Thursday, February 21, 2013

Alice Freeman Palmer

Born this day in 1855: Alice Freeman Palmer (1855–1902), promoter of women’s higher education and president of Wellesley College

Palmer was born Alice Freeman in Colesville, New York. An enthusiastic student, she convinced her parents to finance her college education by promising to pay them back and to pay for the educations of her siblings. Energetic and disciplined, Freeman sacrificed her own opportunities to fulfill her pledge. Finally, in 1879, she was able to accept an appointment as head of the history department at Wellesley College. By 1881 she was named president of the college—at the ripe old age of 27! (She was the second woman named president of Wellesley, but is regarded by many as the first because her predecessor did not operate independently of Henry Durant, the school’s founder.) During her tenure (1881–1887) she transformed the school from little more than a finishing school to an institution of serious academic pursuits.
In 1887 she married Harvard Professor George Herbert Palmer. After marrying, she stepped down as president of Wellesley. Her resignation was met with cheers and jeers, depending upon how one viewed women in positions of power. But Palmer proved everyone wrong by continuing to exert strong influence over the direction of women’s higher education in the United States. She served as dean of women at the University of Chicago, was involved in the push to establish Radcliffe College, was a trustee of several institutions (including Wellesley), served as president of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, and served on the Massachusetts State Board of Education, which oversaw teacher training schools.

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