On Equal Terms: Educating Women at the University of Chicago

Curated by Monica Mercado & Katherine Turk, Graduate Students, Department of History.

The University of Chicago's original articles of incorporation, crafted in 1892, state that the institution will "provide, impart, and furnish opportunities for all departments of higher education to persons of both sexes on equal terms," thus writing coeducation into the University's founding principles.

Yet integrating the sexes into the curriculum, research agenda, and extracurricular life proved to be a difficult and as yet unfinished task. The history of women at the University of Chicago is uneven, full of successes and failures that reflect both Chicago's unique intellectual community and larger trends in academia. Coeducation provided women with exciting academic and social opportunities, but it did not necessarily translate to equality of treatment or equal distribution of resources.  While women have often stood among the most accomplished members of the University community, their history on campus raises important questions about how and where women and women's issues fit into academia-questions that still resonate today.

The University has provided women with space for teaching, research, and community activism with few parallels; at the same time, some of these scholars formed the front lines of the University's struggles to incorporate issues of women and gender into the life of the mind.  Women students brought with them expectations of higher education that the University was often unprepared to meet.  These students expected identical treatment to men, but also sought their own spaces and demanded university respect for female-oriented activities and courses of study.  Women students and faculty frequently banded to form single-sex academic, service-oriented, and social associations, which fostered specifically women-oriented networks and a strong tradition of female mentorship.  They fought for institutional support and respect for academic programs in home economics, social service administration, gender studies, and more.  Women made these claims loudly and sometimes disruptively, with lasting effects.  By demanding to be incorporated in the university culture and curriculum, women at the University of Chicago have shaped the institution just as the University has molded and educated them.

The University of Chicago has been the subject of much scholarly attention over the years, but for those of us involved in this project, it soon became clear that paying particular attention to women and gender illuminates previously unexplored chapters of its past and makes familiar stories look much different.  In our research, we uncovered more material documenting the experiences of Chicago women than we had previously imagined. These rich sources have answered some, but not all, of our questions.  While sources on undergraduate life were particularly rich, there is still much to learn about graduate women and faculty experiences; about women of color; and about the late emergence of gender studies as a field of study at Chicago.

This exhibition is the result of a unique collaboration among undergraduates, graduate students, library staff, and faculty at the University of Chicago.  It is part of a larger Center for Gender Studies project on the history of women at the University that includes seventy-one oral histories from faculty, students and staff; and finding guides for the oral histories and archival resources. We could never have completed this project without the support of the Center for Gender Studies, its Director, Associate Professor Deborah Nelson, and its Assistant Director, Stuart Michaels.  At Special Collections, our work was aided by Judith Dartt, Julia Gardner, Michael Kenny, Daniel Meyer, Kerri Sancomb, and Alice Schreyer.  Graduate students Makiko Arima, Rachel Furnari, Alison Lefkovitz, Celeste Day Moore, and Jennifer Vanore provided important assistance over the course of this project.  Finally, the twelve undergraduates in our Fall 2008 seminar, "Alma Mater: The History of Women at the University of Chicago," provided us with spirited feedback on the exhibition themes while contributing original research of their own. 

We finish this project thankful for the excellent assistance we have received and hopeful that our survey will encourage future research on the workings of gender in the intellectual and physical spaces of the University.


Monica Mercado, Katherine Turk, Exhibition Curators, and Graduate Students of the Department of History