studying at a school that saw their potential, regardless of gender. This attitude stood out from the very beginning — as the cornerstone for the seminary can attest. Inside the stone is a Bible inscribed, “The only Rule of Faith and first text-book of the Augusta Female Seminary.”
“Now you are coming to him as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective it is chosen, valuable. You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 2:4-5
In The Present
Though the school now accepts men as students, the advancement of women is still at the heart of Mary Baldwin. 93% of the student population are women out of nearly 2,000 students. The most popular majors include Business Management, Marketing, Psychology, History, and Public Administration. Society might label these careers as “masculine”, but Mary Baldwin University empowers women to leadership roles in these diverse fields. Mary Baldwin University exists as a space that pushes women toward excellence.
As was said about the first girls to walk the halls of the school, the students today are “makers of homes, of communities, of churches, and missionaries of the cross on the frontiers of civilization, who themselves have been moulded by the gentle but powerful influence of this great, modest, spirit.”
Not For Time But For Eternity – MBU MottoEquality is in our Christian history. From Christ to the latest Rachel Held Evans book, women have a place in the church. Click To Tweet
Gender equality is in our history as Christians. From the ministry of Christ to the latest Rachel Held Evans book, women have a place in the church. They also have a place in the classroom. Education of girls and women is one of the leading challenges facing the world according to the United Nations. With 2/3 of the world’s illiterate population being women, ensuring equity in education seems to be a daunting task.
This is why I believe in promoting organizations that are already doing it, and doing it well. We must remember the hard-won victories of our sisters in the past. These stories inspire us to handle the challenges we face now. Educating girls and women remains part of the mission of the church. It's a mission we cannot ignore. Click To Tweet
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