Women throughout the ages at Michigan Tech

Madison Degnitz, Lode Writer

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With a 3:1 male-to-female ratio, it’s fairly obvious that the number of female students at Michigan Tech is quite small compared to other universities. With women taking up such a small percentage of the student population, many may be curious as to what the role of women has been throughout the university’s past, and what past female alumni experienced during their time at Tech.

MTU opened in 1885 under the name “Michigan Mining School,” making the university the first post-secondary education institution in the Upper Peninsula. Its name shifted multiple times throughout the years, eventually ending up as we know it today.

Women were first allowed to take classes at what is now Michigan Technological University in the 1890s, but unlike their male classmates, they were not allowed to earn a degree. Though they paid the same amount of money to take the same classes, the only thing they received for their payments was the knowledge they learned in class. Little is known about these early Huskies, as they are not mentioned in many old university documents or alumni registers.

Margaret R. Chapman (nee Holley) was the first woman to finally receive a degree from the school, earning a B.S. in General science in 1933, and another degree in Chemistry in 1933. She was raised in Lake Linden and graduated from Calumet High School, where she then went off to receive a degree from Lawrence College before coming back to earn her degrees from Michigan College of Mining and Technology. She also worked towards her master’s degree at MTU and worked in the school’s corrosion lab. Michigan Tech seemed to run in Chapman’s family, as her father, husband, and son were also Tech alumni.

Ella Wood was the first female professor at Michigan Tech, having earned her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. She first arrived at what is now MTU in 1927 to act as an assistant professor in English and geography. Wood also supervised many extracurricular organizations, such as the debate team and drama. She also acted as the faculty advisor for the school’s low number of female students.

As the number of women students grew, a need for co-ed dorm buildings also did. McNair Hall – once known as Co-ed Hall – was the first building on campus built for the intention of having female students reside in it. Since McNair wasn’t completed until 1966, a single floor in Wadsworth Hall was used as female housing. Women weren’t allowed to live in Douglass Houghton Hall until 1972. Since there was as low as 100 students at the school even in the 1950s, there wasn’t much need for female housing.

Attending the university wasn’t without its challenges for these early female Huskies. Alum Lucille Brinkman faced discrimination from many of her professors. As told by her brother Bill, also a Tech alum, Lucille enrolled at MTU in 1936 and was faced with taunts and insults.

She faced the rude behavior for a while but later confessed to her brother that she wanted to drop out because of the actions of some of her professors.

She had arrived in class one day in pants, not a dress or a skirt as was allowed for women, to keep herself warm in the harsh Houghton weather. The professor then went on to tell inappropriate stories about women and continued to do so until one of Lucille’s male classmates alerted the professor that there was a female in the room.

Flustered by his actions, the professor asked her to stay after class, and instead of apologizing, he told her, “this is an engineering school and absolutely no place for a woman like you.” Despite the discrimination she faced, she persisted on and graduated in 1941.

Since these days of discrimination, organizations like the Society for Women Engineers, or SWE, have cropped up, allowing women to feel more like they have a place and belong at a school like Tech. As support has grown, so has female attendance, slowly but surely balancing out the notoriously uneven Tech ratio.

Though female enrollment is still low at MTU, the number of women at Tech is growing, and with that comes more celebration of women alumni and their accomplishments. MTU has come a long way from the days of Margaret Chapman and Lucille Brinkman, with only better days to come!

For more information on Michigan Tech’s past, visit the university archives, located in the garden level of the Van Pelt and Opie Library.