“On the Same Terms, The Beginning of Women’s Education at Northwestern” – Admitting Women for 150 Years

The Northwestern University class of 1880, Photo: Courtesy of 150 Years
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Northwestern University has been admitting women for 150 years – many women.  “On the Same Terms, The Beginning of Women’s Education at Northwestern” is an exhibition at the Deering Library which tells the story of how Northwestern came to accept women, and then the impact these women have had on the world. It will remain until June, 2020. In marking the150th anniversary of women’s education at Northwestern, the exhibition uses documents, images, and artifacts from the University Archives to examine the Board of Trustees’ decision, in 1869, “to allow the admission of young women to the classes of the University upon the same terms and conditions as young men…,” and looks at the complexities involved in interpreting and applying “the same terms and conditions” over the next century and a half. 

Janet Olson shares the stories of Northwestern University’s early years

A 150 website profiles some of the women who led and are leading the struggle to open doors at Northwestern and beyond.

Women begin to take their place at Northwestern

A book, the catalog of the exhibition, accompanies the exhibition and contains photos of the people that influenced Northwestern’s early years and many documents, that bring these years to life.  This book is a treasure in the way the story of Northwestern’s women is told by the women of the Northwestern Libraries.  Contributors include: Christine Brennan (1980, 1981 MS) award winning USA Today sports columnist, Joan Marie Johnson, director for faculty, Office of the Provost, Janet Olson, assistant university archivist, Northwestern University Libraries, and Sarah M. Pritchard, first woman Dean of libraries at Northwestern University. And, the exhibit at Deering Library was coordinated with the help of student researchers.

This exhibition has a strong emphasis on the women who demonstrated superior skills and energy, opening new doors in fields such as medicine, law, engineering, journalism, sports, the arts, and many more. But there are many more women who benefited from their Northwestern University education and simply applied their crafts to making the world a better place, and I count myself among them.

On the second floor, the history moves forward

The road that ultimately lead to the admission of women as coeds was not direct and not obvious.  The journey began with the Evanston College for Ladies.  After many twists and turns that included the Chicago Fire, the Northwestern University Trustees voted to admit women students in 1869. By 1874 a new building had been completed for and occupied by women, (now named Women’s Hall) and Charles Fowler, then President of Northwestern, handed a diploma to the first woman graduate, Sarah Rebecca Roland.  Quoting from the catalog, “Years later, Roland remembered that “when President Fowler …presented me my diploma on Commencement Day he said ‘You are the first of a long line, Miss Roland, and he was a true prophet.”

Sara Rebecca Roland (Childs), Photo: Courtesy of 150

As the long line continues, I remember my great aunt who immigrated to the US as a young woman and attended night school at Northwestern, where she developed bookkeeping skills that lead to her becoming the first woman in Chicago who could sell cars. Many years later, I was one of five returning students who earned BS and MS degrees in Speech and Language Pathology, and went on to provide service to children with special needs for many years. My daughters graduated from Northwestern and one is serving her community as a city council member in California.  A neighbor of mine received two degrees from Medill and contributed to radio, TV, and print media for several years. And, of course, there are countless others.

Developments in housing for women

I joined members of the Northwestern’s One Book program on a tour of the exhibition led by Janet Olson, who curated the exhibition. She commented, “I see this historical exhibit as supplying a background to understanding and appreciating the challenges and successes that produced our 150-year history of educated, motivated and significant women — students, alumnae, faculty, staff and administrators.”  

And, “I hope that people who walk through the exhibit will learn some of the same things I did as I was researching and selecting the images, artifacts and documents that went into the exhibit: how very complicated the actual history of coeducation at Northwestern has been; how much, and also how gradually, women’s experience changed over time over the first 100-plus years of their presence at Northwestern — in housing, curriculum, organizations, governance and more; and how women have persevered to push those changes through,” Olson added.

More interesting displays

The women on the tour, Northwestern alums, were also using their skills gained at Northwestern in many different ways. Chatting on the tour, they shared fond memories of their years at Northwestern.

Northwestern’s One Book is also coordinating their programs in consideration of this celebration. The selection of the book,  “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race”, by Margot Lee Shetterly coincides with the 150th year celebration of co-education at Northwestern and the 80th year since a woman joined the faculty who would later become a tenured full profession.  Through the various websites and school-based programming that feature our intellectual sisters and grandmothers comes a recognition of the heels and shoulders upon which this institution was built.  They are hidden no more.

If you would like more information go to One Book, This will provide the foundation for dozens of events throughout the upcoming academic year. We have hosted over 40 events this fall.

The exhibit runs through June 20, 2020 and is open during regular library hours

Photos: B. Keer unless otherwise noted.


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