Women Who Proved Not Just Men Can Run Colleges

November 30, 2015

Throughout our history, AAUW and the college campus have always been a natural fit. AAUW’s leadership often reflected that relationship: Many AAUW presidents combined careers in academic administration with service to the association. In both of these roles, they served as role models and mentors to countless women who defied gender-restrictive tradition by pursuing higher education on college campuses across the country.

For the most part, this important history has gone untold. Let’s change that by sharing just a few stories!

1. Alice Freeman Palmer (1855–1902)

Former AAUW President Alice Freeman Palmer was president of Wellesley College in the 1880s.

Former AAUW President Alice Freeman Palmer was president of Wellesley College in the 1880s.

The earliest of this blog’s featured women, Alice Freeman Palmer was one of the first pioneers for women’s education. Educated at the University of Michigan and Columbia University, she became President of Wellesley College in 1882. In 1892, she was hand selected by William Rainey Harper, the founder of the University of Chicago, to become the new university’s first dean of women (a position next held by our founder, Marion Talbot). During her tenure there, Palmer made the university more welcoming to women and greatly increased the number of female students on campus. In her first year as dean, 24 percent of the student body was female, but by 1898, it was almost half! Palmer was a founding member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (AAUW’s predecessor organization) and also served as association president from 1885 to 1887 and again from 1889 to 1890.

2. Abby Leach (1855–1918)

A portrait photo of Abby Leach

Abby Leach became the first female student at Harvard University in 1878.

The gutsy Abby Leach became the first female student at Harvard University in 1878 after she arrived on the doorstep of three Harvard professors and asked to be taught Latin and Greek. They agreed, and Leach took courses at the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women. This arrangement, where women were instructed by Harvard faculty, would become known as the Harvard Annex and later Radcliffe College. At the conclusion of Leach’s studies, Harvard refused to grant her a degree, giving her a certificate instead. In lieu of the Harvard diploma, Vassar College granted her bachelor’s and master’s degrees based on her work at Harvard. Vassar then hired her as a professor of Latin and Greek. Leach served as president of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (before it was AAUW) from 1899 to 1901.

3. Laura Drake Gill (1860–1926)

Laura Drake Gill in a black-and-white photograph wearing graduation robes

Laura Drake Gill advocated for a women’s dormitory and instituted the bachelor of science degree while she was dean of Barnard College.

Laura Drake Gill was educated at Barnard College and then went abroad for graduate work at the University of Leipzig. In 1898, at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, she joined the Red Cross and managed the first corps of nurses sent to Cuba. In 1901, she became dean of Barnard College, and in that position advocated for a women’s dormitory and instituted the bachelor of science degree. That same year, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union asked Gill for assistance in founding the country’s first vocational placement bureau for women. She was an expert in the issue and worked to address the growing problem of how to find suitable employment for college-educated women. Gill served as association president from 1907 until 1911.

4. Ada Comstock Notestein (1876–1974)

Ada Comstock Notestein

Ada Comstock Notestein, AAUW president from 1921 to 1923, served in the top leadership positions at the University of Minnesota, Radcliffe, and Smith College.

Ada Comstock Notestein, AAUW president from 1921 to 1923, was educated at Smith College and Columbia University. She served in multiple administrative positions in higher education including as dean of women at the University of Minnesota (1907–12), dean of Smith College (1912–23), and as the first full-time president of Radcliffe College (1923–43). Her legacy lives on at all three institutions. As president of Radcliffe, she strengthened the reputation of the school and persuaded Harvard to accept women. At the University of Minnesota, she advocated for appropriate housing for the university’s 1,000 dormless women, and started the school’s first all-female student government association. And the Ada Comstock Scholars program, established in her honor at Smith College in 1975, has provided financial and academic assistance to nontraditional students for the last four decades.

5. May Lansfield Keller (1877–1946)

May Lansfield Keller in academic robes

May Lansfield Keller became the first female dean of the University of Richmond’s Westhampton College

May Lansfield Keller, a Baltimore native, was educated at Goucher College, and while a professor at her alma mater, founded the Southern Association of College Women’s (SACW) Maryland branch in 1909. Keller also served as president of that association from 1910 to 1914 and was instrumental in setting standards for the education of women at southern colleges. She became the first female dean of the University of Richmond’s Westhampton College. Of her work, Keller said, “It was often hard, unpleasant work, this standing up for high standards against local prejudice and even pressure from unexpected places, but there was in the heart of every officer and every committee member of the SACW the determination to improve the secondary schools and to further in every way possible the education of women in the South.”

6. Anna Rose Hawkes (1890–1978)

Anna Rose Hawkes

Anna Rose Hawkes worked at George Washington University as registrar, professor, and then dean of women.

Anna Rose Hawkes was educated at George Washington University and Columbia University. In the 1920s, Hawkes worked at George Washington University as registrar, professor, and then dean of women. Later, she moved to the West Coast and became dean of Mills College, from 1945 to 1955. Hawkes served as AAUW president from 1955 to 1963. After her AAUW presidency, she was acting dean of students of Cottey College, Missouri. In the 1960s, she was a frequent visitor to the White House as a member of the United States Advisory Commission on Educational Exchange and the Board of Foreign Scholarships. At AAUW’s 75th anniversary celebrations, she observed, “The number of women in positions of leadership in this country, either appointed or elected, is ridiculously low. And that goes for the government, the universities, business, and just about every other organization.”

7. Althea K. Hottel (1907–2000)

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Althea K. Hottel spent most of her life on the University of Pennsylvania campus. As a student, she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees there and then became Directress of Women from 1936 to 1943. When that position was eliminated, Hottel was appointed dean of women — the first female dean on campus, a position she retained for 16 years. After her retirement, she served on Penn’s board of trustees. Hottel was AAUW president from 1947 to 1957. In this role, one of her most important contributions was to eliminate branches’ discriminatory membership practices and urge AAUW to adopt an inclusive statement that conferred membership upon all women with college degrees, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.

Suzanne Gould By:   |   November 30, 2015

2 Comments

  1. Margo Johnson says:

    THANKS, Suzanne!! The oldest women’s residence hall at Iowa State University is named after Alice Freeman. I was fortunate to reside there for two years. Her portrait in the main hallway was quite formidable. Am glad to know she was also an AAUW president.

  2. Kelvie Comer says:

    More recently the former president of Ithaca College (NY) Peggy Williams, Ph.D., served two terms on the AAUW Board of Directors. She currently serves on an AAUW Committee.

    Currently (2015- ), Glenda Price, Ph.D., former president of Marygrove College (MI) serves on the AAUW Board of Directors.

    College and university presidents bring an array of skill sets to the table from strategic planning, finance, communication, public relations, along with a variety of other strengths. AAUW has been fortunate to have their leadership on our boards!

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