Gendered Experiences on the Historic Campus: A Look Through the Memoirs of Irma Thompson

Every week when I visit the Archives, I try to be conscious of why I am going through old receipts, ledgers, and clippings. History should not be recorded just for the sake of fact keeping, but rather so we can draw on the historical past to answer questions about larger social processes at work in a certain time period in a particular locale. Sometimes it is difficult to find any human element in piles of receipts, let alone link these scraps of old paper to some meaningful historical or archaeological narrative. Other times, however, I open up a folder and the human element veritably leaps off the pages!

Irma Thompson came to Michigan Agricultural College in 1897 when she was 16 years old. She kept extraordinary journals and scrapbooks of her time at MAC, complete with illustrations of her experiences. MAC began admitting female students in 1870, though women were expected at that time to take the same agricultural courses as men. In 1896, Abbot Hall was converted to a women’s dormitory and around the same time, the Women’s Course began.

Irma Thompson's journal entry reads "a girls room in Abbott Hall 1896" courtesy MSU Archives
Irma Thompson’s journal entry reads “a girls room in Abbott Hall 1896” courtesy MSU Archives

This course of study focused more on home economics and liberal arts. Through Irma’s journals, we are able to learn about the experiences of a female student right as the college was shifting gears to accommodate increasing numbers of females on campus. Eventually, I would like to compile more female memoirs from this time period in order to understand the social and academic experiences of early college women. Pictures of women by the river or at campus events are common, but these detailed writings highlight the humor and spirit of female students at a time when universities were still dominated by male students and professors.

I spent several weeks reading through Irma’s memoirs and I think her story is best told by Irma herself. The following are quotes from her journals that showcase her attitude and excitement about being at MAC in the late 1800s:

“Our family had moved to Lansing from the fruit belt of Van Buren  Country Michigan in 1893 for the express purpose of giving me better educational advantages. I had only completed one year of high school by June 1896 but the opportunity to try for the College was too good to miss. I was sixteen and I passed the entrance exams easily except for arithmetic…”

Sketch from Irma Thompson's journal reads " the old tree seat outside of College Hall" courtesy MSU Archives
Sketch from Irma Thompson’s journal reads ” the old tree seat outside of College Hall” courtesy MSU Archives

“In the late nineties MAC was just a nice little land-grant college three miles east of Lansing, sometimes referred to as the Cow College by students of that pioneer institution of learning the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. I had struggled along in a man’s world… the only female students being Professors’ daughters and “specials” with influence on “Faculty Row” or the State Board of Agriculture. But in the fall of 1896 all that was changed. The gates were thrown wide to women students, preferably those who would enroll for a four year period.”

“Botany? Well, I had always loved plants and flowers but for their anatomical structure I couldn’t care less. Dr. Beale was an old man even then and one of the most scholarly scientists of his time, but I soon learned how to adjust my eye to a microscope apparently studying the epidermis of an oleander leaf but actually catching a cat nap while he was holding forth on one of his scientific monologues. The only way I managed to get a passing mark in that course was by being able to illustrate my class papers with pen and ink drawings.”

Sketch from Irma Thompson's journal, facial expressions for each subject (notice botany). Courtesy MSU Archives
Sketch from Irma Thompson’s journal, facial expressions for each subject (notice botany). Courtesy MSU Archives

“According to the formal curriculum all students at MAC were enrolled for at least two hours a week of what was called work. The Ags had to work on the farm. The Engineers had to dig ditches, build buildings, or repair old buildings. Since the work had to be educational rather than merely utilitarian the programming committee were at a loss for a work assignment for the coeds. Somebody suggested “household mechanics” so they sent us to the carpenter shop to learn how to use common tools. Our small group was greeted by the“mechanical engineers” with hoots of derision. The instructor Hogt accepted us with amused forbearance. For the girls it was a lark. The boys were helpful but unbearably “superior.” Our presence in their holy masculine domain was just an inconvenient joke….Nevertheless, I made a box with joined corners, a hinged lid with a clasp and when it was done I sanded, painted, and varnished it earning a cool 85 at the end of the course. Not long ago it went to my youngest grandson for a treasure chest.”

Post-graduation, Irma went on to study art in Chicago, begin a book of fairy tales with a female MAC alumnus, live in sixteen different states and the Philippines, work for the US Army during WWI and WWII, and lead a happy family life.


Author: Amy Michael

2 thoughts on “Gendered Experiences on the Historic Campus: A Look Through the Memoirs of Irma Thompson”

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  • Irma was actually 17 when she started, unless college started before July 13th. She was born July 13, 1880.

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