Mary W. Mitchell

Class of 1869 – First Female Graduate

Mary W. Mitchell, Class of 1869, First Female Graduate

Mary Wheelwright Mitchell was the first female graduate of Bates College. Born in 1846 in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, she worked in the mills to pay her way through college and help her family. She was remembered as independent; offered a scholarship by Bates founder Oren Cheney, Mitchell turned it down: “I cannot take that, Mr. Cheney. Give it to the brethren. I can take care of myself.”

Bates was open to women from its beginning, but no women were among the initial 14 graduates in 1867 and 1868. Eight women, however, were non-graduates in that span. The expectation to marry caused some to leave. And unlike Cheney, some male students didn’t favor having women at Bates. One female student of the time said this of Mitchell: “She did not seem to care for friends, but went her own decisive way, probably feeling little regard for young women who had not sufficient stamina to stand their ground against the objections of men unwilling to have women graduated in class with them.”

After graduation she married Frank Birchall and became a professor at Vassar College. Later she opened a school for young women in Boston and served as principal from 1891 to 1897.