Document 14: Mary Raley Photograph and Mary Raley Cravath Photograph, Student File of Mrs. Samuel A. Cravath (Mary Raley), Grads and Former Students Series, Alumni Records, Record Group 28, Oberlin College Archives.


       Oberlin College began admitting women into its College Class in 1837 and the first women graduated with the A.B. degree in 1841. To mark the occasion of graduation, women in the Female Department read essays from a platform that seated only the all-female Ladies Board and the women graduates. In the College Class, men prepared and delivered orations. Women of the College Class wrote essays that were delivered by male professors because the College event was viewed as a men's meeting, with faculty men presiding over male speeches.

       The classic history of Oberlin, Robert S. Fletcher's two-volume A History of Oberlin College (1943) originally named Mary Raley (d. 1911), Class of 1858, as the first woman to read an essay at commencement . A native of Hanoverton, Ohio, Raley was the daughter of a farming family. Following her early education at the Friends' School in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, Raley entered Oberlin in 1852, where she studied in the Female Department until her entrance into the College Class in 1854. After receiving her A.B. degree in 1858, she taught at Madison Seminary in Madison, Ohio, where she later became the Lady Principal. Raley, who also received an M.A. from Oberlin in 1865, married classmate and teaching colleague Dr. Samuel A. Cravath, of Gainesville, New York, in 1860. The couple had three children, although only one son survived infancy. While Raley was the only female to graduate in the class of 1858, it appears that she was not the first woman to read her own graduation essay. In his 1901 unpublished autobiography, classmate and husband Cravath wrote, "There was a quiet little Quaker lady who had taken the full classical course and was the only lady in the class who had done so; who was not allowed to speak nor to read her graduating essay. A professor read it for her."[19]

       At the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the College, Oberlin graduate Sarah F. Cowles Little recalled Raley's graduation, but pinpointed the year of the transition , noting "after denying the request of a quiet, modest, conservative Quaker girl, the only lady of her class (Mrs. Mary Raley Cravath, of '58), who manifested an earnest wish for the coveted privilege as the 'most strong minded' of all, permission was given, and . . . in 1859, the five who graduated from the classical course read their own essays."[20] Although she did not mention it in her speech, Little was one of the five who were the first to read their essays at commencement that year. Disagreement remains about the identity of the first woman to give a commencement oration at Oberlin. Some credit Harriett Keeler, Class of 1870, who brought her prepared essay to the podium and read only the first line before discarding the papers to engage in direct, extemporaneous address to an audience of astonished onlookers.[21] Others suggests Fannie Rice Smith, Class of 1874, should claim the honor.[22]

Mary Raley Photograph

Images Courtesy Oberlin College Archives


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