150 Years Ago: The First Women of DePauw

Category: Heritage

Noraleen DuVall Young

Alpha Chi, Purdue

As I hope you know, Theta is just a few years shy of her sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of its founding. But we as an organization can actually trace our beginnings to three years earlier—specifically, June 26, 1867—when the Board of Trustees and Visitors of Indiana Asbury (now DePauw) University decided to “… receive Female students into the regular classes of the University.” That simple statement marked entrance into the world of coeducation and on September 11, 1867, Laura Beswick, Bettie Locke, Alice Allen, and Mary Simmons entered DePauw as full college students.

Other colleges had earlier opened their doors to women, including Oberlin College in Ohio in 1833. In Indiana, Franklin College had first admitted women in 1842 and Indiana University in 1867. In fact, DePauw’s board had voted in 1861 to allow faculty to allow women in classes if they “deem proper,” but nothing happened. The trustees also attempted to establish a standalone partner female college but did not have the resources to do so. The 1867 vote finalized the growing opinion to expand the student body.

On that day in September, the young women entered the university chapel and sat in the front pew, making a statement about their place on campus. In October 1867, the school newspaper, The Asbury Review, began commenting on women on campus and in December 1867 an editorial called on the trustees to end coeducation. The faculty responded in January 1868 and offered continued support for the women. Each year they had to overcome new challenges, but by commencement 1871, women, while still in small numbers, had become a customary part of the student body.

For us as Thetas, that day in September brought together two of our founders, Bettie and Alice, and, within a few years, the other two, Bettie Tipton and Hannah Fitch, who together established Kappa Alpha Theta in January 1870. (Mary Simmons, among the first four women to graduate, became a Theta in September 1870.)

Bettie Locke, in later years, stated, “We realized somehow that we weren’t going to college just for ourselves, but for all the girls who would follow after us, if we could just win out.” For our founders, establishing Kappa Alpha Theta enhanced the opportunity to receive a college education, to stand equal with the male students.

In this year of scholarship, I look back to what these women attempted and succeeded in doing: breaking into the realm of higher education and proving to themselves and to those around them that they belonged. Let’s celebrate this achievement not only by marking the anniversary but fulfilling Bettie’s request when she wrote, “Try above all things to keep up a high standard of Scholarship. Nothing will elevate K.A.O. like wonderful Scholarship!”