In September 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, 22 young women became the first students and freshman class in Mount Holyoke in Hartford, which has been described as a "noble experiment." Between 1933 and 1939, Mount Holyoke faculty traveled to Hartford each week to teach a freshman course of study at the YWCA formerly located at 252 Ann Street, where the Civic Center stands today. Courses included Ancient History, Latin, German, English, French, Mathematics, Geography, Economics, Geology, Speech, Hygiene, and Physical Education. Tuition was $250 for the year. These intrepid pioneer students had responded to a paragraph in the Mount Holyoke College catalog for the 1933-1934 academic year that read as follows:
"To meet the needs of a group of students in Hartford, Connecticut, and its vicinity who are unable to enter a college farther from their home, Mount Holyoke College offers in the city of Hartford for the year 1933-1934 a sufficient number of freshman courses to enable a student to accomplish there the work of the first year of College. These courses are taught by instructors who are or have been members of the faculty of Mount Holyoke College and by a member of the faculty at Trinity College."
Out of the 129 students who completed their freshman year in Hartford, 45 went on to complete their remaining three college years on the South Hadley campus of Mount Holyoke; 84 transferred to other colleges, undertook other types of training, or worked in various fields.
In her History of Mount Holyoke in Hartford, written in 1964, Bess Frazier Graham wrote: "The many ramifications of the Great Depression are difficult to recall in the prosperous days of (the 1960s). The sudden beginning of the financial retrenchment in 1928 had gained a firm grip on all aspects of life by 1933. Hopes that had been built up over a lifetime could not be realized, and this was particularly true of the education of children beyond the public school age. In many families, the situation was especially difficult for girls. Priority was given to further training for boys, who would become heads of families and acknowledged breadwinners. The daughters with equal ability, who were equally well-prepared to enter college, were expected to wait for better times or change their goals entirely. The Education Committee of the Hartford YWCA was keenly aware of this situation and decided to investigate with a view to finding a way to help solve the problem."
Bess Graham, for whom Hartford College's library was named, was Education Director of the YWCA. It was Miss Graham's vision, leadership, and collaboration with others, including the presidents of Trinity College (at that time, an all-male institution and the only accredited college in the greater Hartford area) and Mount Holyoke College as well as many community leaders who made this "noble experiment" possible.
Central to the story of HCW is Laura A. Johnson (1911-80), the first president of the college. During her 33-year tenure, Miss Johnson shaped and influenced many lives. A noted and beloved educator and businesswoman, she believed in the ability of women of all ages and backgrounds to thrive in an academic setting. She characterized "women who want to learn and teachers who love to teach" as the essential elements for HCW's success. Miss Johnson was the first woman to be elected to the boards of directors of Phoenix Mutual Insurance Company (now The Phoenix Companies), The Hartford Courant, and the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce (now Metro Hartford Alliance and Chamber).
In 1997, the college pioneered Academic Express, a contemporary interpretation of Miss Johnson's legacy of lifelong learning, as well as her vision for nontraditional students. With accelerated courses and flexible scheduling, Academic Express designed to meet the needs of the increasing number of nontraditional students who work, who manage homes and families, and who need a college degree in order to increase their employment opportunities and earning potential. Hartford College for Women is remembered by many for pioneering efforts to open the halls of higher education for women across their lifespan.
In response to a nationwide decline in enrollments at single-gender schools, HCW has been transformed into The Women's Education and Leadership Fund, which supports women's programming and curricula across the entire university. HCW's Career Counseling Center, now known as The Center for Professional Development, continues to serve the needs of both women and men in the community.