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An Augustana Day: women in the early years

Anna Olsson Anna Westman

Women attended Augustana as early as 1871, but not until a decade later did they actually begin studying for and receiving degrees.

The first woman, Inez Rundstrom, graduated in 1885, the second, Anna Olsson, in 1888. The first woman faculty member, Anna Westman, Class of 1892, began teaching the fall after she earned her degree.

Then, slowly but steadily, numbers of women increased. Women took courses across the undergraduate curriculum. Rundstrom and Westman majored in math, Olsson in philosophy and literature. They were not, however, permitted to venture up the hill into Seminary classrooms.

What would it have been like to be a woman at Augustana in those early years? The following is a composite view, reconstructed from various contemporary documents. Specifically, it refers to the span from the beginning of the 1890s to the first years of the new century. By then women had their own residence, Ladies Hall, which, despite its rigid and prescriptive rules, provided a venue for companionship and relaxation after a long day of classes. A day, perhaps, like this one.

The two women referred to by name are Netta Bartholomew Anderson, Class of 1894, and Anna Olsson, Class of 1888. Both women's homes have been designated as Rock Island city landmarks.

A tea party, from the 1915 Rockety-I yearbook.

An Augustana Day

The bell clangs at 6 a.m.
(You can imagine matron swinging it,
Robust and alert in the dark of dawn.)
You groan, yawn, burrow. The pillow
Is deep. Maybe you talked too much
The night before, eaten
Too many nuts and apples, as you stitched
The small white stitches of your unmentionables,
The bigger stitches of your unmentionable
Dreams... the cute boy in the high collar who smiled at you
Across the classroom, across the bright campus...
And deeper what-ifs: I get the highest grade, I get to go abroad, I get to...
Do something new. Something splendid. Learn more....
Or maybe you studied late, light haloed on the page.
Excited, determined. You want to shine.

Ladies Hall in 1949. It later became a classroom building and was known as East Hall. It was razed in 1978.

So morning comes too soon. You sit up,
Swing legs to floor. Your hair
In its long night braid swings too.
The girls -- "ladies," they're called officially --
Rise around you, white nightgowned shapes,
Shuffling, bed to basin, splashing on
Wake-up water stirred with stirring light.
Some squint and grunt. Others grin.
Some, maybe, pray.
Breakfast at seven.
It's an Augustana day.

Not a bad building to look at, where you live.
You glance up at it, east of Main, just at campus edge.
The sun, poking up the sky, taps it first.
Double house, frame with brick veneer,
To glow when the light's right. You don't leave it
Even when the rats invade. Just tuck up bare feet
And keep the lamp on all night long. --Now: to class,
Westward across campus. Your skirt skims the ground,
Skirling like leaves. You walk with head high, hair piled and gleaming.
Class at 8. Your schedule might look like this:
Botany German Piano practice Philosophy Geology English Voice Latin
Or like this
Natural history Chemistry Algebra English History Swedish Piano Choir practice.
You sit straight in your forward-facing desks,
Listen to black-suited, white-haired professors,
Look at sun dusting the wooden floor,
At the sudden dance of stars when chalk
Breaks mid-word in the teacher's hand.
You take notes in long shaded strokes.
Listen to the boys recite.
Race music with your fingers
On key and string;
Or taste and breathe it
As light flattens (but sopranos don't).

"Around the Fireplace," from the 1913 Rockety-I yearbook.

You finish up at 5, come back to supper.
Sometimes it's bread and molasses
When college cashflow's slow as.
Evening: you settle down to study. No gentlemen admitted.
Rustle of paper, scratch of pen, whisper of (unauthorized)
Conversation. Then --
"Prayers, ladies."
You close your books, cork up your ink.
Listen to scripture, sing, be silent until
Free time! Nine o'clock. Apples and tea. Lights out at ten
thirty. (Unless you're cramming.)

Quiet in your room
Maybe you pray.
Or watch at the window
To see the dreams come out
An Augustana day.

And what did you think and feel and want and hope,
You in your cinched waists and chin-lifting collars?
Love? Work? Knowledge?
Did you burn, with Netta, when they said
They loved you as girls but didn't care for you as students?
Scorned "women's rights"? Thought education for you
A waste of time? Did you want to torch convention,
Claim your place, hike up your clogging skirts and run,
Run shouting with the voice you'd found, forced them
To hear? Or, like Anna, did you love it -- the look of campus, its paths
Gentle beneath your feet, the sun on the hills and strewn across
The far river? Did you love the silence when you could sit
On Zion Hill on your own private tree stump, book across your knees,
Looking down when you looked up,
Reading away the light
Till it went inside you, deep,
And you stood up glowing like a lamp?
Did you worry? Wonder? Welcome
The new day that waited
Just off the edge of the hill?

Women sledding near Old Main, from the 1915 Rockety-I yearbook. (See larger image) The Augustana Woman’s Club, from the 1918 Rockety-I. (See larger image)