Matthew Vassar’s College for Women

  • Education
  • 1861

Education philanthropy over the first century of American history was focused predominantly on young men. Then Matthew Vassar got it into his head to try something new. He resolved to use his fortune, accumulated from a self-made career in business, to establish “a college for young women which shall be to them what Yale and Harvard are to young men.” Milo Jewett, a clergyman who had founded the Judson Female Institute in Alabama way back in 1839, encouraged Vassar, appealing “to his desire to serve mankind, his local pride, his Christian faith,” according to historian Merle Curti. At an 1861 meeting of the new college’s board of trustees, Vassar presented a tin box containing stock and bond certificates valued at $408,000, plus a deed to 200 acres near Poughkeepsie, New York. This gift, along with an additional $400,000 offered before his death, and continued support from the Vassar family, gave a powerful impetus to one of the world’s first women’s colleges offering a broad liberal education. Vassar’s donation also marked a new era in college philanthropy generally—which had previously relied on subscriptions from many donors, and now shifted toward major gifts from individuals.