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Documents That Changed the World

First Woman's College Diploma, 1840

07/15/14

The first woman to get her diploma was Catherine Elizabeth Benson Brewer, who received hers July 16, 1840 at the Georgia Female College, now known as Wesleyan College. The College was chartered in 1836 and received its first students in 1839, with Elizabeth Benson signing up on opening day. She became one of twenty girls in the junior class, since they had received schooling elsewhere for two years, eleven of whom graduated the next year.

So why was Catherine the first? Catherine was simply the first in line alphabetically, which is why she became the first woman ever to receive their baccalaureate degree.

You can find a picture of her diploma online and, it does not look like much. It is old and faded and looks like it was sewn together from multiple pieces of cloth. That being said, it marked an important change in society – a time when women were finally equal with men in terms of education. In fact, more women now go to college than men in the U.S. They go to college to get a higher education and in the end they leave with a degree and a piece of paper – but is it really more than just a piece of paper?

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A document that changed the world
A diploma, in the name of Catherine Elizabeth Benson Brewer, issued by the Georgia Female College 1840

What do you think of when you see a college diploma? How many of you know where yours is? I don’t have one yet, but I am going to get one as soon as I finish my undergraduate degree. My dad has one, but his is buried somewhere in a case. You go into offices and see framed diplomas hanging on the walls showing off different accomplishments from different places and I bet you know at least one person who has a college diploma. That being said, do you ever think about where the college diploma originated from? Who the first person was to receive one? How it has shaped the world? I bet you don’t, and I bet you are wondering how one sheet of paper with a few signatures and a stamped seal can influence the world.

I’m Kelsey Gibbons of the University of Washington, and before I start talking about Catherine Benson I think I should give a bit of background about the word diploma itself. The word comes from the Greek word diploma “folded paper” which comes from the two words diploun “to fold” and diplous “double” and was first used to describe an official document with the earliest mention being in 1645 surrounding the King of Spain. It was not until the 1700s that the word diploma began being used to describe a document “granted by a competent authority conferring some honor, privilege or license; that given by a university or college.” You might be wondering why I am telling you all this about the word diploma, but clearly it’s important word because it’s used today to represent the hard work of a student for at least four years of their life. If it was not important people would not frame them and hang them and there would not be a huge ceremony surrounding the presentation of diplomas to a graduating class.

When I first began looking around I thought the first woman graduate would come from colleges like Oxford or Cambridge, which have been around for 900 years. However, that was not the case. The first woman to get her diploma was Catherine Elizabeth Benson Brewer, who received hers July 16th 1840 at the Georgia Female College, now known as Wesleyan College. This was around the same time when England, Russia, Austria and Prussia signed the Quadruple Alliance and the Union Act was passed by the British Parliament uniting upper and lower Canada. The Georgia Female College was chartered in 1836 and received its first students in 1839, with Elizabeth Benson signing up on opening day. She became one of twenty girls in the junior class, since they had received schooling elsewhere for two years, eleven of whom graduated the next year. So why was Catherine first? Catherine was the first in line alphabetically, which is why she became the first woman ever to receive their baccalaureate degree. If I were the other women I would feel jilted.

Catherine went on to get married and have eight children, and she also became part of the Wesleyan College Alumnae Association, formed in 1859, the first of its kind in the world. In 1888 she returned to speak to the graduating class, with words that have become known as the Benson Charge and are now spoken every time the graduating seniors are inducted in to the Wesleyan College Alumnae Association. The Benson Charge goes like this: “Members of the graduating class, demands will be made upon you which were not made upon us. Your training, if you are true to it, will amply qualify you to meet those demands. No wiser blessing could I wish for you than that you may be true to every God-appointed work.” People today can go look at early artifacts such as diplomas and yearbooks in the Benson Room in the Candler Alumnae Center, named after Catherine Benson.

You can find a picture of her diploma online and honestly, it does not look like much. It is old and faded and looks like it was sewn together from multiple pieces of cloth. That being said, it marked an important change in society – a time when women were finally equal with men in terms of education. In fact, more women now go to college than men in the U.S. They go to college to get a higher education and in the end they leave with a degree and a piece of paper – but is it really?

A lot of people seem to think it is more than just a “piece of paper”, or else why would they go through the trouble of getting one? Many people have college diplomas now. By the end of my time at college I will have one that I will be able to hang up in my room and gaze at every time I want to remember what I accomplished at UW. College diplomas are an important part of society, especially in an economy where people who have a degree are more likely to get a job. As of 2011 fewer than one third of adults in the whole United States held a bachelor’s degree, however in 16 certain states near the coast more than a third of the population had a bachelor’s degree. According to a 2010 Educations Pays report having a college degree is linked to higher pay and healthier lifestyle choices and a 30 year study published in 2006 showed that having a college degree leads to lower blood pressure and stress. College diplomas also have personal meaning – they signify the fact that you made it through a higher education institution and represent the years of hard work you put into attaining the degree inscribed on the diploma. So in a big way they are not just a piece of paper – they are a symbol of dedication and self- improvement.

It is a document that is not going to disappear anytime soon if you ask most people, but a recent article in the New Republic thinks it is time to upgrade them and it discusses how the college diploma can be transformed into a networked certification platform. Diplomas are sometimes called sheepskins because hundreds of years ago they were actually written on sheepskins. It’s a 12th century document trying to do the work of a 21st century world. The article argues that the college diploma should be updatable, to add new credentials and other experiences like internships, peer to peer learning and online classes. The college diploma should show the whole picture of a person’s skills, not just that they made it four years through Stanford. And finally, it should be machine-readable and discoverable. All this would make the college diploma less of a piece of paper and more like a profile detailing all that a person has accomplished in not only furthering their education, but their life.

That certainly is an interesting idea and definitely goes along with the trend of increasing technological use in everyday life, but is it a good idea? College diplomas, while just being a piece of paper, show the world what a person worked on for multiple years of their life to accomplish. They show that a person was willing to be committed to a certain field for many years and more importantly that they valued their education. If we make diplomas digital it will take away part of that magic that comes with receiving your diploma and being able to touch it and hang it up for everyone to see. It will become just another file that is stored away on our computer that we only glance at when we send it off to future employers. Whatever happens to the diploma – whether it goes digital or stays as a tangible piece of paper – does not really change what it stands for and how important it is. College diplomas showcase people’s successes and show their commitment and their drive in what they do. And no matter what their eventual form and no matter where I put it, a diploma is a mark of achievement for Catherine Benson and me.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution. First Diploma Awarded at Wesleyan College, July 16, 1840, Presented to Catherine E. Brewer (Benson), Macon, Georgia. Atlanta: Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library. Image. http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ajc/id/374

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