Who goes there?
The Michigan Union was founded in 1903 as a club for all University of Michigan students, faculty, and alumni — all, that is, except women.
From 1907-16, the all-male Union occupied a fine stone house at the corner of State Street and South University. Then the house was torn down, and a much larger building rose in its place.The building, like the club, was named the Michigan Union. It, too, welcomed all students, faculty, and alumni — except women.
Without a male escorting her, no woman was to be allowed through the front door. The Union’s “House Rules” of 1921 enshrined the practice in print, and the University employed a doorman, one George Johnson, to enforce it.
Johnson stood at the front entrance and greeted every woman who came up the steps. He was sorry, he would say, but they must walk back down the steps, then around the northeast corner of the building. There they could enter through the side door. Once inside, they were allowed in only three rooms without a male escort — a waiting room, a women’s dining room, and a “ladies’ powder room.”
A woman was allowed to attend dances in the Union ballroom if escorted by a man. Also, if accompanied, she was permitted throughout the building on Saturdays and Sundays — but never, under any circumstances, in the billiards room or the swimming pool.
The Union door rule symbolized a fact that everyone at Michigan took for granted from the late 1800s until after World War II: Outside of classroom buildings, students lived in essentially separate spheres, female and male.
Women lived in women’s dormitories, sororities, or all-women boarding houses regulated by the dean of women. Men lived in men’s dormitories, fraternities, or all-male boarding houses. Some student organizations were “co-educational.” But most of the major ones, including those with offices in the Union, were dominated by men.
The division became even more apparent when the Women’s League, an organization for women students founded by students and wives of faculty in the 1890s, raised funds for the construction of a Michigan League building. Opening in 1929, the building housed the offices of the League itself and other clubs and organizations that were strictly for women.
If a doorwoman ever guarded the League’s front door to prevent men from entering unescorted, no record of her survives.
The Union and League buildings were designed by the same architect, Irving Pond (1857-1939), who had thought a great deal about the proper place of the opposite sex in each building.
“Every man’s Union has to be planned to accommodate women,” Pond wrote in 1931, “and every women’s League must be planned in reference to the accommodation of men. In a man’s building the very minimum of accommodation for women may quite properly be provided; while in a woman’s building the maximum of accommodations must be provided for men. For men will gather in clubs and enjoy themselves without the presence of women, while women, especially college girls, find their enjoyment greatly enhanced by the presence of men or boys.”
The Union’s rule was hardly unusual. Men’s clubs around the world strictly regulated the entry of women, including the nearby clubs that U-M students would have known best — the exclusive Detroit Athletic Club (founded in 1887 “to encourage all manly sports”) and the Detroit Club, where the rules specified that membership “shall be confined to the male sex.” Their doors, too, were closely watched.
Breaking the rule
Did the rule about the front door really preserve the sanctity of the Union’s male domain? Judith Dow Rumelhart, a singer, musical producer, and philanthropist who grew up in Ann Arbor, told the Michigan Alumnus of her memory of her mother — Margaret Dow Towsley (1906-94, a U-M graduate of 1928), who would become a significant donor to U-M — breaking the rule in the mid-1940s.
Ms. Towsley was bringing her young children to the Union to catch a bus for Detroit. To buy bus tickets, she would have to go inside. So in she went, straight through the front door.
“We all followed her like little ducklings,” Rumelhart told the Alumnus. “We passed two guys going out as we were going in, and they looked at us like we had just entered the men’s bathroom.”
The timing is significant. During World War II, with so many male students away from the campus, women students took over many positions of leadership customarily held by men. When the men returned in force, old gender precedents had been shaken.
The Union doorman George Johnson died in 1946. The Union left his job vacant. Year by year, the rule became merely a custom, and by the mid-1950s, even the custom had fallen away.
‘Whatever door they prefer’
In 1954, the Union laid the cornerstone of a major addition to the north side of the building. A woman reporter for The Michigan Daily asked the Union’s current president, Tom Leopold, about the front door and women.
That was old stuff, Leopold said. “We want as many people as possible to use Union facilities, through whatever door they prefer.”
Not every Michigan woman approved of the change. “If this tradition goes the way of all the others,” a junior named Gretchen Quine remarked to the Daily, “this campus will be a pretty dull place. I’m all for a few old customs, even if it means walking out of my way.”
An iconic photograph taken in 1954 (displayed at the top of the story) is said to be the first to show women using the Union’s front door. The staged shot captures Suzanne Christy Collins (1958) and an unidentified friend busting out from inside. But it was taken when construction on the new north wing was blocking the old side door. So does the photo need an asterisk?
Penetrating the building was one thing. Membership in the Union as an organization was another. That rule was still men only, and for a long time.
Then, in 1972, a law student named Helen Forsyth filed a complaint with the Central Student Judiciary, charging that the Union’s male-only rule was “insulting to women and a violation of my rights.” The judges agreed, and Forsyth was admitted.
In any case, the Union as an organization lasted only a few more years. That left only the building, with all entrances open to everybody.
Sources included Steve Rosoff, “The Forbidden Door,” Michigan Alumnus (spring 2017); “Constructing Gender: The Origins of Michigan’s Union and League,”; The Michigan Daily; Irving Pond, “The College Union,” Architectural Forum (June 1931); George Bulanda, “The Way It Was — Nacirema Club, 1924,” Hour Detroit, 2/15/2021; and “Detroit Athletic Club,” Historic Detroit.org.
(Lead image: In 1954, a photographer caught Suzanne Christy Collins, left, and an unidentified friend breaking the rule against women using the Union’s front door without a male escort. The image is courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)