Women’s History Month: Evidence of Exclusion at ISU

Last month, a SCUA blog post on Black History Month and audiovisual recordings referenced the problem of “cultural memory gaps,” which is to say, gaps in the historical record that came about as the direct result of exclusionary attitudes and practices of the time. Sometimes, the loss or absence of a record is noticeable, as was the case with Ralph Ellison’s undocumented visit to Iowa State University. Sometimes, however, this loss or absence takes the form of lost potential, as is the case when members of underrepresented groups are systematically denied access to education, opportunity, and association that might have allowed them to better develop their talents in the first place.

Traditionally, Women’s History Month draws attention to the achievements and contributions of extraordinary individuals who proved exceptions to the rule of their time. It is equally important, however, to remember why so few achievements and contributions exist (at least, in documented form) to celebrate. Today, therefore, we are going to look at material which evidences some discriminatory practices and attitudes connected with ISU history.

The first example is a rejection letter from the Vet Med school, dated 1957.

The picture below features a photocopy of the original letter, with the name of the individual to whom it is addressed redacted for privacy purposes. The photocopy also contains markings from a patron who once included the letter in a class guide and wished to draw special attention to the justifications offered for the rejection.

March 11, 1957. Dear Miss: It is the policy of the Division of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State College not to admit women to the professional curriculum. Because of limited educational facilities it has been necessary to restrict the number of new students who may be admitted to approximately sixty-four. Each year we receive more applications from men students than can be accommodated. If women were admitted, they would displace the same number of men. In many cases women are not physically equal to the educational requirements of the large animal clinics. There are many good fields for women which are closely related to veterinary medical science, such as medical technician, radiologist, major study in bacteriology or zoology, and possibly human medicine. We are sorry to disappoint you. If you wish, we will be happy to consider your application for admission to some other curriculum offered by the Iowa State College. Sincerely yours.

Photocopy of 1957 letter of rejection (Iowa State University, Margaret Sloss Women’s Center, Subject Files, RS 3/6/1; Iowa State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Office of the Dean, Administrative Records, RS 14/1/8)

Notice how none of the justifications for rejection reference the applicant’s personal qualifications, but instead emphasize a desire to give male applicants priority consideration based exclusively on their gender.

The practice of discriminating against qualified applicants based on gender ended shortly thereafter, in 1960. Unfortunately, though, the attitudes which shaped the original policy seem to have persisted within the institution beyond the following decade, as there is later evidence of discriminatory practices that limited female students’ access to opportunities for professional development in more subtle ways, even after they had been admitted.

For example, we have a piece of correspondence from 1971, written in the name of the Osborn Research Club and signed by distinguished professors in animal husbandry and bacteriology, one of whom was dean of the graduate college at the time. The purpose of the letter was to establish unwritten policies in response to a challenge, though it is unclear whether this was common practice, as Osborn did not have a constitution at the time of founding.

The Osborn Research Club is a prestigious, now nearly-century-old, group on campus. It is not merely a student club or an honorary, but rather an academic, discussion-based, professional organization, intended to stimulate debate among active researchers in various branches of science. Unfortunately, certain matters were not up for debate.

2. No, women should not be admitted to membership; nor should they be guests at the meetings. (Unanimous). There are several good arguments for not accepting women as members (or even as guests). The presence of women, as members or guests, would make less free the discussions both at the table and after the paper; their presence might also restrict the freedom of selection of the content of the paper or the manner in which it was presented. The rules of politeness in our society are different when women are present than when the affair is stag. Almost all women view matters from a subjective viewpoint; many men can, and some do, view matters objectively. A woman presenting a paper is most likely to view serious and deep discussion as criticism; a man is not likely to react this way. In the presence of women men have to be careful not only what they say but how they say it. Sigma Xi, which is much more impersonal than Osborn Research Club, should serve better the needs of the woman scientist on our campus until such time as the campus women start some activity of their own.

Correspondence from Osborn Research Club, 1971 (Iowa State University, Osborn Research Club Records, RS 20/2/1, box 1, folder 11)

It is especially interesting to note that, despite the authors’ confidence in the absolute truth of their assertions, there was a pointed reluctance to open this question up for discussion among their reportedly objective-minded members. In fact, the authors of this letter – who, incidentally, signed themselves as “The Patriarchs” – burdened their membership with the responsibility of raising the issue in the first place, perhaps hoping it would simply not come up during their time in office.

3. We advise against the chairman going out of his way to present these questions of membership to the club for action. By tradition any member has always been free to bring any matter before the group for consideration at any meeting. It is probably wise that the chairman be informed in advance of such intention. 4. The chairman should decide the amount and nature of background material presented at the outset in a formal way. Discussion should be free and complete. (But we warn that there will be more wind than wisdom.)

Correspondence from Osborn Research Club, 1971 (Iowa State University, Osborn Research Club Records, RS 20/2/1, box 1, folder 11)

But, indeed, the patriarchs‘ hesitance to democratize the issue and create “wind” seems to have been well-founded, as the young men of the club voted to admit women in 1972, the year immediately following. Today, the Osborn Research Club counts numerous female researchers among its officers and members.

Nor is this the only moment in ISU history when students have stood up to their elders in the name of a social justice cause.

In the summer of 1943, the ISU chapter of Mortar Board, then an honor society for senior women (now a co-ed honorary for upper-classmen), initiated a letter-writing campaign to debate a national board ruling, which had excluded a highly-qualified black student from joining the Ohio State University chapter, even though the girl’s classmates had already unanimously voted her in.

The letter, after quoting the Mortar Board constitution, summarizes the incident below:

As you will note after reading carefully our purpose and membership qualifications we have no statement in that which bars a girl because of race, color or creed. However, in the past your Council has made it a policy to admit only members of the white race except where special permission has been requested and granted. This spring one of our chapters unanimously elected a girl of the negro race. This girl has all the necessary qualifications for membership: high scholarship, service to the school, and holds many importatn [sic] offices including that of president ofthe [sic] Y.W.C.A. and A.W.S. board member. The chapter advisors, knowing of our former policy, referred the matter to Council. Since the six members of the Council are so widely separated it was difficult in so short a time to discuss adeqately [sic] the situation and to decide wisely and fairly. also, we did not wish to pass judgment hastily on a matter of national policy of some years standing. Therefore, we reqested [sic] the chapetr [sic] to elect the other new members this spring and if, after our Council meeting, we decided to sanction the election of a negro, this action would be retroactive and the chapter in the fall would initiate the girl in question and she would still have her full year of active membership.

Correspondence from Iowa State University chapter of Mortar Board (Mortar Board. Torch Chapter (Iowa State University), RS 22/2/3, box 1, folder 10)

The language of the ISU chapter letter remains carefully diplomatic throughout, framing the issue as one of local democracy, in which each chapter should be allowed to decide on their own admissions policies. It does, however, repeatedly call for response from its sister chapters (implying that the complaint, although addressed to the national president, was not posted privately). It is also filed together with just such a response from the Mortar Board chapter at the University of Washington, and the latter minces fewer words:

It has seemed to us that there is very little room for debate on the matter. Mortar Board is a national organization to recognize and honor coed achievement and leadership. It is not an organization to honor white achievement and leadership. mortar Board loses its entire meaning if it refuses to recognize ability outside of a certain selected group. If a Negro girl -- or a girl of any other race -- has met the standards set forth by Mortar Board for membership, then there is no conceivable reason why she should not be admitted. If National refuses to verify her initiation, then national would be guilty of one of the basic principles against which we are fighting -- racial intolerance. And we as sub-chapters of the organization would share that guilt.

Correspondence from University of Washington chapter of Mortar Board, 1943 (Mortar Board. Torch Chapter (Iowa State University), RS 22/2/3, box 1, folder 10)

Sadly, we have little evidence on the outcome of this specific incident. The folder contains only a reply from the national president, along with a note on onion skin paper from an unidentified alumnae association. Both the president and the alumnae repeatedly, almost redundantly, classify the matter of whether or not to admit black students as a “problem,” find the University of Washington chapter’s tone “belligerent,” and generally agree with the ISU chapter that such policies, such “problems,” are best decided upon at the local level. There is no indication of whether or not Ohio State permitted the girl to join Mortar Board, let alone whether she had any remaining desire to do so.

With this lack of resolution in mind, here are a few take-away points:

1). Despite what the first two documents examined in this blog post imply, the attitudes and prejudices which shape exclusionary practices, at ISU and elsewhere, are not, and have never been, the sole property of men. Women of color have faced systematic exclusion much longer than, and frequently at the hands of, white women.

2). Historically speaking, it is not at all a new phenomenon for young people to champion policy-based change, only to hear their elders patronize and dismiss them for their zeal. In fact, many individuals who make sweeping generalizations about Generations X, Y, and Z today would themselves have belonged to the generations that protested exclusion with such recognizable turns of pandering, “wind,” and “belligerence.” 

3). The missing pieces from all of these stories are the thoughts, reactions, and even identities of the women whom these exclusionary policies impacted. All of these individuals must have had some perspective on what had happened to them and why. All of these individuals had lives before and after they butted up against the policies. But their stories are filtered exclusively through the words of their oppressors and/or, occasionally, the people who chose to stand up for them. This is unfortunate, because it frames our entire knowledge of these women as victims who required saving, and there is no evidence that this is how they saw themselves. For all we know, they may have been glad to discover upfront how prejudiced these organizations were, or what a potentially toxic environment they had escaped. A number of them may have gone on to be very successful in the context of other institutions, other organizations, or in other fields. Without hearing the story from multiple sides, we have no way of knowing what precisely was lost.

The real loss in all of these cases, then, is the institution’s loss, the archives’ loss, the historical record’s loss. Not only was ISU denied many opportunities to boast a role in shaping young talent, but current and future historians have been denied the opportunity to gauge with any accuracy precisely how much damage these exclusionary policies caused, or to whom. All we know for certain is that they existed, they were implemented, and why.