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Monday, Oct. 25, 2021: Julia Verklan Maloney

The building is compact with soft red bricks lined in stone filigree trim. Its beauty lies in the reflective dormer and casement windows, sprawling alcoves and wooden rails. Charm and feminine austere is within the patterned tiling, fanciful garden-scape and coffered ceilings. Imaginative and luxurious, exclusive and emancipating. 

As a female student on campus, the Michigan League was built for me. It is a building that in its creation offers the chance of fairness and freedom, two ideologies not fully realized outside its walls. A building I am trying to understand.

As I sat at table 5 within the Bentley Historical Library, I had an agenda. I sought to expose, know and deconstruct the history of the first women responsible for the foundation and eventual construction of the Michigan League through their first-hand accounts. The Bentley, situated on North Campus, houses 11,000 research collections to promote the study of the histories of both the state of Michigan and the University of Michigan for researchers regardless of academic or professional affiliation. In front of me sat two foam supports, one plastic page-turner, a set of blue rubber gloves and a rolling cart holding 7 dust-proof boxes. The subjects: Ethel Fountain Hussey, the first president of the Women’s League, and Mary Bartron Henderson, leader of the Michigan League’s construction campaign. 

As I opened the first box, a waft of mildew escaped from the cardboard. Inside, there appeared to be over 20 leather-bound agendas with browning pages and gold-embossed lettering. The remaining 6 boxes contained nearly the same contents, smell and aura — around 100 agendas and files of correspondence dating from as early as 1876.

Within the leather binds and manilla folders, sprawled in purple-typed ink and smeared black fountain pen, there found are the two key aforementioned names. Hussey and Henderson dedicated their life efforts to ensure equal access and recognized existence of co-education in Ann Arbor. Their work was materially realized and documented throughout a series of letters, journals, sketch drawings and recorded skepticism. And it was all contained within the 7 boxes positioned next to me.

Hussey and Henderson had both the time and inclination to keep full diaries and threads of correspondence, each outlining almost every day of their working and personal lives in Ann Arbor up until their death. According to the agendas’ prefatory, the purpose of such extensive documentation was to serve as a guide for remembrance and a potential keepsake for old age. They are books that take 5 years to fully fill yet are good for the next 100. They are letters meant for exchange between 2 people yet are conversations needed for U-M students everywhere.

Books and letters that exist to inspire and educate, not to be left dormant in dust-proof boxes. 

A look back in time

Jan. 1, 1890-Sept. 29, 1915: Ethel Fountain Hussey’s Story

It had been some 70 years since the school’s founding and only 20 since the first woman, Madelon Stockwell, was admitted to the University of Michigan. The female population on campus was rapidly growing.

Yet such a number was ignored and intentionally isolated. Female students had no designated residence halls to sleep in, forcing them to rent out local houses. They had no spaces to gather, denying them the opportunity to socialize and acclimate.

Seclusion angered Ethel Hussey, wife of astronomy professor and U-M alum William J Hussey. Although not a U-M alumna herself, she was engaged in campus affairs through her husband’s work as a teacher and acclaimed administrative figure. Although tangential at first, Hussey’s involvement in campus affairs turned personal following her external view of gender-based inequity in Ann Arbor. Considering there was no building for women to congregate, Hussey felt that female students were wrongfully stunted intellectually, socially and athletically— she was sure of it. Such fervor is highlighted in her diaries, with smeared ink and quick cursive to outline her intensity. Using her husband’s connection to administration as leverage, her fiery correspondence to her male counterparts was to enable female voices beyond her own.

Hussey’s push for equity was apparent, for she was unwilling to wait another 70 years for recognition at an institution pegged as being “progressive.” Eventually, with the influence of her husband, Ethel’s ferocity led to the formation of the “Women’s League of the U. of M.” in October of 1890: A female governing institution to which she would be elected the first president. It was ultimately an intangible compromise. Her persistence allowed for an equitable constitution for all college girls, serving as a sponsor for meetings, dances and lectures. With a formally recognized name and clear purpose, the League was to be a haven and home for the growing population of female scholars. And while the League’s intention was grand, it still lacked a physical space — its members met in a single office in the corner of Barbour Gymnasium. Its cramped nature may have left enough room for a small gathering, yet did not provide nearly enough footing for what was to be the coming generation of female scholars.

Her next objective was simple: supervised and refined student housing for women in an effort to create a community on campus followed by a gathering space big enough to host events, lectures, meetings, dances and more. 

In one of her accounts, Ethel writes: 

“The aim is no less personal freedom, but greater personal comfort, with greater social opportunity and enjoyment available to the average girl who comes to take her chance.”

Under the League, she advocated for the establishment of Martha Cook and Helen Newberry Residence Halls — a fight she would inevitably win after spearheading donation campaigns and marketing efforts. Yet it was no easy triumph. Similar to her earlier campaigns, she was met with a series of defeated responses from administrators, outlined financial barriers from the regents and social hills to climb from the general student body. From 1909 and onward, Hussey penned countless letters to University President James B. Angell, donors and professors pushing for female dormitories — all of her writings were persistent and bothering.

In 1911, the building plan for Martha Cook Residence Hall was approved, with its construction ending in 1914. Her first goal had been achieved despite hardship and doubt, making way for the achievement of her second — an ample meeting space for the League. It was a goal to be left unfulfilled, for Hussey passed away on Sept. 28, 1915. A formalized space of social opportunity had not broken ground. 

Jan. 1, 1926 -Apr. 26, 1937: Mary Bartron Henderson’s Story

It had been four years since her first correspondence to the Board of Regents, seven years since the construction of the Michigan Union and over a decade since Ethel Hussey’s passing. Mary Bartron Henderson, U-M alumna and executive secretary of the Alumnae Council, was waiting on the approval of a $1 million campaign to construct a building for women. It was to be the sister to the Michigan Union and a closing chapter to Ethel’s objectives.

The Union was built to provide students with opportunities for academic enhancement and socializing — a plan that at the time had restricted access on the basis of gender. Male students and administrators, along with a door guard, enforced inhibitory policies for female entry, closing the literal and metaphorical door to opportunity while offering no alternative. Instead of entering a space founded upon discriminatory principles, Henderson instead desired to create and open a new one of her own, leaving the door open and unrestricted for her succeeding sisters.

Henderson was relentless, speaking at every event from director luncheons to national conventions, talking to anyone who would listen. It was a race to raise $1 million, a race that was anything but unaided.

To raise funds for the building campaign, some female students made flapper beads out of lamp pulls to save change, others double-bunked to rent their rooms out on football weekends. Leftover savings went to the cause. Students and alumnae sold small items, including yellow pillows, “freshies” (cold cream papers), maps and League playing cards in support. Clara Clemens, daughter of Mark Twain, toured major Michigan cities performing “Joan of Arc,” donating the proceeds to Henderson’s movement. Yet the largest gift for the effort came from U-M Alumni Mr. Robert P Lamount, offering $100,000 under one condition: the money was to be used to memorialize Hussey in the form of a swanky women’s lounge.

And through Henderson’s direction and endless pursuit of both wealthy contacts and small donation endeavors, the shovel broke ground in 1927. $1 million had been raised, the cornerstone had been laid.

The construction of the Michigan League was a triumphant victory for Ann Arbor women. On May 4, 1929, a new door opened and was propped open for female students to enter.

Nov. 10, 2021- Onward: The Future Story of U-M Women Everywhere

Students can find the Hussey Room located on the second floor of the Michigan League. As a spectator walks through, they are greeted by portraits of female heroines like Joan of Arc and Judith lining the walls. At the head of the room, painted above the wood paneling and lofty curtains is the mural “Young American Womanhood.” 

It is the most prominent and eye-catching painting in the famed room, stretching across the northern wall. It depicts a young woman in the 1920s seen in three semblances: An austere scholar in gown and mortarboard holding the lamp of knowledge, a steely athlete in tennis garb and a graceful belle in a gown, holding roses with her left hand as she extends her right.

The three forms of the “young American woman” are a visual representation of the end goal of co-education, as well as a snub to the men that opposed their admission and status in the decades prior. It is a mural tasked at taking down assumptions — assumptions that deem women intellectually incapable for college curricula, physically weak for the demands of college life and susceptible to masculinization when set amongst men.

When placed in an arena with these principles, the Hussey room serves as the ultimate refutation. It is a visual reminder to assert the strength of our intellect, physicality and grace. 

With a space to be housed, a place to socialize and a room to empower, it is the duty for U-M women everywhere to uphold, further and learn from the tenacity of Ethel Fountain Hussey and Mary Bartron Henderson. We are to open doors that have been intentionally closed off in the past all while creating new ones of our own, documenting the process and furthering the story. There is to be a commitment to contribute our own documentation to the next generation of researchers and female scholars. In the words of Henderson, “Let us put forth the closest cooperation we can, for we must have it. The great inspiration for women all over this country are the women on this campus.”

 As I sit at table 5 within the Bentley Historical Library, I am filled with the realization that you and I have an agenda to expose and understand. The agenda appoints us to empower the history of the first women responsible for the foundation and eventual construction of an equitable campus. Using their first-hand accounts, new history is to be made. In front of me: one laptop and one ignited initiative to get my words into a print publication. The subject: creating an equitable future for U-M students by understanding and building off past female ascendancy.  


“For Michigan Women everywhere

Who asked no favors in their great university

Who are proud that their education is identical to that of their brothers

Who are genuinely interested in their sisters on campus 

This story has been written”

Statement Associate Editor Julia Verklan Maloney can be reached at