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Alice Freeman Palmer (1855–1902)

The first female college president and the first president of Wellesley College, Alice Freeman Palmer was the founding dean of women at the University of Chicago.

Born on a farm in mid-state New York, Palmer grew up with the rural expectation that women would work hard to help support their families. At age fifteen she surprised her parents by announcing that she intended to go to college. She was already engaged to the only college graduate she had ever met, a teacher at the local academy where she was a star student, and when he discouraged her plans she broke the engagement. A college education, she insisted to all opponents, would best prepare her to serve others and to earn money by teaching. Palmer matriculated at the University of Michigan in 1872, two years after the university was first forced to admit women. During and after college she took a variety of teaching positions, and a year after graduation she became her family's primary support when her father went bankrupt.

In 1879 Palmer accepted a position as professor of history at Wellesley College, which had opened four years earlier with an all-female faculty. Wellesley's founder, Henry Durant, was greatly impressed by Palmer's intellectual abilities, charismatic leadership, and persistent yet charming personality. She became his protégé, and when he died in 1882 the trustees appointed her president even though, at age twenty-seven, she was the youngest member of the faculty.

Palmer soon gained a national reputation as a promoter of women's higher education. She strengthened Wellesley's faculty, student body, and financial status, established a network of secondary schools to prepare girls for college work, and insisted that Wellesley pursue high intellectual standards. College education, she argued at every opportunity, prepares women for civic leadership as well as self-knowledge and self-respect. She expected many of her students to support themselves, as she had. The rest she expected to lead libraries and museums, serve on school boards and town governments, and pursue other forms of civic service.

In 1887 Palmer shocked her colleagues by marrying George Herbert Palmer, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, and resigning from Wellesley's presidency. She spent the next year recovering from her active tuberculosis, and then renewed her career as a public speaker. For the next four years she toured the country to preach the importance of women's higher education to university audiences, women's clubs, religious societies, and anyone else who would pay her. A powerful and passionate speaker, she presented herself as a model of an educated woman: intellectual yet emotional, dedicated to serving others yet happy in her personal life, willing to work hard for causes she believed in, yet retaining the feminine graces of beauty, wit, and attentiveness to others. Many people still believed that education de-sexed women, and Palmer intended to prove them wrong.

Palmer also joined the Massachusetts State Board of Education, eventually becoming its most senior member, and gained a reputation as a formidable lobbyist on Beacon Hill. She served as a trustee for several educational institutions, including Wellesley College, was active in several education-oriented voluntary associations, including the fore-runner of the American Association of University Women, and was one of five people chosen to represent Massachusetts at the 1893 World's Fair. With her husband, George Palmer, she tried to persuade Harvard to admit women on equal terms with men. After she led a campaign to create a $250,000 endowment for female students, Harvard reneged on its agreement to admit women if the money were raised.

In 1892, when the University of Chicago was preparing to open, Palmer was the most prominent woman in the field of higher education. Chicago was then a rough western city, and the university's president, William Rainey Harper, feared that parents would refuse to send their daughters to a new university in a city best known for its stockyards. If Palmer were dean of women, Harper believed, her reputation would help give the young university the stamp of approval it desperately needed. He hoped to hire both Palmers–George as well as Alice–but when George decided to remain at Harvard, Harper continued to court Alice persistently. Finally she agreed to his suggestion that she commute from Cambridge to Chicago and be in residence only twelve weeks a year.

Palmer was one of the few Chicago founders with solid administrative experience, so she quickly became involved in every aspect of the new university. Harper repeatedly claimed that he would not have survived the university's first year without her. Palmer gave special attention, however, to making the university an appealing intellectual and social environment for women. She succeeded. When Chicago opened, women were 24 percent of its student body. The next year they were 33 percent, and the percentage climbed each year until 1898, when 43 percent of the students were women. Many male students, faculty, administrators, trustees, and donors–including Harper–were alarmed by this trend, which they interpreted as the "feminization" of the university, and university policies quickly shifted to attract men and discourage women. Palmer, not surprisingly, was marginalized and her policy suggestions ignored. After three years she decided to resign.

Palmer never again held a paid, professional position. Instead, she gave all of her time to the Massachusetts Board of Education, the numerous institutions of which she was trustee, and other cultural and political activities. She always, even during her Wellesley years, preferred coeducation to single-sex education. Men and women, she believed, belonged beside each other, working and learning together as peers. After her experiences at Harvard and Chicago, however, she lost her early optimism that men needed only a few years of adjustment and then would be happy to treat women as equals. For the rest of her life, she nurtured institutions–schools, colleges, and scholarships for advanced graduate work–that would enable other women to pursue education and professional work.


BORDIN, RUTH. 1993. Alice Freeman Palmer: The Evolution of a New Woman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

KENSCHAFT, LORI. 1999. "Marriage, Gender, and Higher Education: The Personal and Public Partnership of Alice Freeman Palmer and George Herbert Palmer, 1886–1902." Ph.D. diss., Boston University.

LINENTHAL, ARTHUR J. 1995. Two Academic Lives: George Herbert Palmer and Alice Freeman Palmer. Boston: privately printed.

PALMER, ALICE FREEMAN. 1897. Why Go To College. Boston: Crowell.

PALMER, ALICE FREEMAN, and PALMER, GEORGE HERBERT. 1908. The Teacher: Essays and Addresses on Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


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