Learn how Alice Freeman Palmer spent her life improving opportunities for women to attend college and emphasizing that education was crucial to their independence.
Alice Elvira Freeman was born in 1855 to farmers in southern New York. When Alice was only three year old, she learned to read. A year later, she would start school and become one of the top students in her class. By the time she was seven, her father had to leave to attend medical school, so her mom took on the responsibility of both farm and family life. This may have been a defining moment in Alice’s life as she saw the value her father placed on education, and experienced what it was like for a woman to live independently. This was also a time when Alice herself took on more responsibilities and began to realize her own abilities.
After a family move to Windsor, NY, Alice was admitted to a local school for both boys and girls. At 14, she met Thomas Barclay, who was working as a teacher at the school to pay off his college expenses. He encouraged her intellectual curiosity and served as her mentor. They would eventually become engaged but when he left to study at Yale Divinity School, she decided that she, too, wanted an education, and so she broke the engagement so that she could enter college.
Alice’s desire to attend college, met resistance when her parents explained that the priority was given to the oldest child, her brother. She fought for the chance to further her education, and finally her parents conceded with the caveat that she had to help pay for her brother’s education after completing her own. Soon after, she would start college at the University of Michigan, but was on probation at the beginning of her first year due to low scores in Greek and math on her entrance exams,
But Alice didn’t give up. She worked hard to make up the difference; hiring tutors and finding other ways to engage in additional studies on the subjects that held her back. She would also suffer a minor setback during her Junior year when she was forced to drop out in order to work at a school in Ottawa, Ill., to help her parents out of bankruptcy. Several months later, Alice returned to school and was able to make up her missed courses during her Senior year - completing her studies in 1876.
By 1881, Alice Freeman had become acting president of Wellesley College at only 26 years old. Six years later, she met and married her husband, a Harvard philosophy professor named George Palmer. That year she would also resign from her post at Wellesley after the symptoms of her tuberculosis became too severe for her to continue working.
She spent the next year recovering, then shifted her career to public speaking. For four years, she spread the importance of women's higher education across the country. At the time, many Americans still believed that education de-sexed women, but Palmer was set on proving them wrong. During her speaking engagements, she showed audiences what an educated woman was supposed to be: intelligent and willing to work hard for causes she believed in, while retaining the feminine graces of beauty and wit.
In 1892, she became the first dean of the Women’s Department in the University of Chicago. When she started in her new role, women made up 24% of the student body. But by the time she left in 1895, 48% of the campus were women. Eventually, Alice died of a heart attack in Paris in 1902, at the young age of forty-seven. Although she died young, Alice Freeman Walker had an enormous impact on women’s higher education and independence.
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