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  • How Deans of Women Became Men
  • Robert A. Schwartz (bio)


In 1870, women accounted for only 21% of the undergraduate population. By 1890, the numbers had climbed to 35%. By 1920, women represented 47% of the undergraduate students enrolled in American colleges and universities (Graham, 1978, pp. 759–793). As the enrollment of women increased, many college presidents appointed female faculty members to advise, assist, and counsel female students. These women were given the title “dean of women” to reflect their new dual roles.

Deans of women were asked to serve a dual role on the college campuses from the 1890s till the 1930s. In that transitional period, the deans were to oversee the new “minority” population on campus—women. In this capacity, they would insulate the historically male campuses from the women and, in turn, protect and guide the women, a distinct social and cultural minority despite the rapid increase in their enrollment. On the other hand, most deans were first and foremost faculty. They were academics who had trained for the scholarly life and were eager for the opportunity to teach, write, and conduct research. They were concerned about the intellectual [End Page 419] and scholarly development of women, especially in competition with men. Then as now, women had to be better to be equal.

Coeducation and Regionalism

Prior to the turn of the century, few opportunities existed in which women could experience higher education in a coeducational setting, either as students or faculty. Although Oberlin College in Ohio had admitted four women as early as 1837, relatively few coeducational experiences existed prior to the Civil War (Rudolph, 1990). Even at Oberlin, women took a different, lesser curriculum than men and were assigned different college duties. While the men studied Greek, Latin, and rhetoric, women studied in a Female Department. While men prepared for the ministry, women cooked, washed, and cleaned (Solomon, 1985, pp. 21–22).

After the Civil War, the rationales both for and against the admission of women were as widespread as the institutions. Geography played a role; many colleges in the East and South steadfastly refused to admit women while, in the Middle West and West, new state colleges in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and California opened their doors as coeducational institutions (Rudolph, 1990, pp. 307–328). Economics and the prohibitive cost of operating two separate campuses, one for men and another for women, was an avoidable expense if coeducation was adopted at the outset. The need for more teachers in the “common schools” which had spread to the Midwest also encouraged the higher education of women, more and more often in state institutions such as teachers colleges and normal schools.

Yet college presidents and senior faculty on many campuses were unsettled by the presence of women. Even such ardent proponents of coeducation as President James Burrill Angell of Michigan, had been educated in a generation when students and faculty were exclusively male. Women in college raised concerns about propriety, delicate matters of health, and female “problems” as well as the institutional responsibility to families to protect the safety, sexual virtue, and reputations of daughters far from home. 1 The deans of women were the perfect solution to the dilemma. They could not only attend to any “female” concerns but also could maintain an appropriate “woman’s sphere” of domestic responsibility and tranquility, the image of which dominated respectable society in Victorian America. As president of Wellesley (1881–1887), Alice Freeman Palmer created the “cottage [End Page 420] system,” a collection of small houses for group living, as a safe domus for Wellesley students. 2

The First Deans of Women

Alice Freeman Palmer became the nation’s first dean of women in 1892. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Palmer had been a very popular president of Wellesley College until she resigned upon marrying Harvard philosopher George Herbert Palmer in 1887 (Solomon, 1980). Lobbied incessantly by William Rainey Harper, Palmer agreed to be dean of women and professor of history at the University of Chicago in 1892 only on condition that she serve part time. Palmer was reluctant to leave the sophistication of the Boston area and her husband of five years for more...

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pp. 419-436
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