It took courage to start a college preparatory school for women in the 1890s. The idea that women were strong enough to undertake an education equal to that afforded to men was controversial. Not all colleges accepted women. Yet the Shipley sisters, Hannah (aged 44), Elizabeth (35), and Katharine (26), took on the challenge. Their connections with Bryn Mawr College, newly established specifically to provide a rigorous education for women, brought them to a rented house across the street from the college. There, the Misses Shipley’s School for Girls, Preparatory to Bryn Mawr College, opened in October 1894.
The sisters came from a Cincinnati Quaker family that prized education for women as well as men. Elizabeth attended the Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College. Katharine was in the first class of Bryn Mawr College, graduating with distinction in 1890 and winning the first Bryn Mawr European Fellowship. All three sisters studied at major universities in Europe. With this background, they were primed to found not a mere finishing school, but a real educational institution with exacting academic standards.
The initial months were not easy. The sisters placed advertisements, sent out circulars, and visited local families to recruit day students. By October, there were seven students and five teachers in addition to the Shipley sisters, offering French, German, Latin, Greek, history, English, science, math, drawing, and painting.
Initially, Shipley was not a school as we know it, but more like a boarding house with tutors, a rotating collection of young women who came to cram for one or more of the Bryn Mawr College exams and left when they were successful. But within two years, the sisters had purchased one building and built another and had a complement of full-time students of various ages. Now, there was a stable community and an atmosphere of what the sisters called a “real family feeling.”
By 1914, with the addition of a wing, a gymnasium, and with 75 boarders enrolled, Hannah wrote that she considered the school “complete.” Two years later, the sisters retired, passing the school to Alice Howland, a niece, and Eleanor Brownell as co-principals. In her later years, Katharine traveled and took courses at the University of North Carolina and died in 1929. Elizabeth’s health broke as a result of overwork for the Red Cross during World War I. After many years as an invalid, she died in 1932, the same year as Hannah.
The sisters were clear that their purpose was broader than simply training the mind. “In seeking to help the young people who come under our care, we know that the culture which only arouses the intellect and does not develop the character has failed in its ultimate purpose.” Ethics, discipline, respect for others, and a spiritual sense were all part of the package. These are the fundamental principles that the Shipleys established. They also gave the School its motto, “Courage for the Deed; Grace for the Doing,” setting an example that has continued for 125 years.