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What a time they had: Exploring women’s history at Drake

Former Drake students eat a meal in Morehouse Hall Morehouse Hall served as a women’s dormitory for many years. Wanda Woods, a Drake alum, spent four years in the dormitory. Photo courtesy of Drake University Archives

In 1968, Wanda Woods arrived on Drake University’s campus for a visit during her senior year of high school. This was during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the second wave of the feminist movement. Her parents couldn’t afford to visit with her, so she’d come by herself from Alton, Illinois. She was deciding between Drake, Bradley University and Howard University.

“There was a bench out in front of Old Main — will never forget it — and I’m sitting there, still nervous because I’d never been away from home and I was by myself, and I had gone through this weekend. It had its ups and downs, and the squirrels came right up to me, and I thought, ‘Ok, the squirrels are even friendly, this must be the place.’” Woods said in a 2006 interview for the “What a Time We Had… Women Remember Drake” oral history project. 

Woods ended up choosing Drake and spent all four years dorming in Morehouse Hall, then a women’s dormitory. Woods, a Black woman, faced racism on campus and dealt with sexist policies such as curfews that applied only to women, something she considered “peculiar” Despite such discrimination, she graduated with a degree in sociology and a teaching certification, eventually becoming a school principal. 

Hers is one of many stories in Drake’s chronology of women’s history. 

Drake’s founding in 1881 came over 30 years after the Seneca Falls Conference, a landmark suffragette conference, but still during a period when education was deeply different for men and women. Drake was co-ed from the start, accepting women in its ranks, but did not offer degrees upon completion, only recognition of graduation. According to “Living on the Edge of Tomorrow,” a history of Drake by Linda Mason Hunter, women were only able to take a “ladies’ course” (tempered by the omission of Greek and calculus), a program that they could graduate with. 

Deborah Symonds, professor of history at Drake in the comparative women’s history field, said that before college became more widely available, women learned from their fathers, which may have affected the development of what was available.  

“They [early college founders] understand that women want to be seen as educated middle class [and] families want their daughters to have some of the same skills that the sons have, but they don’t want women to have careers, which is why they [didn’t] get degrees,” Symonds said. 

One alternative to schools such as Drake, which didn’t offer degrees, were the developing women’s colleges, such as the Seven Sisters. But, even with a degree, it was still incredibly difficult for women to enter graduate programs, and hence, to become college professors. By 1890, however, Drake had several women on its faculty, who taught music, painting and history. 

While graduating college did not give women a degree, according to Symonds, it did bring “access to college-educated men.” While the presence of college-educated men did mean marriage prospects for the college-going women, there were always fears of wild young men “sowing their oats.” as Symonds put it. 

According to “Living on the Edge of Tomorrow,” Mary Carpenter, the daughter of Drake founder George Carpenter and the namesake of Carpenter Hall, was the only graduate of the original lady’s courses programming. Carpenter would become the first Dean of Women in late 1901, a role which Symonds refers to as a sort-of chaperone for the women who would watch out for unladylike behavior. 

“[The early women’s college experience] is not adulthood. You [didn’t] have that experience. You [weren’t] on your own,” Symonds said.  

Symonds has witnessed changes in Drake’s History Department even during her tenure.

“When I was hired in 1989, there were seven other women in Arts and Sciences. When I went to the first faculty meeting in 1989, Frances Rogers, who taught biology, burst into tears at the thought that somehow another woman had been hired,” Symonds said.  

Symonds views history as uncovering stories that are left out of common narratives.  

“When I started working as an undergraduate in women’s history, there was no such field. There wasn’t women’s anything, people would tell you,” Symonds said. 

In 2006, Drake archivists Claudia Frazer and Katherine Lincoln, both now retired, led a project called “What a Time We Had… Women Remember Drake,” an oral history project that they posted online after completion. Both had an interest in oral history and preserving the stories of Drake alumna. The two worked with the Drake Alumni Association to find alumna from different eras of Drake’s history.  

“We sought out as many women as we could possibly find that were still alive and would be willing to talk with us about Drake,” Frazer said. 

Many of the women featured in the history project had detailed memories of their time, sometimes down to the sights and smells of campus. Doris Mackaman Corrie, who attended Drake in 1936 during the Dust Bowl, recalled how, when she studied in the library, a thin layer of dust would settle on every surface. 

 “If we were to do something like this now and go back and find people from the 1990s or 1980s, I’m sure [oral histories] would be completely different,” Frazer said. 

During the project, the two asked questions focused on campus life, why the women came to Drake and world events at the time. Lincoln said the two aimed to “see how the answers are different, but also how they kind of remain similar.” 

Many of the women have since died. Frazer said that she was glad she recorded the interviews when she did, because otherwise, their stories might have vanished. During the project, Frazer and Lincoln gave the women CDs of their interviews for their families. 

“It wasn’t just memories of Drake. It was memories that we felt that they would want to share with their families. They were legacies,” Lincoln said. 

Many of the women had similar feelings towards Drake, with mentions of a beloved professor or the friends they met. 

“People talked about how the people at Drake were like their family,” Frazer said. 

After the project’s completion, Frazer and Lincoln invited the women to the Cowles Reading Room for a celebration commemorating the project. According to Lincoln, the women came “dressed to the nines,” in gloves and hats. During the event, Lincoln and Frazer made the website public. 

“They [the women interviewed] didn’t really understand the magnitude of the project or how really special we thought it was until the team told them we’re going to make a website out of this,” Lincoln said. 

One thing that the interviewers focused on was advice that the women had for current students. Many of the women said to get involved, stay in touch with friends and learn as much as possible.  

“Enjoy the challenges because you’re going to have them. Always focus on the lessons learned,” Woods said in a 2006 interview for the “What a Time We Had… Women Remember Drake” project. “Be open and explore. Always use your mind. Be civic minded and make a difference.” 

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