Professor discusses history of female enrollment at the University in light of 150th anniversary of coeducation

Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 10:29pm

Andrea L. Turpin, associate professor of History at Baylor University, speaks about the history of coeducation in American colleges and universities at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library Thursday night.

Andrea L. Turpin, associate professor of History at Baylor University, speaks about the history of coeducation in American colleges and universities at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library Thursday night. Buy this photo
Alice Liu/Daily

Andrea Turpin, associate professor of history at Baylor University, presented a lecture on changes in views on the admission of women into institutions for higher education. Organized by the Bentley Historical Library, about 30 students and professors attended the event on Wednesday night in honor of the 150th anniversary of the admission of women to the University of Michigan.

Turpin, author of the award-winning book “A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917,” spoke about women’s struggle for admission at the University and their experiences with coeducation.

Turpin began the lecture by speaking about Alice Freeman Palmer, a student who enrolled at the University two years after it began admitting women in 1870. Turpin said Palmer convinced her parents to let her attend college as it would help her become a teacher, one of the few occupations widely open to women at the time.

“Alice Freeman Palmer’s influence winds through the development of three of the most prominent universities of that era, Michigan, Chicago and California, and two of the most prominent women’s colleges, Wellesley and Radcliffe,” said Turpin. “In other words, the advent of coeducation at Michigan mattered. It mattered a lot, not only for American higher education but also for American higher society.” 

Turpin said women did not usually attend college during the 1800s due to societal norms and expectations. 

“College existed to give students the concrete knowledge and the mental discipline necessary to be one of four things: a minister, a doctor, a lawyer or just an educated gentleman who would often be the leader in local politics or businesses,” said Turpin. “It never occurred to anybody to admit women to college because women would never do any of those things.”

According to Turpin, different views regarding the purpose of higher education shaped people’s opinions on women’s education.

“If serving the church meant only training ministers and most of the churches didn’t allow female ministers, it wouldn’t make sense to educate women,” said Turpin. “If serving the church was to educate as many people as possible to communicate the Christian message as intelligently as possible then it would make sense to educate women. In other words, it made sense to admit women to college if you believed that social change came from the bottom up.”

Turpin also said educating women was seen as a financial burden to some at the time. 

“It was, like many things, a question of money,” said Turpin. “You either had to raise the money to found entirely new colleges for them or you had to build more classrooms and dormitories for them at existing colleges whose funds were originally intended to educate society’s most influential leaders. Was it worth it?”

University alum Christina Karas said she attended the event to learn more about the history of women at the University and thought Turpin’s lecture was eye-opening.

“I like how (Turpin) brought out things that I didn’t already know about the overall history of women’s lives at the U of M,” said Turpin. “We hear a lot about some certain specific women like Madelon Stockwell or, you know, Eliza Mosher, but I didn’t actually know as much about the broader student population and how they lived their lives.”

LSA freshman Rachna Iyer said she found it commendable that the University supported coeducation in the 1800s at a time when many other places around the globe had contrasting views.

“As someone minoring in women’s studies, I learned so much about the history of the women preceding me at this university and their impact all around the world,” Iyer said. “It’s crazy to think that only 150 years ago I would not be able to join this university. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come as a society, and although I know we still have got a long way to go, it is important to recognize the work of the women before us.”

Reporter Navya Gupta can be reached at itznavya@umich.edu