Women at the University of Chicago

There seems to be a delightful trend these days of creating archives that are a combination of celebratory history and archiving of higher education. Outside our region, for example, Oberlin has a terrific site that does oral history and LGBT issues.  And, locally, the University of Chicago has a delightful site on women across its history. It is the latter that I am writing about today.

Why? For two main reasons: the history of women in higher education is not obvious. It is not merely a progress narrative that goes like this: once upon a time, things were not good, and now, voila, they are good. No, the trajectory is much more complex than that. So: a good reason to look at this is to see some details that support this argument. Secondarily, the history of the University of Chicago itself is important to our understanding of the history of education (especially but not only higher education) in the United States and, indeed, globally. It was an early research university, had innovative undergraduate curricula at various times, was populated by people who created various disciplines, and, well, was and is important. So the history of women at the University of Chicago is relevant and important both for understanding the history of women and for understanding the history of higher education.

Plus, I am a woman who went to the University of Chicago — a vested interest perhaps?

Here are some tidbits from the U of Chicago site called: “On Equal Terms”: Educating Women at the University of Chicago.

1. A co-educational institution from the start, President William Rainey Harper sought ought leaders in women’s education to participate in his administration. His first pick? A former Wellesley president named Alice Freeman Palmer.

2. Like many institutions, the inclusion of women came to be debated in the early twentieth century, when numbers of women undergraduates rose. (This was the time when places like the University of Rochester went from co-ed to coordinate and. . . . ). At the University of Chicago, there was a debate about sex segregation. Was that simply because classes were getting too big or was it fear of feminizing? (See this part of the exhibit for a bit of detail.)

3. Would a history of men at the U of Chicago have a section on courtship and dating? Hmmm. In any case, this section on mid-twentieth century courtship and dating has such tidbits as parodies of the Miss Campus event. So, every critical? And, of course, there is second wave feminism, discussed together with the gay rights movement. And, a separate bit on abortion rights.

4. An uneven history? tenure denials for women? And more. Yes, not a strict progress narrative at all.

And the future?

Of course, such sites can somehow begin to feel like marketing bits  — yes, we were there, we have always cared, our current diversity initiatives are continuous with our history, and more. But still, isn’t this exhibit — created by the library — interesting? It certainly move beyond celebratory history.


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    Shimerprez is the 14th president of Shimer College at 35th and State. She also blogs at the Huffington Post and at a Shimer Blog called Evocations which can be found on line at blog.shimer.edu/provocations/. She is a University of Chicago Ph.D. who works on religion, the social sciences, gender and sexuality. She reads murder mysteries, is fascinated by the world of food, and also loves the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York.

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