The University Record, October 23, 2000

Voices of early U-M women now can be heard

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

From 'Women's Voices: Early Years at the University of Michigan.' Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
By 1924 there were nearly 10,000 women who had attended the University of Michigan since females were first admitted in 1870. An alumni survey issued in 1924 resulted in more than three thousand responses from these pioneers, who reported on their careers and lives after U-M and shared their memories and experiences of their time at the University. The memories have been edited and compiled by the Bentley Historical Library into Women’s Voices: Early Years at the University of Michigan.

Volunteer staff members Doris E. Attaway and Marjorie Rabe Barritt worked their way through stacks of handwritten comments on onionskin paper to produce the sampling of women’s voices recounting a variety of experiences that occurred during more than 54 years on campus.

These early female students often came from small towns and protected environments to a university where they were competing with men in the institution. They left the U-M with a new maturity, self-confidence and independence with leadership skills that accented their public and private lives.

It appears that these women left U-M having had some of the same experiences that students today come to Michigan to enjoy. As Alexina Meier reported in 1924, “we, who because of attending a larger University, had the privilege of meeting people from all over the world, could not help but have a ‘different’ viewpoint from those people who went to smaller less cosmopolitan, institutions.” Meier left the U-M in 1911 with an undergraduate degree, earned advanced degrees at other institutions and became a high school teacher of English, French and German.

Before Title IX brought athletic opportunities for women on a par with men, Elizabeth Ronan of the class of 1901 said, “I played in one of the first basketball games ever seen in Ann Arbor, was in the first Open Day exhibition of the girls’ gymnasium, and remember the excitement caused by our playing an outdoor game of basketball in our bloomers.” Ronan became a librarian.

Not all the early female students had positive experiences while here. Some bemoaned the fact that there were few or no female faculty members. Mary Byrd of the class of 1878 recalled, “One of my keenest memories of college days at Ann Arbor is that the women students were unwelcome. The professors themselves, so far as I knew personally, were always courteous and considerate.” Byrd became a teacher of Latin, Greek, math and astronomy.

Financing a college education even then was often a matter of successful budgeting. As Mary Raper wrote, “My college memories are not very vivid—perhaps the fact that my expenses for the year were only $189, and my clothing budget was 10 cents for shoe strings will show why.” And Hazel Harrington responded, “Once I lived for six days on 15 cents-worth of food. A word of praise from Professor Rankin kept me from giving up.” Raper left the U-M to become a housewife and teacher. Harrington became an elementary school teacher.

The publication of Women’s Voices: Early Years at the University of Michigan coincides with the re-dedication of Lane Hall, which houses the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the Program in Women’s Studies. The sources from which the book was compiled are available to the public at the Bentley Historical Library. The book is available at Shaman Drum Bookstore.