October 21, 2021

Mary Caffrey Low: ‘Grandmother of coeducation at colby’

Maine Women in History Rediscovering Their Lives and Legacies

Mary Caffrey Low was born March 22, 1850. In 1871, Low became the first female student to enter Colby College, and by 1873, had been joined by four more women. Her status prompted Colby College to describe her as the “grandmother of coeducation at Colby,” according to the college Web site.

Colby’s first five women students – Low, Elizabeth Gorham Hoag, Ida Fuller, Frances Elliott Mann Hall and Louise Helen Coburn – founded Sigma Kappa Sorority on Nov. 9, 1874. Low’s name was the first on the sorority’s rolls, and she was the first to preside over an initiation, according to a history of the sorority. She also was the first woman to be invited to join the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society.

At age 25, Low became Colby’s first female graduate and one of a handful of women at the time who had earned Bachelor of Arts degrees. In a complete break with traditions of the times, Low delivered the valedictory address for her graduating Class of 1875 in Latin. She had edged out Leslie Cornish as valedictorian. Cornish later became a justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Mary Low married Leonard D. Carver, the state librarian in Augusta, and she became a schoolteacher. Her interest in library science led her to devise the first systematic catalog of the Maine State Library. She assumed her husband’s library position after he died. She was also active in the protest against formation of a separate women’s division at Colby. However, the division was approved by the board in 1890 and had the effect of segregating women into different laboratory courses, and separating men’s and women’s competitions for class prizes.

In “The History of Colby College,” Ernest C. Marriner wrote, “No small part of the agitation that arose later in regard to the retention of women in the College was prompted by the fact that they persistently ran away with the honors.”

In 1890, the president of Colby initiated a plan to divide women and men into separate classes at the college. Low, along with Louise Coburn and 17 other women who had graduated from Colby, sent a petition protesting the move. The letter declared, “The issue is not whether men and women can recite together, whether men and women shall study this or that. It is simply the issue whether the men are willing to take the risk of having women surpass them in scholarship.” Although Low wrote the letter, she wrote it in a way to make it appear that Coburn had, since Coburn came from a prominent family and Low did not. In the end, Colby did not go back to being officially coeducational until 1969.

In recognition of her achievements, Colby presented Mary Low Carver with an honorary doctorate in 1916. By 1924, the school’s student body was two-thirds women.

The Carvers’ daughter, Ruby, was initiated into the Alpha chapter of Sigma Kappa at Colby. Ruby Carver Emerson became national president of Sigma Kappa in 1935-36. Mary Low Carver was interested in the future of her sorority. The chapter minutes of the 1880s and 1890s frequently refer to the choosing of delegates to travel to the town of Augusta to consult Mrs. Carver on everything from the selection of furniture to the decision to extend Sigma Kappa beyond Colby.

Later in life, Mary Low Carver lived with her daughter in Cambridge, Mass., and delighted Boston Sigma Kappas with her wit. She offered toasts at the joint Delta-Omicron chapter initiation banquets. Mary was hearing-impaired, but she read lips so well that few recognized her condition.

She died March 4, 1926, at age 76.

In 1929, The Colby Echo revisited the courageous act of Mary Low’s enrollment and her life. It was reported that “Low was determined that she would take full advantage of all the opportunities that came her way and so she sought a college education. Although she was condemned and criticized by many for her unconventional venture, she courageously remained, working diligently on her studies.” The Echo also reported that she “was treated with deference and respect by her fellow classmates. They truly admired her for her spirit, intellect, and personal charm.”

Today, Sigma Kappa presents the Mary Caffrey Low Award to the most outstanding alumnae chapter in a college community. In addition, Colby College has honored her achievements by naming a residence hall the Mary Low Residence Hall, after their first female graduate. The hall features the Mary Low Coffeehouse, a coffee shop that holds poetry readings and open mike nights and serves as a general hangout for the student population at Colby.

Sources: Ernest C. Marriner, “The History of Colby College” (Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1963); www.colby.edu; www.sigmakappa.org.

Maine’s history is full of female pioneers who blazed a path for the women of today. The Bangor Daily News, in cooperation with the Maine Historical Society’s online museum Maine Memory Network, the Maine FolkLife Center and others, will highlight a different woman each day throughout March. If you are just joining us for this series, you may find the installments you have missed at www.bangordailynews.com. Portrait (left) from the collections of Colby College Special Collections. This image and thousands of others spanning Maine history are on the Maine Memory Network (www.mainememory.net), Maine’s digital museum developed by the Maine Historical Society.

Click it For more information visit www.mainememory.net www.sigmakappa.org www.colby.edu

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