Celebrating Women’s History: Weaving the stories of women’s lives

Mizzou’s first 22

They were students, but they were only allowed to use the library during certain hours. They couldn’t attend lecture classes offered to men or go to chapel services. They were the University of Missouri’s first female students.

In 1868, 22 women were admitted to MU’s Normal School, now the College of Education.

According to “School of the schoolmasters: A brief history of the College of Education” by Christopher Lucas, the MU president during that time, Daniel Read, believed women were naturally more inclined to be teachers than men, and he thought they should be given a university education.

Read called the decision “a very bold and hazardous measure.”

In 1870, Mary Louise Gillett of Hannibal, Missouri, became the first woman to graduate from MU.

President Read wrote in an 1873 report that female students “did no matter of harm.” MU began accepting female students to the other programs in the university, with a few requirements.

“We very cautiously admitted them to some of the recitations and lectures in the University building … they were to be marched in good order, with at least two teachers, one in the front and the other in the rear of the column as guards,” he wrote in “School of the schoolmasters.”

Sarah Gentry Elston was one of the first women admitted to the university. She wrote about attending chapel for the first time, “with Prof. (Erastus) Ripley at the head and Mrs. Ripley forming the rear guard.”

“We passed under the great columns … not to be seated, however, on the same floor as the men, but given a place in the gallery above,” she wrote in “School of schoolmasters.”

Professor Ripley ended his tenure as the dean of the Normal School and was replaced by Grace C. Bibb in 1878. She was MU’s first female dean, a position she held for five years.

Bibb believed it was important to give teachers a well-rounded education that would give them “a grasp of all of the conditions of the problem of education.” In order to receive a comprehensive education, students (both male and female) had to take classes outside of the Normal School.

Today, the College of Education continues to honor Bibb through the Grace Bibb Society, an organization for donors to the college. The society meets at least once a year to attend lectures and embrace Bibb’s interactive teaching methods.

Advancing the status of MU women

In 1992, the MU Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women drafted a constitution beginning with the phrase “We, the women, hold these truths to be self-evident.”

In their declaration, the committee asserted its right to elect its leaders and extend membership to whomever on campus was interested.

The committee formed in 1973 after 250 institutions of higher learning in the U.S., including MU, were charged with gender-based discrimination in 1971.

The Women’s Equity Action League, a women’s rights organization, accused universities of gender discrimination in the workplace, according to a history of the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women written by graduate student Kris Lawson in 2002.

“It was a time when more women were starting to go into higher education and there were noticeable inequities,” said Jordan Hoyt, co-chairwoman of the committee. “A lot of those inequities are things that we’re still seeing today.”

After the charges were filed, professor and administrator Luverne Walton repeatedly asked then-Chancellor Herbert W. Schooling to form a committee to evaluate women’s roles on campus, according to Lawson’s report.

“It’s no secret there has been discrimination,” Walton wrote.

After two years of discussion, the CSW was established in October 1973 with 12 members and Walton as chairwoman, to assess and make recommendations to the chancellor on the status of female students, professors and faculty.

During its first 10 years, the committee focused largely on equal salary and benefits for female teachers and administrators.

The committee focused the bulk of its efforts for the next 20 years on reducing sexual harassment on campus, a topic that was receiving little attention at the time.

It also recommended the creation of an advocacy office for women. In 1975, the Women’s Center opened in the basement of Gentry Hall.

In 1978, Barbara Uehling replaced Schooling after he retired, making her the third chancellor of MU and the first female chancellor.

In May 1980, the committee advised Uehling that the university write a definition for sexual harassment and develop a fixed policy against it. In the same report, the committee included a survey from students confirming the existence of sexual harassment on campus, according to Lawson’s history.

Through the ’90s, the committee continued to grow. CSW formed subcommittees to specialize in a variety of issues including salary disparities and retention rates.

In 2015, the committee is more active, Hoyt said.

“We took a step back a couple of years ago to reassess what we needed to focus on … We found that quite a few of those issues were the ones that we were addressing 40 years ago that hadn’t been resolved,” she said.

In 2011, an initiative called “Taking the Pulse of MU Women” surveyed students, professors and faculty to pinpoint the issues each group felt should be addressed. Many of the same issues kept coming up, like equal pay for women and more representation in leadership roles.

This year, the committee is working with the Arts & Science Status of Women Committee on a gender-based pay equity study for tenure-track faculty that is expected to be completed in May. It will be the first significant study of its kind at MU since the founding of the committee 42 years ago, Hoyt said.

A space for the ladies

A glass display case full of buttons with phrases like “Motherhood is optional” and “certified orgasmic” is mounted on the wall of MU’s Women’s Center. It displays only a fraction of the buttons that have been made by the center throughout its forty-year history.

On a typical afternoon in the Women’s Center, students are reading, doing their homework and socializing among plush chairs and well-stocked bookshelves.

Women’s Center Coordinator Theresa Eultgen said the relaxed, welcoming environment is part of what makes the center so successful.

Throughout March, the Women’s Center hosts events for Women’s History Month. This year, events were planned to celebrate women’s history and bring attention to the progress still needed.

Over 20 campus organizations work together to sponsor events for Women’s History Month. The Women’s Center works with the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women, the organization that created it, in one of those partnerships.

Since its founding by the committee in 1975, the Women’s Center has hosted events throughout the year ranging from movie screenings to discussions to skills training. A strong history of passionate staff members and students built a base for outreach.

“There’s so much programming, and all the coordinators that came before me did an amazing job of keeping this place alive and represented,” Eultgen said. “Our student staff is definitely the heartbeat of the center.”

In an article from the 1975 edition of MU’s yearbook, “The Savitar,” Deborah Downs-Miers, then-director of the Women’s Center, said the center was created to provide three services to women on campus: counseling (in both individual and group settings), referrals to information (through a library and well-informed staff) and “programs of a wide variety on a regular and special basis.”

The center struggled from a lack of resources soon after it opened. Downs-Miers is quoted as saying that she was being paid less than one-seventh of the salary she deserved.

The Women’s Center has maintained its presence on campus through four physical moves, the beginning of countless new programs and multiple generations of students.

“We’re part of a bigger network (of) women that have come before us for so long and had to work with even less resources than we have now,” Eultgen said. “So that’s kind of our duty as women, to be able to pass that torch on and make sure that hopefully we’re not fighting for the same things in 40 years.”

Taking it to the classroom

The first Women’s Studies course was taught in 1971 through the Honors College as a response to student requests. It focused on the roles of women in society and was taught by several instructors, according to a 2010 Maneater article.

The program has taken many forms throughout its forty-year history.

“It’s grown and then shrunk and then grown again,” said Enid Schatz, associate professor of women’s and gender studies.

The number of classes increased as student interest grew. In 1980, Women’s Studies became an official program, according to a timeline from the Women’s Center.

A year after achieving full program status, Dorothy Haecker was named the first full-time director of the Women Studies Program in 1981.

Haecker came to MU after receiving a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Kansas in 1981.

In the 1985 edition of “The Savitar,” Haecker said the time she spent in California during the 1970s lead to her interest in activism. Haecker played a role in forming two of the first officially recognized women’s studies programs in the U.S. at Chico State University and San Francisco State University.

“She has earned a decidedly well-deserved reputation, as a teacher who motivates, inspires, challenges, respects and cares about the students in her class,” according to “The Savitar.”

In 2003, the program changed its name to Women’s and Gender Studies to reflect an increasing emphasis on studying the relationships among genders.

It became a department in the College of Arts and Science in 2007. The change allowed the department to offer more classes and bring academic diversity to the College of Arts and Science, according to a 2007 Maneater article.

Today, Women’s and Gender Studies students complete an interdisciplinary emphasis area or a minor in the subject. Many Women’s and Gender Studies classes fulfill general education or elective requirements.

Schatz said her students appreciate the critical lens the program gives them in understanding gender implications in the world.

“In general, there has been support from the administration,” Schatz said. “It’s seen as a valuable asset to Arts and Science (because) it provides students with a more diverse perspective on the world.”

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