Challenging "Ornamental" Women's Education

Mary Electa Adams’ Mount Allison University faculty photograph © Mount Allison University Archives. Picture Collection. 2007.07/254
Mount Allison Ladies’ College Buildings and Students in 1887 © Mount Allison University Archives. Picture Collection. 2007.07/163

For the week of Monday, October 1, 2018.

On October 4, 1880, Mary Electa Adams wrote in her diary, “I often fear that life will seem a great failure to me,” worried that she would not see the first Canadian women graduate from university during her career.

Adams was born in 1823 in Massachusetts. Her family later moved to Upper Canada, where she was raised in the Methodist church. It saw education as essential to developing a moral conscience and encouraged young women to enrol in private gender-segregated schools. In 1840, Adams received her Mistress in Liberal Arts diploma from Cobourg Ladies Seminary.

She worked as a teacher and a principal after graduation. In 1854, she accepted an appointment as chief preceptress at the newly established “female branch” at New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University. Adams used her position to emphasize a rigorous academic curriculum, including a systematic study of literature that was later incorporated into many university curricula in the 20th century. This supplemented, what she referred to as, the “ornamental” subjects traditionally studied by women, such as embroidery, music, and art.

Adams resigned in 1857 and took a four-year break to spend time with her family. She returned to work and held a prestigious leadership position at Wesleyan Ladies’ College until 1868, spending four years in Europe. In 1872, Adams founded Brookhurst Academy for female students alongside her sister in Cobourg, Ontario. To this new school, Adams brought the techniques and curriculum developed at Mount Allison and Wesleyan Ladies’ College. Adams valued close relationships with her students and sought to develop the school into a co-ordinate college, affiliated with the nearby Victoria College, a male-only institution. Adams’ obtained co-education for some female students, although they were not yet able to graduate alongside the men. Brookhurst closed due to financial issues in 1880, a few years before female students were admitted to Victoria.

Still, Adams’ had played an important role in improving women's access to quality higher education in 19th-century Canada. In 1875, Mount Allison was the first Canadian university to graduate a female student, named Grace Annie Lockhart.

Mary Electa Adams and Grace Annie Lockhart are designated national historic persons.

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