Today, mysteries are thought of as mostly fictional. But last year, the University’s chapter of Mortar Board was presented with an opportunity to learn about its origins after receiving an unexpected gift from former members.
Mortar Board is now a national senior honor society that accepts men and women who excel in scholarship, leadership and service. But at the turn of the 20th century, the University’s Mortar Board was an honor society for women at the University who had to fight for a place in a male-dominated campus.
Current Mortar Board members were given boxes found in an Ann Arbor basement containing hundreds of pages of meticulous meeting minutes, evolving constitutions, invitations, scrapbooks and society clothing. The collection was a virtual time capsule that detailed a storied past of Mortar Board and other female student organizations, one that shows the struggle of women to gain respect on a campus that did not always welcome them.
This is made most evident by accounts from these female students at the turn of the 20th century. In 1924, the University’s Alumnae Council conducted a survey of female students who had attended the University since 1870, when women were first admitted. The responses appeared in a brochure titled “For Michigan Women Everywhere,” which according to “Women’s Voices: Early Years at the University of Michigan,” was used for fundraising to build the Michigan League.
Of the 10,250 women surveyed, thousands responded and painted a very different picture of campus life from what female students experience today. Sexism, unequal treatment and a lack of female representation on the faculty was overt and frequent.
“I resented the fact that we had no women on our faculty except an instructor in Art and one in physical training. I don’t believe I’m reconciled yet to the fact that coeducation is not extended to the faculty members,” wrote Clementine Williams of the class of 1910.
Anne Peck, a graduate student in the class of 1881, sought employment at the University after graduation but was turned away on account of her gender: “Prof. Pattengill wrote me in 1885, ‘You are undoubtedly better qualified for the position than any young man we shall be likely to get. At the same time there is no chance of your getting it.’ ”
Other women weren’t even granted the courtesy of a letter, like Lillian Johnson of the class of 1891, who received this backhanded compliment: “At the Senior reception Prof. Hudson said, ‘If you were only a man I’d ask you to come back as my assistant in History next year.”
Four female students formed Mortar Board in 1905 to help women on campus. Of the founders, two were Greek and two were independent. To ensure fairness, they agreed that Greek women would only be allowed to select independent women and independent women could only select Greek women.
Then-University President James B. Angell supported the creation of an honor society for women, according to Mortar Board’s records of its history found in the uncovered boxes. The group’s purpose was to “promote social and intellectual interaction, as well as college spirit, executive ability, and a sincere interest in the welfare of the women of the university.”
Notable Mortar Board alums include Alice Lloyd and Vera Baits — namesakes of campus residence halls who held positions in the University administration — University Provost Teresa Sullivan and Marie Hartwig, the first associate director of athletics for women.
Members of Mortar Board already knew much of this information about their society. But the donated archives chronicle the existence of many other women’s societies that have disappeared from campus: Scroll, Senior Society, Circle and Wyvern. Complete records are not available for all groups, but it appears that three of the four accepted senior women, with the exception of Wyvern, which was an honorary society for junior women that likely acted as a feeder organization for Mortar Board and Senior Society.
“The senior groups all appear to have had scholastic requirements, but it appears Senior Society was more social in nature, and Mortar Board has always put its heaviest emphasis on scholarship,” said David Mickey-Pabello, a past Mortar Board member and University graduate student. “One of the ways they heavily valued scholarship was forming Wyvern for juniors.”
The groups also differed in their membership requirements, with Mortar Board a mix of Greek and independent students and Senior Society for independent women only. Not much is known about Scroll and Circle, according to Pabello, but it is thought that Circle may have been a predecessor to Circle K.
These groups recruited members by requesting letters of recommendation from dormitory mothers and then voting on candidates. A major ritual that seems to be shared among at least Senior Society and Mortar Board is the tradition of “tapping.”
To tap someone, a member would slip her collar and bow around the prospect’s neck and hand her a scroll and invitation to initiation. Candidates were often caught by surprise, both because they had been recommended in confidence and because tapping occurred after lights out in the dormitory, usually catching new initiates in curlers and pajamas. “Permission from house mothers is required first for this, of course,” advised Senior Society president Shirley Hansen in a 1947 letter.
The women societies held their meetings in “The Cave,” a room on the fourth floor of the League that Mortar Board records say was dedicated in 1929 as a “secret” room for campus honoraries.
“Of course, now ‘The Cave’ is a suite in the League hotel, but it’s interesting that it was designated as a secret meeting room,” said Pabello.
The organizations sponsored orientation and advising programs, career and leadership conferences, marriage lectures, chaperone services and tutoring.
Female students were not allowed to attend the University’s career fair in the 1950s, so Senior Society, Scroll and Mortar Board organized a fair for women at the Michigan League. It was a progressive idea at a time when many believed that a woman’s place is in the home. But reports on the career fair show just how far women have come.
According to an article in The Michigan Daily in 1957, careers available at the fair included airline hostessing, banking, insurance, civil and social service, publishing and journalism.
Representatives from each industry attended the fair to give advice to women about how to prepare for careers in the field. Students interested in airline hostessing were told to prepare with “study in geography, public speaking, drama, psychology and home economics.” Other representatives seemed to accept the limits of women in the workplace, like Laura Pringle, fashion editor of the Detroit Free Press, who advised aspiring journalists, “Journalism is one of men’s most jealously guarded professions…the most opportunities for women are in the society department.”
It appears that Mortar Board is the only survivor of the original women societies. It’s unclear whether the other societies merged with Mortar Board or were simply lost with the changing times. Mortar Board has changed as well, especially with the acceptance of men in 1979 around the time of Title IX.
“Upon finding this information, we realized what a rich history we have, and my hope is that we can use this history to keep up tradition and possibly reintroduce some traditions into the organization,” Pabello said.
The groups’ efforts to improve the life of campus women, no matter how dated they seem, show the determination of many over the years to ensure females were seen as equals and as assets to the University.