Mississippi University for Women, originally the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls, was the first taxpayer supported college for women in the United States.
The college was established in 1884 with the passage of Senate Bill 311 by the Mississippi Legislature, which agreed to locate the new college in Columbus because that town had a long history of promoting women’s education. Columbus was eager to have a state college for women. In fact, as early as the 1870s, the town had tried to persuade the state to take over the operation of an academically superior, but financially strapped, local women’s college, the Columbus Female Institute. This time the city offered the state $50,000.00 in bonds and the buildings and grounds of the institute. Mississippi accepted the offer, and in doing so made history in another significant way. Since the Columbus Female Institute, chartered by the state in 1847, did not cease operation before it became the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College (II&C), Mississippi University for Women’s original founding date makes it the oldest public university in the state.
Indeed, there is strong evidence that the educational connection between the Columbus Female Institute and the Mississippi II&C was made with an eye on historic precedent by men who had served, and were going to serve, as members of both governing boards. The last diploma issued by the Columbus Female Institute was to Lula J. Darter on June 11, 1884, the same day of the first official meeting of the new Board of Trustees of the Mississippi II&C. It is apparent that a political deal had been made about the location of the women’s college, in spite of the public assertion that the new board of trustees planned to spend the next few months “visiting” possible sites.
Reneau, Peyton and Hastings
This historic university did not come into existence without difficulty, controversy, or considerable effort on the part of a number of visionary Mississippians. Sallie Eola Reneau of Panola County, Annie Coleman Peyton of Hazelhurst, and Olivia Valentine Hastings of Port Gibson had campaigned for several decades before and after the American Civil War (1861-1865) to persuade Mississippi politicians to support a college for women equal to The University of Mississippi (1848) and Mississippi State University (1878), both established for the education of White men.
Supporters of a separate college for White women in the 1870s and 1880s were particularly frustrated because the state’s system of higher education was segregated by race. After the Civil War, federal law had mandated that Mississippi fund institutions of higher education for African-American men and women. By the late 1870s, White women were the only Mississippi population lacking at least some access to state-supported higher education.
Although Sallie Reneau (1837-1878) succeeded in pushing through the legislature some promising but unfunded bills, she died before she saw her efforts become bricks and mortar. Reneau, Peyton, and Hastings were initially unsuccessful because few people believed that establishing a women’s college was worth the investment of Mississippi’s already inadequate funds. In fact, in an effort to prevent state money from being diverted to a separate women’s college, the University of Mississippi began admitting a few women in 1882, but did not allow any women to enroll in preparatory classes or live in campus housing, essentially limiting the enrollment to a handful of its Lafayette County residents.
“…can we not do something for the poor girls…”
Olivia Valentine Hastings (1843-1896) had focused her lobbying efforts on promoting an “industrial school” designed to prepare women for specific vocations and employment outside of the home. Annie Coleman Peyton (1852-1894) had campaigned for a public women’s college with a liberal arts curriculum leading to a bachelor’s degree. Both took for granted that preparing women for teaching careers would also be an important mission of a state college for women. Their political breakthrough occurred when Hastings and Peyton decided to join forces and promote a unique hybrid of liberal arts college and professional school for women. They made it clear to their friends in the legislature that this type of college would provide a way to put more state taxpayers to work and raise the economic level of many Mississippians beyond subsistence levels.
Before the vote on Senate Bill 311 put forward by Hastings’ Claiborne County friend Senator John McCaleb Martin, one young legislator, Wiley Nash, spoke passionately about the value of the proposed Industrial Institute and College for Women: “[It will] be a Godsend, a blessing to the poor girls of the State…. The poor farmers of Mississippi can send their daughters; and here they can gain a good practical education…. Can we not do something for the poor girls of Mississippi so that they will be enabled by their honest effort and industry to begin with some prospect of success the great battle of life?” This emphasis on opportunities for women’s employment persuaded enough of the lawmakers that funding a women’s college would not be wasting money on the wealthy. On March 12, 1884, Senate Bill 311 passed by one vote in the senate and two in the house.
It took more than a year to renovate the Columbus Female Institute buildings, construct a new classroom and administration building, buy equipment, hire a president and a faculty, decide on admission standards, and to establish graduation requirements. But on October 22, 1885, the new Mississippi Industrial Institute and College opened under the leadership of President Richard Watson Jones, who also taught physics and chemistry, and seventeen other faculty members. Nearly 350 young women and girls, many of them barely fifteen years old, began their studies in college English, history, mathematics, foreign language, science, philosophy, and in one of the required “industrial arts,” such as telegraphy, bookkeeping, or typewriting. The students considered themselves lucky to be one of the women chosen from their home counties by a population quota system outlined in the original bill: “The Trustees shall apportion to each county its quota of scholars, on the basis of the educable white girls in the State and several counties; and the several Superintendents of Education in the counties shall advertise it in some newspaper published in such county, and after the expiration of two weeks from such advertisement shall, by and with the approval of the Board of Supervisors of such county, commission such number of girls to said Institution as such county is entitled to.”
Tuition was free, and the young women could work on campus to help cover a small fee for room and board. If they had extra time and if their parents could afford it, they could pay for special classes in music or painting, but those subjects were not considered part of the taxpayers’ responsibility. The students were being trained for work, not for lives of leisure. They wore plain and inexpensive navy blue uniform dresses with the understanding that every girl was socially equal, and high fashion was not important unless it was being studied in a clothing construction class. The first young women began to leave with their official “industrial certificates” of employment training within two years. Ten students earned the first college diplomas in 1889.
A Mississippi prototype
Mississippi’s successful combination of higher education and employment training for women became a pattern for other states. The originality and the historical value of the Mississippi II&C can be measured by reading through the list of state-supported schools patterned after the Mississippi prototype: Georgia State College for Women (1889), North Carolina State College for Women (1891), Alabama II&C (1893), Texas State College for Women (1901), Florida State College for Women (1905), and Oklahoma College for Women (1908).
The Mississippi women’s college also dealt with conflict and frequent threats to its existence. There were so many alumnae, faculty, and students pressing hard for a woman president that in 1898 the state banned women from even being considered as applicants for the position. Whenever financial problems worsened in Mississippi, politicians, the press, and many taxpayers would question the necessity of a state women’s college. In 1898, 1920, and 1952, the school held off closure or merger attempts with the combined political efforts of alumnae, faculty, and community support. After record-breaking enrollment all through the 1920s, in 1932 the school barely survived a devastating loss of accreditation and plummeting enrollment following Governor Theodore Bilbo’s statewide political firings of dozens of faculty and administrators.
While the college’s academic reputation remained strong, as did many women’s colleges nationwide, it fought to remain current in a changing world. The school had not been resistant to changing with the times. It had pioneered not only in vocational training for women but in mandatory physical education for lifelong wellness under faculty member Emma Ody Pohl, and in Home Economics under the innovative Mabel Ward, who set the standard for departments all over the nation.
In 1920, shortly before politically active alumnae of the school helped elect their former president, Henry Whitfield, to the governor’s office, the Mississippi II&C became Mississippi State College for Women. This new name better described the college’s combination of its two-year vocational-technical programs with academic majors leading to four-year degrees. In addition, elimination of the phrase “for White Girls” from the original name was a fortunate prediction of the college’s racial integration in 1966. Enrollment swelled again through the prosperous post-war 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, coeducational programs at Mississippi’s larger colleges and universities were becoming more attractive for female students, although MSCW was also growing with the times. In 1974, to better reflect the addition of graduate programs to many of its majors, the college became Mississippi University for Women.
MUW becomes coeducational
The most significant change in the institution’s history was in 1982 when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered MUW to admit male applicants to its School of Nursing. A male student, Joe Hogan, applied for admission to the nursing program and the university refused to admit him solely on the basis of his gender. Hogan then sued in federal court claiming MUW’s single-sex admissions policy violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After the Supreme Court decision agreed with Hogan, the state decided to admit men to all MUW programs, although the institution retained its name and, at the beginning of the 21st century, alumnae and supporters resisted pressures to change the name to one that was not gender specific.
In 1989, Clyda Stokes Rent became the first female president of Mississippi University for Women. In the wake of Mississippi’s 1992 loss of the Ayers racial discrimination case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the eight public universities in Mississippi had not sufficiently integrated, and that the state must take affirmative action to change this under the equal protection clause, Rent mobilized political and media pressure to overcome another merger or closure effort, increased enrollment, and promoted national visibility. When she retired in 2001, Rent was followed by interim president Lenore Loving Prather (class of 1954), Claudia Limbert, president, and interim president Allegra Cope Brigham (class of 1969). In 2011, the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning named Jim Borsig president of MUW.
Coeducational since 1982, Mississippi University for Women remains predominantly female, with men making up 17 percent of the total enrollment of about 2,700 students. Although the school retains a rich heritage of alumnae traditions and is proud of its emphasis on women’s leadership, male students also thrive in its environment. Four men have served as president of the student government association, and the school’s nationally recognized programs in nursing and culinary arts are especially attractive to men seeking careers in those fields.
The university’s mission states that it “provides high-quality undergraduate and graduate education for women and men in a variety of liberal arts and professional programs, while maintaining its historic commitment to academic and leadership development for women.” As it has since its founding, Mississippi University for Women prides itself on preparing students not only to think for themselves but to support themselves and to be confident of their public education.
Bridget Smith Pieschel, Ph.D., is professor of English at Mississippi University for Women.
Daily Clarion [Jackson, Mississippi], 1 March 1884
“Mission, Vision and Principles,” Mississippi University for Women website
Orr Archives, Mississippi University for Women