Palmer, Alice Freeman (1855–1902)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Palmer, Alice Freeman (1855–1902)

American educator who, at age 26, was named president of the fledgling Wellesley College. Name variations: Alice E. Freeman. Born on February 21, 1855, in Colesville, New York; died on December 6, 1902, in Paris, France; daughter of James Freeman (a farmer and physician) and Elizabeth (Higley) Freeman (a teacher); University of Michigan, B.A., 1876; married George Palmer, on December 23, 1887; no children.

Served as president of Wellesley College (1881–87); awarded doctorate by the University of Michigan (1881); went on annual speaking tours (1889–92); served as dean of the women's college of the University of Chicago (1892–94); published Why Go to College? (1897).

In the course of her short life, Alice Freeman Palmer became the most celebrated woman educator of her time, nationally and internationally known for her success in integrating women into the American system of higher education. She was born in 1855, the eldest of four children of James Freeman, a prosperous farmer of upstate New York, and Elizabeth Higley Freeman , a teacher and social reformer active in the temperance movement. When Alice was six, her father moved to Albany to pursue a degree in medicine; although Elizabeth Freeman supported his goal, she was left to manage the farm and care for four small children with virtually no assistance from James for three years. This experience influenced Alice's later determination to remain an independent woman.

In 1864, Palmer's father moved the family to Windsor and opened a medical practice. There Alice enrolled at the Windsor Academy, a private coeducational secondary school. An intelligent and curious girl, she excelled in school, following a classical curriculum which emphasized Greek, Latin, and mathematics. She remained at the academy for seven years. As a senior, she was briefly engaged to one of her professors, but Palmer had decided to go to college, and her new educational ambitions led her to break off the engagement. She graduated at the head of her class in 1872. In that year, she also underwent a religious conversion to Presbyterianism. Her religious upbringing had been conventional, not marked by deep piety, but after 1872 she became a leader in her church. This period of intense religious feeling and activity lasted only a few years; although she would remain devoted to the principles of Christian service all her life, education and not religious service would become her calling.

Her parents did not encourage her to pursue a college education. The Freemans had little money to spare, and they wanted to save money for college for their son. In addition, although by the 1870s there were numerous state colleges open to women in the United States, there were still few careers open to women besides teaching, which did not necessarily require a four-year college degree. Alice persisted, however. Her desire for higher education stemmed not only from her intense intellectual curiosity and desire for broader life experiences, but also from her pragmatism. She recognized that she might have to support herself financially even if she married, and she wanted the skills to do so. Her mother had been forced to support a family while her father went to school, and Palmer was determined to be prepared for such a situation.

After months of argument, she finally won her parents' approval by offering to pay for the education of her younger siblings once she graduated and was working as a teacher. In June 1872, at age 17, she and her father visited the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Palmer took the entrance examinations. She did not pass in Greek or mathematics but the college president chose to admit her anyway. She began coursework in the fall, again following a classical curriculum based on ancient languages but adding English, the sciences, and history in later semesters.

Judging from her diary and correspondence from these years, her college experience was particularly enjoyable despite her hard work; the administration was generally encouraging of women's higher education, and she was one of several dozen female students. She emerged as a student leader and a top student, and enjoyed an active social life. Palmer also found time to be active in her church, teaching Sunday school and leading the Student Christian Association on campus.

Yet her years at Ann Arbor were not carefree. She had little money, and in her junior year she had to leave the university in the middle of the academic year to teach in order to help her parents meet expenses. Her father's medical practice was failing due to his poor health and the economic depression of the early 1870s, and Palmer often could not pay her bills. The Freemans continued to support her as best they could, allowing her to return to college for her senior year. Alice was chosen to give one of the commencement addresses when she graduated in June 1876 at age 21.

A few months later she and her younger sister Ella Freeman moved to Wisconsin, where Palmer took a teaching job at a women's academy in Lake Geneva. The school had promised her a salary in addition to free education for Ella. However, the school was unable to pay, and Alice fell into debt. In June 1877, she left Lake Geneva and returned to Ann Arbor, where she hoped to pursue graduate study in history. In Ann Arbor, she lived with Lucy Andrews , her closest friend and roommate from her college days with whom she shared a deep friendship. Such intimate relationships between women, referred to as romantic friendships or Boston marriages, were not uncommon among middle-class women in the late Victorian era, when male-female relationships were usually kept distant and circumscribed by social convention. Although they would eventually grow apart, this friendship was Palmer's most important relationship as a young woman, and she continued to keep in touch with Andrews for years after they ceased to live together.

Palmer spent the summer of 1877 studying history, but in the fall she became principal at a high school in nearby Saginaw; her sister Ella also accepted a teaching position there. Together their incomes allowed them to support their virtually bankrupt parents. Both James Freeman and Alice's sister Estelle Freeman were ill with tuberculosis, increasing the financial and emotional burden Alice faced in providing for her family. Even at her young age, she felt her family obligations strongly and, to conserve costs, arranged to move the Freemans to Saginaw. Her parents and siblings appear to have accepted her leadership position in the family with little question, and allowed her to make decisions about their finances and housing arrangements. Her father also allowed her to assume his personal debts as her own.

The next two years were a trying period for Palmer, as she struggled to bring order to the poorly run high school of which she was principal while taking care of her family's many needs. Although her organizational skills and persistence served Palmer well during these years, the strain of her work combined with the death of her sister Estelle in 1879 to leave her exhausted and in poor health. Yet by late 1879 her father had improved somewhat and was able to resume his medical practice; her brother had entered medical school, and her remaining sister, Ella, had married. Although her family continued to ask for financial help from her for the rest of her life, finally Palmer could consider her own needs. She eagerly accepted a faculty position in history offered by Henry F. Durant, founder and treasurer of the newly established Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and left her family in Saginaw for New England.

At Wellesley, Palmer joined a small campus community where students and the all-female faculty lived and worked together in a shared residence. She had a challenging teaching load of history courses, and was obligated by the evangelical Durant to give a daily Bible class, in addition to public lectures and domestic duties. In February 1881, overwork took a toll on her health, and she suffered a lung hemorrhage which her doctors feared would be fatal. Yet she returned to teaching after only a few months' rest, displaying the dedication to her job and her students that made her popular with students and faculty.

In 1881, her loyalty and administrative abilities led a dying Henry Durant to overlook her youth—she was 26—and name her to succeed Ada Lydia Howard as president of Wellesley. (Howard's job had been limited to executing the policies set by Durant. After his death, she herself became ill and was forced to retire before having the opportunity to run the college on her own.) Palmer remained president for six years, overseeing Wellesley's progress from a fledgling institution to a leader among American women's colleges. Soft-spoken but authoritative, she created a less hierarchical administration by integrating the faculty into policy decisions and keeping close relationships with the students, who affectionately nicknamed her "the Princess." Facing head-on the college's academic and financial problems, Palmer expanded Wellesley's faculty and curriculum and raised academic standards. Although she was unable to solve permanently its funding problem, she did keep Wellesley solvent during its difficult first years.

In addition to her daily administrative responsibilities, Palmer took on a public role in an era when college presidents were consulted by political leaders on diplomatic issues and public policy questions. She was a vocal member of numerous local and national educational associations, including the American Association of University Women. She usually spoke on the need to expand educational opportunities for women, yet she also addressed the need for higher standards for admission and faculty training, and for the modernization of curricula to include more focus on the sciences. Palmer believed that college was crucial to ennobling the mind and to fostering in young people the desire and ability to devote themselves to service, whether as doctors, teachers, or parents. Although she was most closely associated with a women's college, she strongly advocated the benefits of coeducation for both men and women. Her eloquence and public visibility made her a national figure, attracting media attention to the problems of the American education system. Although she completed a doctorate at Michigan in 1881, her contributions to the improvement of higher education would lead to numerous honorary degrees as well, including a doctorate from Columbia University in 1887.

Palmer also led Wellesley's religious life, conducting chapel services and organizing the Christian student association. Although Wellesley remained a Christian school, Palmer was not evangelical and the college was open to women of all religious beliefs. By the end of her years as president she had begun to secularize the curriculum, transforming the daily Bible study into a Biblical studies department. Palmer's other accomplishments at Wellesley include the implementation of systems for tenure and seniority for the faculty, two principles which would later become the norm among American colleges.

In 1886, Alice met a widowed Harvard philosophy professor, George Herbert Palmer. They fell in love, but for months they debated whether to marry. The conflict centered on Alice's career; she was in high demand at Wellesley and as a public speaker and authority on higher education. Although both supported a woman's right to work and earn her own income, neither could abandon the social convention that married women did not work, because a woman's first duty was always to her husband. It was an agonizing decision for Palmer; the correspondence between them from this period shows two intellectuals trying to reconcile their love with their belief in a woman's right to a career. In the end Alice decided to marry George and resigned from Wellesley following their wedding in December 1887. Yet her emotional and intellectual need for meaningful work would lead her back to Wellesley only a few weeks later, and correspondence from her later years shows that she always felt ambivalent about her decision to marry.

Learning alone is not enough for women.

—Alice Freeman Palmer

At Wellesley, although she was officially only on the board of trustees, she became in essence a co-president with her successor Helen Shafer (1839–1894), whom she herself had picked, and used her experience and expertise to guide Wellesley's development in its faculty recruitment, curricula, and budget. She also became an important supporter of the fledgling Harvard Annex, the women's adjunct to Harvard later to become Radcliffe College. But in June 1888, George Palmer persuaded his wife to take a year-long European tour, both as a honeymoon and to give Alice the rest her health required after years of exhausting work.

She returned to her work refreshed and determined to maintain her place as a leading educator. Taking up her unofficial role at Wellesley again, she continued to participate in educational associations, and did a yearly lecture tour. In 1889, she was named to the Massachusetts Board of Education, of which she remained an active member until her death. After finally deciding to give up her career to marry, Palmer was busier professionally than ever. In constant demand by schools, colleges, and associations, she traveled across the East and Midwest on a paid speaking tour for several months a year, earning a considerable supplemental income. She continued to lead in the struggle to make the Harvard Annex into its own permanent, funded women's college, in particular heading the effort to raise an endowment for the college. Yet she was clearly divided between her desire to be George Palmer's wife and her desire to be a leader of higher education. Even while she was on the road, she reassured George in her letters that her first commitment was to him.

In 1892, the uneasy agreement between Palmer and her husband about her professional activities became a conflict. William Rainey Harper, founder of the University of Chicago, offered the couple important positions at the new college: Alice to be dean of the women's college, and George to be head of the philosophy department. While Alice was eager to accept the joint appointments, her husband did not want to leave his position at Harvard and wrote to Harper declining the offer for both of them. Yet Palmer refused to give up her chance to guide the development of a major coeducational institution. After months of debate, they compromised; Alice would accept a temporary dean position starting in fall 1892, and would spend no more than three months a year in Chicago. George would remain at Harvard.

From the start, Palmer recognized the importance of Chicago's admission of women students to its programs as a model for other coeducational schools to follow. Hoping to make Chicago a leader in equality for women in higher education, as dean she fought for fair treatment for female faculty and students. She counseled Harper on issues beyond her official duties as the dean of the women's college, advising him on budgets, facilities, residences, faculty appointments, admissions, and student life. In all Palmer had a major impact on the early growth of the university. Yet by the end of her second year, growing policy disagreements with Harper, who was trying to narrow her administrative role, led Alice to resign her post in December 1894. Never robust in health, she also had wearied of frequent travel between Chicago and her home in Cambridge.

In August 1895, the Palmers sailed again for Europe on a year-long sabbatical, staying in France, Italy, and Germany. On their return in 1896, Palmer took up her neglected work as a trustee of Wellesley College once again. She led the other trustees in improving Wellesley's academic standards, hiring a better-educated faculty, and making student and faculty life more secular. Despite her long absence from Wellesley's affairs, she quickly re-emerged at the center of the college's administration, testifying to the respect in which the Wellesley community held her. For the next several years, she combined this work with extensive and frequent speaking tours across the eastern United States, as well as consultant work with the administrations of other colleges, such as Barnard and John Hopkins. While the issue of women's education remained her primary concern as always, Palmer was recognized and consulted as an expert in coeducational curriculum development, faculty hiring, and the provision of a nurturing and stimulating campus life. In 1897, her most popular speech, "Why Go To College?," was published to promote her message of full equality for women and the importance of higher education for both sexes in creating happier, more prosperous citizens.

In addition to their professional duties, the Palmers maintained a full social and family life. They frequently entertained friends and relatives at their home in Cambridge and their farm outside Boston. They also took into their home numerous children during the 1890s, helping impoverished relatives and friends by taking care of their children or providing a home for young adults attending Harvard and Radcliffe. The Palmers were dedicated foster parents who took much pleasure in caring for young people, and their correspondence shows that they sometimes regretted their choice not to have children of their own. Overall the turn of the century was a prosperous, active, and contented period for Alice Freeman Palmer; she was at the pinnacle of her profession and enjoyed a rich family life as well.

In September 1902, Palmer and her husband took a break from their demanding schedules for another European vacation. Two months later in Paris, she underwent emergency surgery for an intestinal disorder, and died at the hospital three days later, on December 6. George Palmer had her body cremated and brought her ashes back to Massachusetts. Alice Freeman Palmer was 47 years old.

She was remembered nationwide as a dedicated teacher and a leading voice in American educational reform. Ceremonies at all of the colleges with which she had been associated honored her memory. Wellesley's trustees set up scholarships in her name, while the University of Michigan established the Alice Freeman Palmer chair. The University of Chicago paid tribute to her with a campanile erected in her honor in 1908. George Palmer memorialized Alice Freeman Palmer by publishing some of the poems she had written for him in A Marriage Cycle and the few essays on education she had written in his book The Teacher: Essays and Addresses on Education. George also composed a full-length biography on his late wife, published in 1915.


Bordin, Ruth. Alice Freeman Palmer: The Evolution of the New Woman. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Palmer, George H. The Life of Alice Freeman Palmer. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.

——, and Alice Freeman Palmer. The Teacher: Essays and Addresses on Education. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1908.

suggested reading:

Glasscock, Jean, ed. Wellesley College 1875–1975: A Century of Women. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College, 1975.

Hazard, Caroline, ed. An Academic Courtship: Letters of Alice Freeman Palmer and George Herbert Palmer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940.

Solomon, Barbara M. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.


Alice Freeman Palmer Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Alice Freeman Palmer Papers, Wellesley College Archives, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

Palmer, Alice Freeman (1855–1902)

views updated Jun 11 2018


The first female college president and the first president of Wellesley College, Alice Freeman Palmer was the founding dean of women at the University of Chicago.

Born on a farm in mid-state New York, Palmer grew up with the rural expectation that women would work hard to help support their families. At age fifteen she surprised her parents by announcing that she intended to go to college. She was already engaged to the only college graduate she had ever met, a teacher at the local academy where she was a star student, and when he discouraged her plans she broke the engagement. A college education, she insisted to all opponents, would best prepare her to serve others and to earn money by teaching. Palmer matriculated at the University of Michigan in 1872, two years after the university was first forced to admit women. During and after college she took a variety of teaching positions, and a year after graduation she became her family's primary support when her father went bankrupt.

In 1879 Palmer accepted a position as professor of history at Wellesley College, which had opened four years earlier with an all-female faculty. Wellesley's founder, Henry Durant, was greatly impressed by Palmer's intellectual abilities, charismatic leadership, and persistent yet charming personality. She became his protégé, and when he died in 1882 the trustees appointed her president even though, at age twenty-seven, she was the youngest member of the faculty.

Palmer soon gained a national reputation as a promoter of women's higher education. She strengthened Wellesley's faculty, student body, and financial status, established a network of secondary schools to prepare girls for college work, and insisted that Wellesley pursue high intellectual standards. College education, she argued at every opportunity, prepares women for civic leadership as well as self-knowledge and self-respect. She expected many of her students to support themselves, as she had. The rest she expected to lead libraries and museums, serve on school boards and town governments, and pursue other forms of civic service.

In 1887 Palmer shocked her colleagues by marrying George Herbert Palmer, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, and resigning from Wellesley's presidency. She spent the next year recovering from her active tuberculosis, and then renewed her career as a public speaker. For the next four years she toured the country to preach the importance of women's higher education to university audiences, women's clubs, religious societies, and anyone else who would pay her. A powerful and passionate speaker, she presented herself as a model of an educated woman: intellectual yet emotional, dedicated to serving others yet happy in her personal life, willing to work hard for causes she believed in, yet retaining the feminine graces of beauty, wit, and attentiveness to others. Many people still believed that education de-sexed women, and Palmer intended to prove them wrong.

Palmer also joined the Massachusetts State Board of Education, eventually becoming its most senior member, and gained a reputation as a formidable lobbyist on Beacon Hill. She served as a trustee for several educational institutions, including Wellesley College, was active in several education-oriented voluntary associations, including the fore-runner of the American Association of University Women, and was one of five people chosen to represent Massachusetts at the 1893 World's Fair. With her husband, George Palmer, she tried to persuade Harvard to admit women on equal terms with men. After she led a campaign to create a $250,000 endowment for female students, Harvard reneged on its agreement to admit women if the money were raised.

In 1892, when the University of Chicago was preparing to open, Palmer was the most prominent woman in the field of higher education. Chicago was then a rough western city, and the university's president, William Rainey Harper, feared that parents would refuse to send their daughters to a new university in a city best known for its stockyards. If Palmer were dean of women, Harper believed, her reputation would help give the young university the stamp of approval it desperately needed. He hoped to hire both PalmersGeorge as well as Alicebut when George decided to remain at Harvard, Harper continued to court Alice persistently. Finally she agreed to his suggestion that she commute from Cambridge to Chicago and be in residence only twelve weeks a year.

Palmer was one of the few Chicago founders with solid administrative experience, so she quickly became involved in every aspect of the new university. Harper repeatedly claimed that he would not have survived the university's first year without her. Palmer gave special attention, however, to making the university an appealing intellectual and social environment for women. She succeeded. When Chicago opened, women were 24 percent of its student body. The next year they were 33 percent, and the percentage climbed each year until 1898, when 43 percent of the students were women. Many male students, faculty, administrators, trustees, and donorsincluding Harperwere alarmed by this trend, which they interpreted as the "feminization" of the university, and university policies quickly shifted to attract men and discourage women. Palmer, not surprisingly, was marginalized and her policy suggestions ignored. After three years she decided to resign.

Palmer never again held a paid, professional position. Instead, she gave all of her time to the Massachusetts Board of Education, the numerous institutions of which she was trustee, and other cultural and political activities. She always, even during her Wellesley years, preferred coeducation to single-sex education. Men and women, she believed, belonged beside each other, working and learning together as peers. After her experiences at Harvard and Chicago, however, she lost her early optimism that men needed only a few years of adjustment and then would be happy to treat women as equals. For the rest of her life, she nurtured institutionsschools, colleges, and scholarships for advanced graduate workthat would enable other women to pursue education and professional work.

See also: Higher Education in the United States, subentry on Historical Development.


Bordin, Ruth. 1993. Alice Freeman Palmer: The Evolution of a New Woman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kenschaft, Lori. 1999. "Marriage, Gender, and Higher Education: The Personal and Public Partnership of Alice Freeman Palmer and George Herbert Palmer, 18861902." Ph.D. diss., Boston University.

Linenthal, Arthur J. 1995. Two Academic Lives: George Herbert Palmer and Alice Freeman Palmer. Boston: privately printed.

Palmer, Alice Freeman. 1897. Why Go To College. Boston: Crowell.

Palmer, Alice Freeman, and Palmer, George Herbert. 1908. The Teacher: Essays and Addresses on Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lori Kenschaft

Palmer, Alice Freeman (1855–1902)

views updated May 29 2018

Palmer, Alice Freeman (1855–1902)

American educator. Name variations: Alice E. Freeman. Born Feb 21, 1855, in Colesville, New York; died Dec 6, 1902, in Paris, France; dau. of James Freeman (farmer and physician) and Elizabeth (Higley) Freeman (teacher and social reformer); sister of Ella Freeman (teacher); University of Michigan, BA, 1876; m. George Herbert Palmer (Harvard philosophy professor), Dec 23, 1887; no children.

The most celebrated woman educator of her time, was nationally and internationally known for her success in integrating women into US system of higher education; became principal at a high school in Saginaw, MI (1877); accepted a faculty position in history at newly established Wellesley College (1879); served as president of Wellesley (1881–87), overseeing its progress from a fledgling institution to a leader among American women's colleges; on marriage, remained officially only on the board of trustees at Wellesley, though in essence became a co-president with successor Helen Shafer; awarded doctorate by University of Michigan (1881); went on annual speaking tours (1889–92); served as dean of the women's college of University of Chicago (1892–94); published Why Go to College? (1897); was a leading voice in US educational reform.

See also Ruth Bordin, Alice Freeman Palmer: The Evolution of the New Woman (U. of Michigan Press, 1993); George H. Palmer, The Life of Alice Freeman Palmer (Houghton Mifflin, 1915); Caroline Hazard, ed. An Academic Courtship: Letters of Alice Freeman Palmer and George Herbert Palmer (Harvard U. Press, 1940); and Women in World History.

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