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Beneath Thy Guiding Hand: A History of Women at the University of Delaware – Introduction


The University of Delaware is proud to trace its roots to 1743 when the Reverend Mr. Francis Alison opened a school at New London, Pennsylvania, where, according to an announcement in the Pennsylvania Gazette, “all Persons may be instructed in the Languages and some other Parts of Polite Literature….”1

The statement was, of course, misleading, for Alison did not really welcome “all Persons,” but rather, all male persons. But, there was no need to make such a distinction, because, as every eighteenth century person knew, formal education beyond the rudiments was restricted to males.

We know a great deal about Francis Alison. We know, for example, that he was a native of County Donegal in Ireland, that he took a master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh and was ordained into the Presbyterian clergy before he immigrated to America, and that he became a major figure in the educational development of the middle colonies. By contrast, hardly anything is known about his wife, Hannah, who presumably assisted in the care of her husband’s students and managed his New London farm during his frequent trips to Philadelphia. Unlike her scholarly husband, she left no treatises, letters or official documents. We cannot know whether she was educated or to what degree she participated in the intellectual world that absorbed so much of her husband’s time and thoughts. History is frequently silent regarding the lives of women in eighteenth-century America because so few of them left written records.

Francis Alison’s school moved to Newark, Delaware, in the 1740s and became a college in 1833, but women were not admitted to its student body until 1872. They were dismissed fifteen years later with little fanfare. Apparently Delaware was not ready for a reform so profound as higher education for women. It was not until 1914 that Delaware’s women got a college of their own. In that year, the state established the Women’s College as a separate yet coordinate sister to the all-male Delaware College. The two, gender-specific coordinate institutions were subsumed under the title “University of Delaware” in 1921, but the University did not become co-educational until 1945.

How and why these changes came about is the subject of this hook. It is a story of hoping, striving, and succeeding. But it is also a cautionary tale about setbacks and about promises that have been only partially fulfilled. Readers will see not only how far we have come, but will be able to judge for themselves how far we have yet to go to achieve the goal of equal opportunity for men and women to fulfill their educational and intellectual potential.

I undertook to write the history of women at the University of Delaware at the request of the Office of Women’s Affairs, which provided funding for the project. I am grateful to three consecutive directors of that office, Mae R. Carter, Laura Shepperd, and Liane M. Sorenson, each of whom gave me advice, support, and inspiration. The major repository of the University of Delaware’s history is the University Archives. The Director of the Archives, Jean K. Brown, together with her assistants, Jane E. Pyle, Barbara A. Cole, and Betty M. Dunn, always responded knowledgeably, thoroughly, and rapidly to my many requests. They demonstrated an interest in the project and a sensitivity to my needs that I much appreciate. Members of the University Office of Institutional Research and its director, Michael E. Middaugh, also were very responsive to my requests for statistical data, which they provided promptly in spite of the many pressures on their time.

Archival records and statistics tell only part of the story, however. To get at the human aspect, it was necessary to conduct numerous oral interviews with students, faculty, and administrators–both past and present. Although I interviewed some of these people myself, I was fortunate to have the services of Annette Woolard, a graduate student in the Department of History, who conducted most of the interviews during the academic year 1988-89. Her research notes attest to Ms. Woolard’s skill in drawing out her subjects and in making careful notations, not only of what people said, but the manner in which they said it. She was also responsible for reading and making notes from past University publications, including yearbooks, catalogs, and student handbooks–a task that saved me a great deal of time and provided useful material, interpreted with intelligence and sensitivity.

Another history graduate student, Peggy Tatnall, undertook to study the creation and development of the Women’s Studies Interdisciplinary Program. Ms. Tatnall read through archival material in the Women’s Studies Office and interviewed two recent program directors. Based on those sources, she composed a brief account of the unit’s history that proved to be a very valuable resource for writing this book.

During the spring semester of 1992, I had the opportunity to teach a graduate seminar for which several students wrote papers on aspects of women’s experience at the University of Delaware. The work of these students–Laurette A. Crum, Teresa L. Riesmeyer, and Matthew W. Smallwood–all added to my knowledge and provided perspectives on certain themes that broadened my understanding.

Agreeing to be interviewed for a project such as this takes a certain amount of courage. As an interviewee, one never knows how a writer might use or abuse his or her words. Without exception, those who agreed to be interviewed for this project spoke freely and truthfully of their personal reactions to policies or events that were controversial. Their candid assessments put flesh on the bloodless bones of official records. The people whose interviews helped shape this book are here listed in alphabetical order: Susan Allmendinger, Margaret L. Andersen, Edith H. Anderson, Barbra F. Andrisani, Irma Ayres, Helen Baylis, Catherine Bieber, Elizabeth Bohning, Susan Brynteson, Judith B. Carberry, Mae R. Carter, Ross Ann Jenny Craig, Hilda Davis, Camilla Day, Anna J. DeArmond, Anna DeHaven, Alexander R. Doberenz, Rachel Draper Diver, Elizabeth Dyer, James P. Flynn, Florence Geis, Judith Y. Gibson, Helen Gouldner, Sandra Harding, Mary Ann Hitchens, Matilda Whisk, Janice M. Jordan, Barbara J. Kelly, Anne A. McCourt-Lewis, Lila Murphy, David M. Nelson, Laura O’Toole, Marian L. Palley, Marie B. Perrone, Donald L. Peters, Barbara H. Settles, Bonnie K. Scott, Stuart J. Sharkey, Suzanne K. Smith, Liane M. Sorenson, Carolyn Thoroughgood, Edgar J. Townsend, E. Arthur Trabant, and Jeraldine Trabant.

Several people read portions of the text while it was in draft form and made helpful comments, including Barbara Kelly, Mae Carter, Joan DelFattore, Anne Boylan, Jean Brown, and Liane Sorenson. Margaret Andersen, who read each chapter as it was completed, offered me excellent editorial suggestions and valuable guidance and support, for which I am very grateful. Jan DeArmond read and edited the text, demonstrating once again her superb qualities as a teacher. Finally, I want to thank Dianna DiLorenzo, who was always ready to drop whatever she was doing to satisfy my whim for getting this manuscript typed as soon as the words came off my pen; Mary Hempel, who edited the final manuscript and saw it through to becoming a book; and Barbara Broge, who provided a thoughtfully appropriate design.

Hail to thee proud Delaware,

In loyalty we stand.

We give thee thanks for glorious days

Beneath thy guiding hand.

from University of Delaware Alma Mater

1John A. Munroe, The University of Delaware, A History, (Newark, 1986), p. 9.