Caroline Colvin, a University of Maine history professor from 1902 to 1932, is much more than just the namesake for a campus building — Colvin Hall, to be exact, home to UMaine’s Honors College.
In 1906, Colvin made history when she became the first woman in the U.S. to be appointed chair of a university department. She served as chair of UMaine’s history department from 1906 through 1932.
Not only that, but she was also UMaine’s first female professor — an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that women made up less than 20 percent of the student body at UMaine at the time, and had curfew, clothing and etiquette requirements placed on them that male students did not. As was the case at nearly all colleges and universities in the early 20th century, women and men were not treated equally.
In that sense, Colvin was a true trailblazer. Though many female educators and academics are rightly celebrated during Women’s History Month, which is observed each March, Colvin’s name isn’t generally on that list.
“[Academia] was close to a total boy’s club at that time,” said Mazie Hough, a professor of history and women’s studies at UMaine. “When UMaine added a liberal arts program in the early 20th century, for many years, its only female professor was Colvin. She really was unusual for her time.”
Though we don’t know much about her personal life, we do know that Colvin was a suffragist, campaigning for giving women the right to vote until that actually happened in 1920. Colvin later became UMaine’s first dean of women, a position she held from 1923 to 1927. During her time as dean, she advocated for more options for women’s athletics, helped to form a women’s student government and was named one of the first-ever members of All Maine Women, a women’s honor society that still exists today.
“Interestingly, the history department at UMaine has a long history of female leadership. Alice Stewart was chair of the department for years in the middle of the 20th century,” said Hough, referring to a professor who taught at UMaine for more than three decades between 1947 and 1980, and chaired the history department in the 1960s and ’70s.
As far as Colvin’s ghost haunting her namesake hall, the reports on the veracity of that myth are, as one might expect, a bit fuzzy. The gist seems to be that Colvin haunts her hall — mostly appearing to men. Colvin Hall, built in the 1920s, was originally a women’s dormitory, where Colvin herself was house mother in its first few years.
In the mid-1980s, the dorm became co-ed, and that’s when male residents reported a female figure with 1920s-style clothing appearing in the hallways and speaking their names, according to Elizabeth Tucker’s book “Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses.” Apparently Colvin’s ghost wanted to make sure the young men were behaving themselves around the women.
Today, Colvin Hall is UMaine’s smallest dorm, housing 36 Honors College students, along with teaching facilities on the first and fourth floors. Colvin’s legacy isn’t just in the building named for her, but in the ways in which she paved the way for women at UMaine to have equal opportunity in their entire educational experience.