Formerly the Tennessee and Alabama Female Institute, Mary Sharp College was chartered in Winchester in 1850. Opening in 1851, the school was named for an early benefactor. Under the direction of Dr. Z. C. Graves and the Baptist Church, Mary Sharp College, which opened ten years before Vassar College, was the first women’s college in the United States to offer degrees equivalent to those offered at men’s colleges.
Graves patterned the classical curriculum at Mary Sharp College after those offered at Amherst College, Brown University, and the University of Virginia. He emphasized religious and moral training and required every student to attend chapel. Students at Mary Sharp, unlike those at other female colleges and academies, studied algebra, geometry, and trigonometry; Latin and Greek; English literature, grammar, and composition; ancient, English, and American history; philosophy and rhetoric; geography and geology; and botany, chemistry, astronomy, and physiology. Graves believed that not only were women physically and mentally capable of obtaining a liberal arts education, but also that such courses contributed to their personal improvement and that of their families. Three women received the first A.B. degrees in 1855.
Mary Sharp’s influence was far-reaching. Dana Slaughter Miller, a missionary and teacher at Shanghai Baptist College, and Florence Skeffington, first woman faculty member and second dean of women at the University of Tennessee, graduated from Mary Sharp, as did many of Franklin County’s early teachers. Although most students were from Tennessee, girls came from as far away as Vermont, California, and China. Over 4,000 girls attended Mary Sharp between 1856 and 1896, and 350 girls graduated during the college’s forty-year history. Mary Sharp College closed in 1896, a casualty of the financial depression of the early 1890s. Mary Sharp Elementary School in Winchester stands on the site of the former college.