Still, some pioneers veered off the expected career track. Henrietta Szold, class of 1877, and the school's first Alumni Association president, used her training to teach English to Russian immigrants. She later co-founded Hadassah, the influential women's Zionist organization.
By 1900, Western had moved three times (its current site at Falls Road and West Cold Spring Lane is its seventh). It had expanded the curriculum from three years to four.
On the pages of its yearbook, the class of 1907 sketched career options for its members: a whirling belle of the ball, a nurse, a nun, a graceful dancer. The editors surmised that Westernites "will most probably enter the noose matrimonial, which is common place."
By 1912, a college preparatory curriculum had been developed, but a university education remained out of reach for many women until well into the 20th century. In the 1930s, domestic science courses, such as sewing and cooking, were offered in addition to traditional liberal arts.
"The school was teaching girls how to excel, but very few of my classmates went on to college," recalled 1933 graduate Rosalie Silber Abrams, director of the state Office on Aging and a former state senator. In 1933, her family would not pay for more education they did not think she needed, she said. She earned her bachelor's degree in political science at Johns Hopkins University 20 years later.
"I think women were beginning to get some education," she said, "but my father thought it was more important for my five brothers to get to college than it was for me to go."
World War II opened factory doors to women. One hundred years after Western's founding, students were graduating early to go to manual labor jobs -- at least until the men came back from war.
"Mostly girls who weren't headed to college anyway would go to school throughout the summer, the point being that they could ** help with the war efforts sooner," said Betty J. (Beyer) Ammons, a librarian and a 1944 graduate who watched friends take that route. "The school worked very hard trying to prepare these girls
as Victory Volunteers. It showed true spirit."
The school's first century established not only an academic sanctuary for the girls, but a culture and community where they had to define and assert themselves. Westernites understood the privileges that the single-sex setting offered, and the atmosphere of security and camaraderie that it fostered.
"We were used to being everything, the president of the student council, president of the class," said Nancy S. Grasmick, a Western honor student from the class of 1957 and the state superintendent of schools. "That expectation was there to be a leader."
But the setting wasn't insulated from what was going on in the world outside, including the civil rights movement.
Myrtle Mack-Dutton walked onto Western's campus at Howard and Centre streets under police protection in 1954. She was an apprehensive 10th-grader, accompanied by a few other African-Americans. They were there to integrate Western. Until the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education court decision, African-Americans had never attended this public school.
"I was volunteered to go, but it was the best push I ever had," said Ms. Mack-Dutton, who graduated with her friend Nancy Streeks -- now Nancy Grasmick -- in 1957. Black students were expected to attend the coeducational Negro high schools such as Douglass and Dunbar. "It was a different world [at Western], much more academically oriented than what I had been used to. I actually broke a blood vessel in my eye from studying so hard," said Ms. Mack-Dutton.
She and her classmates soon realized that the Western spirit of sisterhood could stretch across racial lines. During a local outing with the school singing club, the Treblettes, a cafe waitress refused to serve Ms. Mack-Dutton.
"I didn't want to go in there in the first place, but I sat there feeling angry and embarrassed," Ms. Mack-Dutton recalls. "But the girls -- they had already ordered -- said, 'If she doesn't get served, we don't eat,' and they left their food right there and walked out with me.
"They could have ignored me and let me sit there feeling bad. I was surprised. I wasn't expecting that kind of back up," Ms. Mack-Dutton. "It was our own little boycott."
The transition wasn't perfect. A few teachers "let me know how they felt about my color," Ms. Mack-Dutton remembered, but most students seemed to accept the black pupils.
Eva Scott didn't get a warm reception when the city school board assigned her to teach physical education at Western in 1958. When she called the school to set up an interview with principal Nanette R. Blackiston, she was rejected.