Women and the University of Rochester
It’s earlier than you think.
The watershed 1900 admission of women undergraduates to the University of Rochester—and the (true) legend of Susan B. Anthony’s role in the long, often arduous effort to gain that opportunity—have overshadowed the achievements and the sustaining presence of women at the University of Rochester in the fifty years preceding that momentous year, and in the 120 years since.
Women have always been a part of the University of Rochester, even when they did not have a prominent role on the campus or in the classroom. Women philanthropists supported the University’s mission as founding subscribers to the 1850 endowment required by our Charter application.
The daughters of prominent Rochesterians influenced their fathers’ support for women’s education. In 1875, Professor Samuel Lattimore (father of five daughters) admitted women students to his advanced Chemistry course. In the 1890s, Geology professor and University Registrar Herman LeRoy Fairchild (father of three daughters) may have subverted the “no women students” intent of the Board of Trustees by registering women as special students.
Only a small proportion of women students came from outside Rochester to attend the University, meaning that the racial and ethnic composition of the city was reflected in the student population. In 1931, Beatrice Amaza Howard (1909-1996) was the first African American woman to graduate from the University; over 725 students from underrepresented minorities are enrolled today.
Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934) was the first woman to teach at the University in 1894, as a member of the faculty of the Extension School. Dr. Elizabeth Denio (1842-1922) was the first female professor, teaching students of both sexes from 1902-1917. Dr. Kathrine Koller (1903-1993) became the first woman chair of an academic department in 1946.
Over 170 years, the University has grown, changed, and flourished with the representation and leadership of women: from a student body that was less than one percent female, to one where women are in the majority. From one woman on the faculty to 882. From one department chair to authority over one-third of academic departments. From one voice on the Board of Trustees in 1943 to thirty-six percent representation in 2020.
From one to many.
"Let every woman use the ability God has given her, do the greatest work she can, and in her own way. May no man say to her 'thus far thou shalt go and no farther.'"
Emma Jane Sellew (1855-1931) was born in Gowanda, New York. She attended Oberlin from 1871 to 1873, then earned both a BA (1877) and MA (1882) from Cornell. Sellew was a charter member of Rochester's Fortnightly Ignorance Club, was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and later taught at several schools. Sellew was the first of a steady stream of women students—including the daughters of professors Lattimore and Quinby—who attended the University as “special” (non-matriculated) students between 1875 and 1900. The Annual catalogue records that she took Professor Lattimore's special Chemistry Laboratory course. According to a note in the Board of Trustees Minutes, Sellew undertook "full Junior Studies" in 1875-76, although details remain to be determined.
Members of the Class of 1904 were the first to spend all four undergraduate years at the University. The father of Ione Salisbury, lawyer David Salisbury, unsuccessfully petitioned the Trustees in 1898, for his daughters to attended as Special Students, in preparation for the day when women would be admitted. Ione graduated in 1904, and Gertrude in 1905.
Under the leadership of our second president, David Jayne Hill, an Extension Department was organized in 1894 to offer evening and Saturday lectures “to bring systematic university instruction within reach of all classes of men and women . . . without interfering with their daily work.” Several courses were taught by Helen Barrett Montgomery, who was designated an “Extension Lecturer on History.” When the University Trustees agreed to the admission of the women, contingent on raising $100,000 (later reduced to $50,000), it was Montgomery who led the effort, accumulating four-fifths of the sum. The balance would be raised by Susan B. Anthony with the assistance of Fannie Bigelow on the day before the deadline in 1900.
$130,000 was required to establish the University in 1850, and although the school would be open to male students only, the names of women pledging their financial support are prominent in the lists of subscribers. Among them were the women students of Phipps Female Union Seminary in Albion, New York, who donated seventy dollars—a comparatively large sum. Phipps was founded in 1837 by Caroline Phipps, and was the second institution of its kind in the United States, opening 16 years after Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary. Phipps continued with notable success until 1875.
Born in Albion, New York, Elizabeth Denio attended the Phipps Union Female Seminary before graduating from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in 1866 and teaching briefly at Vassar College. She was a professor at Wellesley College from 1876 to 1896, when she was reportedly fired because her style of teaching was considered too old-fashioned. At Rochester, Dr. Denio taught art history from 1902 to 1917. Her salary was supported by Emily Sibley Watson and Annie B. Taylor, who would also serve as a board member of the Memorial Art Gallery.
Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) was a successful lawyer and scientist with a strong belief in education for women. "At the present moment Educational advantages of the highest order are afforded to the young men of the Country for less than half the sum which the other sex are obliged to Expend for advantages greatly inferior.” With like-minded Rochester men, Morgan established Barleywood Female University in 1852. The school failed before 1854, but the idea did not. Perhaps reinforced by his grief at the deaths of his two daughters, Helen and Mary, in 1862 to scarlet fever, Morgan would leave his $80,000 estate to the University of Rochester to support women’s education.
“I was the first one – I was the first person there to go all the way through the schools of Rochester … and to graduate from the University.” Beatrice Howard would earn two degrees from the University, a B.A. in 1931 and an M.A. in 1933. An exceptional student, she did not see herself as a pioneer, nor did she recall experiencing prejudice at college: having attended integrated schools, “some of the people that went with me to be interviewed (for admission) were the same friends that I had through high school, so we went from eighth grade right on into high school [and college].”
Both her parents attended Hampton Institute in Virginia; in Rochester, her father was chauffeur for the Alling family for over twenty years. Howard tried not to rely upon her parents to support her college tuition and fees. She had summer jobs, and scholarships, and remembered receiving an annual Christmas check from Rose Lattimore Alling, daughter of Professor Lattimore and wife of trustee Joseph T. Alling (Class of 1876, and Chemistry classmate of Emma Jane Sellew).
As the headline proudly trumpets, Dr. Kathrine Koller was the first woman to head a major academic department in the College of Arts and Sciences. It is believed that the qualification “major” refers to Elizabeth Denio, who was head of the Art History department.
A 1919 graduate of Barnard College, Fry (1898-1985) was an economic researcher for Lazard Freres and a member of the China Medical Board of the Rockefeller Foundation. She moved to Rochester with her husband, Luther C. Fry, when he became a professor in the Department of Sociology. After his death in 1938, she stayed in Rochester and served on the Committee for the College for Women. She was elected to the University's Board of Trustees in 1943 and served for twenty-five years, including twelve years on the Board’s Executive Committee.
After twenty years on the faculty of the Department of Biology as a successful teacher, researcher, chair, and contributor to professional journals and societies, Joanna Olmsted was appointed the inaugural Associate Dean of Faculty. She would subsequently serve as Dean of Faculty Development and Interim Vice Provost and Dean of Faculty, before becoming Dean of Arts and Sciences in 2007, the first woman to hold that position at the University.
Since 1947, an annual Susan B. Anthony event has celebrated the achievements of women students. The awards distributed honor Anthony; Fannie Bigelow; Dean of Women Students Ruth Merrill (1954-1960); equal rights activist and author Jane R. Plitt; and former senior vice president and general counsel of the University of Rochester Sue Stewart. Left to right: Caprecia Singleton, Shenice Morris, Crystal Colon, Sequoia Kemp, Natalie Fuentes, Bonnie Nortz, Angela Remus, Sarah Vogel.
Photograph of (l-r) Jeff Runner, Dean of the College; Gloria Culver, Dean of Arts and Sciences; Wendi Heinzelman, Dean of the Hajim School; David R. Williams, Dean for Research in Arts, Sciences & Engineering; Melissa Sturge-Apple, Vice Provost and University Dean of Graduate Education; and Rick Waugh, Vice Provost for Research. Photograph by J. Adam Fenster, October, 2017.
There are currently over 40 women administrators at the University whose title includes dean, vice president, provost, and as of 2019, president.