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Sarah Parke Morrison

"The quickest way to meet the feminine drive to achieve equality is to admit girls to university classes." That decision set a precedent for the nation.

“The quickest way to meet the feminine drive to achieve equality is to admit girls to university classes.” When that decision was made in 1867 by the Indiana University Board of Trustees, it set a precedent for the state, and the nation. A number of female academies and seminaries had opened throughout New England in the early 1800s, and Ohio ‘s Oberlin College was committed to coeducation from its start in 1834. Indiana University, nonetheless, was one of the nation’s first public universities to admit women. More specifically, the 1867 resolution providing for coeducation made IU the only institution admitting women on the same terms as men. Setting the standard for gender equity in higher education, IU extended women the same “rights and privileges” as men, with little, if any, additional support or services.

The first woman to enroll in classes at IU certainly wasn’t wanting for education; Sarah Parke Morrison matriculated at IU to hold the board to its word and blaze a trail for other women. The granddaughter of a Quaker abolitionist and the daughter of an IU trustee, Morrison had already had ten years of formal post-secondary education at Mount Holyoke, Vassar and other all-female schools back east. After her admittance in 1867 at age 34, she took it upon herself to encourage other women to follow suit, since the university did not advertise its coeducational status until the following year. Eight women enrolled the following year; by 1871, 32 women attended IU; and by 1882 almost one-fourth of the student body was female. Regardless of the prescribed equity of the sexes on campus, there were at least a couple of dispensations–an exclusively female literary society was established; and women could elect a course on English synonyms over civil engineering.

Sarah Parke Morrison finished her degree in two years, offered the commencement address in Latin, then returned to complete a master’s two years later. She was then appointed as an adjunct professor of English literature, becoming IU’s first female faculty member. In the fall of 2005, 57% of students enrolled at all eight IU campuses were women.

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