We all learned the quirky little facts about our school on that first campus tour. However, as smug high school seniors we probably missed quite a bit. Sure we all know there is a supposed to be a ghost in Mary Mayo. But did you know that the wide halls of Morrill Hall, MSU’s oldest building, were built that way to accomodate the huge hoop skirts in fashion in the late 19th century? More importantly did you know that MSU was one of the first schools in Michigan, and even in the entire nation, that opened its doors to women? I know I didn’t.
Up until Feb. 23, 1870, women were not allowed to attend the college. But when the first land grant university extended itself beyond men, ten women enrolled from around the state to pursue a degree.
While researching at University Archives, I learned that one of the main reasons women were allowed to attend the college was because people thought young women needed to “develop their powers” in the area of education. Attending college was regarded as a way of becoming a true woman, where she could make herself “nobler” and a better person in the eyes of society.
Originally built in 1900, Morill Hall became the first building on campus to house women. Women were basically confined to the residence hall unless escorted elsewhere. At first, they were only allowed to study the core subjects: algebra, geometry, bookkeeping and literature. After classes, all students, including both men and women engaged in three hours of afternoon work gardening and planting seeds. In 1896, the Women’s Course was added to girls’ ciricculum, which was a course women students had to follow.
Portia Vescio, technical services archivist of University Archives, said that at the time, it was considered a huge deal for women to have the privileges they did at that time.
“When you think about it, the Women’s Course was a big deal at the time,” Vescio said. “Before then, [women students] didn’t have a specific course of study and no dormitory. [The Women’s Course] really opened up opportunities for women in 1896.”
In 1873, three years after doors were opened to women, three foreign students were allowed to attend, marking the beginning of offering different races, cultures and ethnic groups the same opportunities as white men and women at the college.
According to Jim Cotter, senior associate director of admissions, the growing diversity of the college at such an early date was the result of the Morrill Act of 1855, passed by President Lincoln to ensure anyone could attend land grant colleges.
“The act was the foundation upon which MSU was built,” Cotter said. “Lincoln said that the Land Grant College needed to be an institute for all people to attend.”
Currently, 54 percent of the students on campus are women, and compared to only ten women in 1870, it’s obvious our university has come a long way over the last 150 years. No longer are women thankful for separate women’s courses, they fill classrooms in every area of study.
“We are proud of how far we have progressed as an institution of higher learning and it is each person’s responsibility to assure that MSU remains committed to our heritage of accessibility.”

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