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Women of Armour, Ladies of Lewis

(This talk was presented as the program for the Julia Beveridge Awards presentation on March 13, 2002. The Beveridge Awards are an annual program of Illinois Institute of Technology's women's office -- a way to celebrate and recognize women at IIT whose lives and stories merit knowing. It was researched and written by Catherine Bruck, University Archivist from materials found in the IIT Archives.)

Each year we come here and are inspired as we hear about and meet our peers and colleagues who are honored with the presentation of the Beveridge Award. And we have frequently heard about the life and dedication of Julia Beveridge for whom the award is named. But there are many other women who have been a part of our IIT family, ones who came before us and who left their mark on our institutional identity, but whose names are less well known and whose accomplishments seldom get told.

For the next few minutes, I would like to introduce you to some of women whom I have encountered in the Archives and with whom I have begun to feel familiar. The women presented here were initially associated with IIT's two predecessor schools, Armour Institute and Lewis Institute, and two other schools which joined our academic family later.

Women of Armour

The women of Armour may have needed some symbolic armor to steel themselves against the tide of men who populated that institution. Females attended the school for less than ten years, primarily enrolled in the library science program, the kindergarten program, and a few in architecture. At the administrative and faculty levels, a few notables deserving our attention are these:

Governing Board Members

Malvina Belle Ogden Armour was another woman, besides Julia Beveridge, who was involved in nurturing Armour Institute from its beginning. Known as Madame Armour for the position she held at the top of Chicago's social elite (think of her as the Sis Daley of the 1910s), Malvina, in her own right, was a major supporter of Armour Institute, contributing perhaps as much as one million dollars of her personal money to the school founded by her husband Philip Danforth Armour, Sr. Following his death in 1901, she took his position on the board of trustees.

Aleka Armour was an Armour family member whose involvement with the institution has been minimal, but who deserves our recognition for what she symbolizes. Aleka became the second wife of Lester Armour, Sr. Born in 1905, she was the Russian princess, wife of Prince Romanov, when they fled to the U. S. at the time of the Russian Revolution. Later, they divorced and the prince returned to Russia, but Aleka stayed here and married Lester. Aleka Armour was an Honorary Trustee of IIT until her death at age 101 in 2006.

Women representing the library and the Library School program at Armour Institute include...

Katherine Sharp who was Director of the Library School at AIT before becoming the founding director of the library school at U. of Ill. She was a protégé of Melvil Dewey, as in the Dewey decimal system, and it was he who recommended her to Dr. Gunsaulus for the position of librarian at Armour Institute saying, "I want [you to have] the best man in American to start [your] library and library school and...the best man in American is a woman."

Margaret Mann was an 1894 and 1896 alumna of the AIT library program who went on to work in or teach at the U. of Ill., Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, the U. of Mich., and Paris, France. She authored Introduction To Cataloging and the Classification of Books which resulted from the system she devised for the Carnegie Library.

Ladies of Lewis

Unlike the women of Armour, the ladies of Lewis needed nothing to shield them at their school. Far from sitting on pedestals like some fragile work of art, they sat side-by-side with males in classrooms and shoulder-to-shoulder with them in faculty meetings. Both numerous and accomplished, the young coeds and their adult mentors made names for themselves that rarely need to be followed by a husband's or father's identity in order for them to be recognized.

Educators at Lewis Institute include women who taught there and ones who studied there before entering the field of education themselves.

Mlle. Lea DeLagneau, professor of Romance Languages and French literature for nearly 40 years, was honored by the French government in 1934 with Palmes Academiques decoration for promoting understanding between France and America. The award is the most prestigious decoration a scholar can receive from the French government, dates from the reign of Napoleon, and is rarely presented to a foreigner. Mlle. also served as Dean of Women and was head of the Lewis Institute dormitory.

Maria Elsa Blanke was assistant Professor of Applied Art from the time Lewis opened in 1896 until sometime in the 1930s. A noted painter, she participated in numerous exhibitions and held at least one solo show. She studied art at the Art Institute, and in Munich and London, bringing a touch of the cosmopolitan atmosphere of European cities with her to Lewis Institute, where she also mentored Lewis coeds as the Kappa Phi Delta sponsor.

Olive Pierce Hazel taught Physical Education beginning in 1920, and continued to teach it at IIT after the merger of Lewis and Armour Institutes. In 1927, the editors of the Lewis Annual saluted her this way: "Daughter of Thespis, pleasing to look at and pleasant to talk to, for six happy years instructor in Lewis Institute in physical education, in dramatic education, and in womanliness, the Annual now does itself the honor to confer upon you the degree on M. O., Materna Olivia, with all the graceful steps and grateful smiles thereunto appertaining."

(I have come to realize that having a sense of humor must have been an unwritten entrance requirement for students, faculty, and staff at Lewis Institute.)

Anna Orcutt was a psychologist who worked in the Psychology Laboratory founded at Lewis Institute by David Boder. She continued to teach and do research at IIT after the Lewis-Armour merger, and at one point, she was counseling an average of 65 students each month as a means to further her research.

Mollie Cohen was a 1924 alumna of Lewis, then served on its English faculty until the merger, and from 1940 until 1967, she taught at IIT. Mollie was Mies van der Rohe's teacher. That's right; Mollie taught English-as-a-second-language to Mies and the other German emigrants who came to Chicago to develop IIT's architecture program. The Lewis Department of Humanities here at IIT used to award a poetry prize in her name.

Ethel Percy Andrus was another Lewis alumna -- class of 1902 -- who made a name for herself as an educator. She went to California where she worked in education as an administrator at the state level. Seeing how the Great Depression left teachers destitute after years of teaching, she created a retirement program for teachers, and later created the American Association of Retired Persons. Yes, that's right; the AARP was started by a Lewis alumna.

Home Economics at Lewis Institute:

This is not your mother's high school or college home ec program. We're not talking about Betty Crocker, Martha Stewart, or Better Homes and Gardens here (though I'm not disparaging those women and efforts). The Home Economics academic program at Lewis Institute was designed to prepare women -- and men -- to become social scientists, social workers, professional chefs, nutritionists, medical practitioners, dressmakers, interior designers, and at a host of other jobs in which they could be gainfully employed.

Shirley Frost, for instance, became head of all restaurants at the Art Institute of Chicago while...

...Mabel Anderson Bjork became V. P. and Director of Home Economics at the advertising firm, J. Walter Thompson.

Lea Taylor attended Lewis Institute before going to Vassar College from which she graduated in 1904. After that, she came back to Chicago and returned to Chicago Commons, the settlement house founded by her father Graham Taylor where she had grown up. She returned, however, as its head resident and served as a board member until well into her eighties. She was also the president of the Chicago Federation of Settlements.

Dr. Dorcas Merriman Meadows, an 1899 Lewis alumna, went to China as a medical missionary.

Journalism, Literature, and the Arts

As with all the academic programs at Lewis Institute, the liberal arts classes taught students skills they could use to become part of the work force. Lewis was never intended to be a "just" a finishing school for the girls who went there.

Lucy Barton, class of 1909, was a stage costume designer and playwright. Her book Historic Costume for the Stage is still a required text in theater arts academic programs.

Fanny Butcher, class of 1908, was a Chicago Daily Tribune columnist known for her book reviews.

Janet Lewis, a distant relative of the founder of Lewis Institute, was an author who published short stories, librettos, criticism, children's books, and historical novels, including The Wife of Martin Guerre. In her 60s, she taught creative writing at Stanford.

Dorothy Thompson, class of 1908, was a New York Times syndicated columnist who was expelled from Germany by Adolph Hitler.

Besides Lewis and Armour, two other schools which had independent beginnings and have since become part of IIT, bring their own notable women to our stage.

Chicago-Kent College of Law which merged with IIT in 1968 gives us...

...Ida Platt who was an 1894 Chicago College of Law graduate. She was the first African-American to pass the Bar in the Illinois. Note that I said first African-American, not the first female African-American. There is some question as to whether she was actually admitted to the Bar (she may have passed the exam, but not been admitted to the Bar), and certainly, she did not get to practice as an attorney, but her very presence in the school and successful completion of the program deserves our notice.

From the Institute of Design which merged with IIT in 1949, we celebrate...

...Sibyl Moholy-Nagy who was an instructor at ID, the school founded by her husband, László, in 1937. We have, in the IIT Archives, an audio recording of some of her students reading Dada-ist poetry which they wrote as a class assignment. Sibyl also lectured on architecture and was a published author under that name and under the pseudonym S. D. Peech.

Bea Takeuchi and her family were among the thousands of Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast who lost their homes and businesses when they were relocated to internment camps during WWII. One of the few options which allowed young people to leave the camps was for them to enroll in college if they could find a sponsor. Bea was able to find a sponsor in Chicago and upon arriving here, she enrolled at the Institute of Design, becoming one of its early graduates. She went on from there to establish two design programs in the Washington, DC area before returning to Chicago to teach at the Art Institute and at ID.

I'm sure that none of us in this room need to be reminded of the value of education and the difference it can make in the lives of women (and men), but here, in Bea Takeuchi's words, perhaps 40 -- 50 years after her arrival at the Institute of Design, is her assessment: "[M]y liberation from the War Relocation Center was only physical freedom. The greater liberation I gained from the school was the intellectual and creative freedom to probe my world and myself, to discard the limits of race and gender to become an independent artist fully engaged in the world." Retired for many years now, Ms. Takeuchi still lives in Michigan (as of March 2009).

Reflecting on the women presented in this talk, it occurs to me that that is a common theme running through their stories -- that discarding the limits of gender -- or race, or economics, or politics, or ethnicity, or social standing -- they became independent persons, fully engaged in the world.

© Catherine Bruck, 2002   [Edits 2007 and 2009]

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