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In 1866, when U-M regents argued that women were not persons in the eyes of the law, Alice Boise started sneaking into class — and outperforming the men.
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The first co-ed
May 13, 2008
There was an awkward moment at Ann Arbor's Union High School one evening in the late spring of 1866. In that era, students in ancient Greek often took their final oral exams of the year in public, reciting difficult passages under the eyes of families and neighbors. It was an event of some significance. For graduating seniors, it was a valedictory moment; for parents of the leading pupils, a chance to bask in the envy of mothers and fathers of lesser performers.
That year, two students stood out. One was the son of Erastus O. Haven, president of the University, himself a scholar of Latin. The other was Alice Boise, daughter of James Robinson Boise, professor of ancient Greek and a leading advocate of co-education, a reform the University had twice considered and tabled, President Haven saying "such a change could not be made without a radical revolution [and would] give a totally new character to the University."
As a little girl, Alice Boise had heard her mother say that of all the languages, Greek was the most beautiful. Alice had studied Greek and come to love it. In high school, she recalled, her classics teachers were "excellent," but her father was her main instructor. A fine-featured man with clear, gray-blue eyes, described by a colleague as "the most critical scholar of us all," Professor Boise applied the exacting standards to his daughter's instruction that he used in his all-male classes on campus, introducing Alice to what she called "severe methods of study which rendered language almost an exact science."
So it was undoubtedly no surprise when Alice's performance at the final exam was impressive. The Haven boy, too, did well.
As the families prepared to go, everyone praising the recitations of the two brilliant youngsters, Professor Boise found himself unable to restrain a comment on the inherent irony. Quite "suddenly," Alice remembered, her father put one hand on her shoulder, the other on young Haven's, glared "earnestly" at his colleague, President Haven, and declared: "And your son can continue, and my daughter cannot!"
That may have been the day Boise decided his daughter would continue her education. Or when Alice did. For although Madelon Stockwell is traditionally recognized as the first woman to attend the University, it was in fact Alice Boise, without official sanction, who took the first step for women into Michigan's classrooms.
A handful of schools already admitted women—Antioch, Oberlin, Swarthmore, Hillsdale, and a couple farther west. But the University's peer institutions, principally Harvard and Yale, had declared firmly against co-education.
Several years earlier, in 1858, several young women, led by Sarah Burger of Ann Arbor, had made a concerted effort to enroll at Michigan. Opposition was vitriolic. The men of the faculty echoed the common reasons for saying no: Women were intellectually incapable of advanced study, therefore would hurt the University's standing and prestige; they lacked the physical stamina, too; and in any case it was foolish to educate women whose chief mission would be motherhood and housekeeping.
The 1837 statute that reconstituted the University in Ann Arbor had said "the university shall be open to all persons who possess the requisite literary and moral qualifications." But a regents' committee cited the British legal authority Blackstone to the effect that women were not persons in the eyes of the law.
Then-President Henry Tappan confided to a friend that "after [the admission of women] no advancement is possible... The standard of education [would] be accommodated to the wants of girls who finish their education at 16-20, very properly, in order to get married, at the very age when young men begin their education." Women seeking equal rights would "fail to become men—they will be something mongrel, hermaphroditic," while men would be "demasculated…. When we attempt to disturb God's order we produce monstrosities."
U-M's new president, Haven, shared Tappan's opposition to co-education. But the catastrophic passage of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery renewed the debate and swung many minds in favor of co-education, in Ann Arbor and elsewhere. In 1866, for example, Alexander Winchell, professor of geology, observed: "The present age is…narrowing female privileges to a more fearful extent than any other since medieval times… I have long been growing into the conviction that we are consenting to a wrong."
The summer after Alice's recitation in Greek, the Boises, father and daughter, hatched a plan. Professor Boise apparently considered sending Alice to Vassar College, a women's school founded in 1861, then learned Vassar's program in Greek was no match for Michigan's. So, on the first day of classes in September, Alice slipped out the back door of the Boises' home at 1432 Washtenaw, where the First Presbyterian Church stands now, and hurried in the direction of the campus.
"I ran down path and hillside in trembling alarm," she wrote later. "In a little room beside my father's class room, I left my shawl and hat; then waited…for the roar of the advancing tread of my dreaded classmates."
She had not applied for or been granted admission to the University. Her presence in a classroom was an act of sheer defiance. She thought of Sophia Jex-Blake, the British medical student who had been famously turned away by the University of Edinburgh. Would Michigan men "howl and hiss" when they saw her, as Englishmen had jeered at Jex-Blake?
"The door opened. They entered. Save for a little murmur they were silent. Some of them had been my classmates in the High School. That recitation and many succeeding ones I managed somehow to live through. My lips did their work, even if my brain reeled; and the exact method did not fail me."
Most faculty members watched the Boises' gambit with disapproval. But President Haven did not intervene. Soon Professor C.K. Adams allowed Alice to join his course studying Livy. Then Professor Henry Simmons Frieze, a close friend of her father's, admitted her to his class in Horace. "And I studied! Grammar and dictionary yielded their secrets."
Talk of Alice's incursion spread from Ann Arbor to Detroit and Lansing, where the newspapers and the legislature renewed the debate: Could women handle college work, intellectually and physically? Alice heard that one local woman was calling her "the entering wedge for women." Until that moment, she recalled, "I had not quite realized…that I was representing my sex. This thought gave me new vigor. Yes, I was not studying for myself alone. Surely I must not fail!"
Despite her talent and strength of character, she still endured setbacks.
One professor allowed Alice into his class apparently with the deliberate plan of showing her up. Day after day, after a string of male students had struggled and failed to solve a difficult problem or translation, the professor, with "a meek look" but "mischief in his eyes," would send Alice to the blackboard.
"He sought diligently for some mistake in my work; and one day…he found it," she recalled. "I do not remember positively what it was; the omission of an iota subscript, I think. Dreadful blunder! My heart was lacerated. I crept homeward; locked myself in my room; and shed bitter tears… I had failed! Women would now never be admitted to the University!"
In her dismay, she succumbed to self-doubt: "Were those noble classmates, for the love they bore our sex, inspired to feign ignorance that I might often win?"
But that day was the exception. On most days, she solved problems that had baffled the men. It was clear to everyone that Alice was at least their equal, and superior to most.
If her triumphs were thrilling, and hugely consequential for women and even the nation, it was not a happy time. Writing long afterward, she said she preferred not to record any more of her memories of that year. "They are little things," she said. "Only atoms—of dynamite."
In 1868, Professor Boise accepted a position at the old University of Chicago, forerunner of its modern namesake. Alice followed him and attended classes there.
But even before they left Ann Arbor, the Michigan legislature went on record in favor of co-education, declaring: "The high objects for which the University of Michigan was organized will never be fully attained until women are admitted to all its rights and privileges."
President Haven and a majority of the Regents were still opposed. But in 1869, Haven resigned, and newly elected Regents turned the tide in the women's favor.
In the fall of 1870, Madelon Stockwell of Kalamazoo became the first woman officially admitted to the University. By the 1890s, nearly one in four students at the University were women, and in the twentieth century the number would skyrocket, though it would be much longer before women joined the faculty in any numbers.
Alice Boise Wood earned a degree at Chicago, taught classes there in her beloved Greek, and helped her father prepare a college textbook. Writing in 1896, shortly after her father's death, she fired a farewell shot at that professor who had tormented her and tried to show her up back on Michigan's campus.
"Did I fail?" she asked defiantly. "Have you noticed any women there?"
* * *
is an author and historian. His most recent book is To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight.