Home Economics: Progress of a Course, 1895–2005
Origins of the women's course
When the Michigan Agricultural College was founded in 1855, its primary purpose was “to improve and teach the science and practice of agriculture.” Aimed at farm boys, the curriculum did not necessarily interest women at the time, although they were not explicitly barred from entering the college.
In 1870, 10 female students registered for courses at Michigan Agricultural College. There was no special course for women at that time, so they took the same classes as men and participated in the daily practical applications (field work) as male students. The women's presence had an effect on the male students, which did not go unnoticed by those at the college. The Lansing State Journal printed a copy of a letter in the June 9, 1870 edition stating, “The refining influence of the ladies' society is being felt by the improved manners and personal appearance of the usually rude and uncouth Sophs...”
Those women who broke the barrier and enrolled at MAC in 1870 were:
- Isabel Allen
- Catherine C. Bacon
- Ella Brock
- Mary E. Daniels
- Harriet A. Dexter
- Gertrude Howe
- Emma H. Hume
- Mary L. Jones
- Elizabeth E. Sessions
- Catherine E. Steele
Housing shortages in the early years forced the administration to limit the number of women students to those who could find appropriate housing for themselves. The women were considered special students and not necessarily attached to the agricultural degree program. These factors led to a low graduation rate for women in their early years on campus. The first woman to graduate from MAC was Eva Diann Coryell in 1879, nine years after women first entered the college.
Mary A. Mayo of the State Grange became an influential leader in calling for a women's course on campus. Mayo felt that the curriculum associated with the degree for agriculture (the only one available prior to 1885 when an engineering degree was added) was a deterrent to women wanting to enter college. She felt that the courses on plowing, crop maintenance, and dairy hygiene, among others, were not suitable for farm girls, let alone city girls.
In 1895, Mayo's desire for a women's course became a reality. At that time, the college was struggling. Enrollment was down and the college had a terrible reputation, stemming from the rowdy behavior of the male students and several severe health scares. New faculty were leaving MAC, often for other, newly established land-grant colleges. The nationwide depression further exasperated the situation. The Board of Agriculture appointed a committee, composed of professors Howard Edwards, Clinton D. Smith, and Frank S. Kedzie, to examine the institution and report on what was needed to change the current situation. One of their seven recommendations was the creation of a women's course.
The women's course recommended by the committee would be complete with dormitory, teaching facilities, and proper staffing. The newly appointed MAC president, Jonathan Snyder, enthusiastically endorsed this idea, along with several others recommended by the committee. The creation of the course along with the dormitory would ensure that women would have a place at MAC and a course to study. The previous rate of graduation was 24 women graduates in their 25 years on campus.
Old Abbot Hall, a former men's dormitory, was remodeled and an addition built for the dining room and cooking laboratory. A room for sewing was set aside and lodging rooms for the women were ready in September 1896. With 42 women enrolling the first year, the program was an instant success.