Alice Freeman Palmer

Birthday: February 21

For ninety-five years, the Palmer Society has been a strong female influence on the Whittier College Campus. We take our inspiration from our namesake, Alice Freeman Palmer, and honor her innovative attitudes and her amazing achievements here. 

Alice Freeman was born in 1855 to a farmer in New York State. She was the eldest of four children. Her father had greater aspirations than farming and left his family in order to gain further education and went on to become a doctor. Alice and her mother ran the farm and raised the other children in his absence. Alice wanted desperately to go to college but at that time 0.7% of all young women 18-21 were attending college, and a poor family like hers would not waste money on educating a girl when they had boys to raise and educate. Alice promised her parents that if she were allowed to attend school she would help to pay for her younger siblings educations as well. Her parents agreed and in 1872 Alice Freemen began attending the University of Michigan. Only two years earlier U of M had begun allowing women to attend classes. While going to school she fulfilled her promise to her family and took teaching jobs to support them.

After she graduated Alice Freeman became a principal at a boarding school in Wisconsin. Due to her outstanding reputation, the founder of Wellesley College, Mr. Henry Fowle Durant, offered her a position to teach mathematics, then Greek and finally a professorship in History. She accepted the third offer. When Durant died in 1881, the trustees of Wellesley College elected the then 26-year-old Alice Freeman, president. She was the 1st female to head a nationally known college. Prior to her leadership, the school was considered a religiously based college. Freeman is credited with creating a well rounded and intellectually stimulating Liberal Arts College.

During that time she met George Palmer, a forward-minded Philosophy professor at Harvard. In July of 1887 Alice Freeman announced her engagement to George Palmer and her resignation as President of Wellesley College. For the next two years Alice Freeman Palmer was an active public speaker focusing on Women’s higher education. She was appointed to the Massachusetts Board of education and was one of the founders of the American Association of University Women.

In 1892 the President of the University of Chicago offered positions for both George and Alice on the Chicago campus. George declined the offer but Alice accepted the position of Dean of Women. When Alice started her work at the University, women made up 24% of the student body. By the time she left 48% of the campus were women. This caused the mainly male faculty to bristle. In 1895 Alice Freeman Palmer resigned her position somewhat disheartened by the attitudes of the University of Chicago’s faculty and staff.

Alice Freeman Palmer spent her remaining years speaking on behalf of women and on the importance of education for women. She died suddenly at the age of 47 due to complications from surgery. Alice Freeman Palmer had many battles to fight and win for the women of her day as well as creating a path for the women of today. The Palmer Society has taken her name because we believed 95 years ago as we believe today, that Alice Freeman Palmer embodies all that we hold true. Scholarship, public service and sisterhood are above all what we hold dear.

Additional References regarding Alice Freeman Palmer
University of Michigan’s “Michigan Today,” June 1994 article
Ruth Bordin’s “Alice Freeman Palmer: Evolution of a New Woman”