The impact of 150 years of women

Julia Richardson, Op-Ed Contributor

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This fall marks the 150 year anniversary of Northwestern admitting women to its campus on the “same terms” as their male counterparts. Some may think that 150 years does not seem very long, while others may argue that Northwestern was ahead of its time in comparison to the rest of society.

It’s admirable that Northwestern considered integrating women into the University at a time when the idea was just emerging. However, that may have made integration a bit rocky, due to the fact that the idea of women being equal had not been widely accepted.

Women were first officially enrolled as members of Northwestern in 1869, 50 years before the 19th amendment was passed in 1920, which extended the vote to white women. At this time, women were not even considered a full part of society, as they hadn’t been granted a fundamental right as citizens. Aside from voting, discrimination against women was common in all areas, and men dominated the professional world. Although Northwestern vowed that women were admitted on the same terms as men, I’m not sure that idea was entirely possible considering the social climate of that time.

The integration of women into the University did not come without pushback or challenges.

It was a significant step towards inclusion, but it did not automatically mean equal treatment. One Northwestern faculty member at the time expressed concern about the decision, saying that women would need “additional supervision to keep them out of mischief.”

Many were unsure about the idea of women being in close proximity to men and the effect it would have on the men. To address these concerns, instead of pursuing a campus where women and men intermingled, Northwestern implemented a sister school model. “Women would be situated in a separate building, under separate supervision (by women faculty),” but this separate branch, called the Evanston College for Ladies, would be a department of the University. So although women were enrolled at Northwestern, they were still set up to feel inferior.

The 150-year crusade from the beginning of women’s journey at NU to where the University stands today has been a long and eventful one. Dr. Anna Ross Lapham became the first female professor to serve at Northwestern’s medical school in 1919, but women were not actually integrated in the school until 1926. Prior to this, the medical school had taken on a sister school model just as the undergraduate school had. The misogyny is evident here — women were seen as fit for professions such as teaching and for helping men along in their paths towards success, but they were not allowed to have this success themselves.

Even now, 150 years later, an equitable system fails to exist. “Today, challenges to gender equity remain, as well as equity for gender identity and expression, racial identity, sexual orientation, and economic status,” says an official statement made on Northwestern’s website, and this holds true. Women in McCormick describe being outnumbered in engineering classes and obvious bias towards men.

We also need to overcome the obstacle of the integration of women into faculty. In STEM departments especially, women who aspire to be doctors, engineers and the like do not have the privilege of seeing a significant number of women in teaching and mentorship positions. This can be incredibly discouraging, and these women do not have the privilege of seeing someone similar to them succeeding in the fields they eventually hope to.

I think it’s safe to say that the women enrolled in Northwestern today, myself included, are grateful that the school took the leap towards integration in 1869 because we know we would not be here if it hadn’t.

However, even though the school became more inclusive the day the board of trustees made that decision, it remained exclusive in a variety of other aspects. Many of the women and men who first attended Northwestern were white and well-off. This is not surprising, of course, since it was 1869, but even now, in 2019, this continues to be a widespread problem not just at our school, but on other campuses like Northwestern. “Enrollment in the 468 best-funded and most selective four-year institutions is 77 percent white,” says an article published by The Hechinger Report. Many individuals and families struggle to afford college despite the programs put in place to alleviate financial burdens, which makes a college education largely geared towards those who can afford it. We still have a long way to go.

Northwestern was part of the initial wave of colleges making the decision to educate women and pursued the idea despite it being controversial at the time. As a woman enrolled at this university 150 years later, I am proud to know that Northwestern was a crusader at a time when society was skeptical.

But of course, as with any institution, there is no such thing as a perfect system, and I see the imperfections as a reminder of what we can still strive for, whether it’s gender equality or other issues. I want us to fight to correct the discrepancies we see. I am proud to attend a university that constantly works to improve and encourages students to fight for what they believe in.

Julia Richardson is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at juliarichardson2023@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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