When the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of the State of Mississippi (II&C) was chartered on 12 March 1884, it made educational history as the first state-supported college for women in America. Its curriculum was a unique hybrid: a high-quality collegiate education coupled with practical vocational training. One legislator described the school as a “Godsend” for the “poor girls of Mississippi.” At a time when many people considered intellectual training for women to have disastrous consequences, legislators in economically ravaged Mississippi recognized that women needed to learn not only to think for themselves but also to support themselves. The II&C’s curriculum served as a model for other state-supported women’s colleges, among them Georgia State College for Women (1889), North Carolina College for Women (1891), Alabama College (1893), Texas State College for Women (1901), Florida State College for Women (1905), and Oklahoma College for Women (1908).
Two decades of effort preceded the II&C’s establishment. Sallie Eola Reneau of Grenada had campaigned energetically for the creation of a public college for white women during the 1860s and 1870s, winning legislative approval but no appropriations. A decade later, Olivia Valentine Hastings of Copiah County and Annie Coleman Peyton of Claiborne County joined forces to lobby legislators and journalists, including as part of their argument the fact that black women were receiving education at Mississippi colleges created during Reconstruction for people of color. Hastings’s friend, legislator John McCaleb Martin of Claiborne Country, drafted a bill to create the II&C. Strong political support from a few key representatives, combined with the backing of Gov. Robert Lowry, helped Martin’s bill win passage by a single vote in the Senate and by just two votes in the House.
II&C opened on 22 October 1885 in Columbus, a longtime supporter of women’s education that donated to the state the buildings and grounds of the Columbus Female Institute, a private school founded in 1847, and fifty thousand dollars raised via city bonds for improvements to the property. The first session opened with 341 blue-uniformed girls entering the school’s new chapel to hear Gov. Lowry exclaim, “Men and women of Mississippi, you have a jewel! Preserve it!” He also reminded the crowd that it was fitting that Mississippi should give the opportunity of a free college education to its “white girls” since “white boys” and “black boys and girls” already had similar opportunities. Tuition was free, with students selected through a quota system based on the counties’ population of “educable white girls.” According to the charter, the students had to be “at least fifteen years of age, in good health, and . . . of good moral character.” In 1889 the first ten graduates received their diplomas.
The II&C’s first president, Richard Watson Jones, also taught physics and chemistry and presided over an otherwise all-female faculty whose members influenced the state’s political and educational life for decades. Pauline Orr, mistress of English, Mary Callaway, mistress of mathematics, and Sallie McLaurin, mistress of industrial and decorative arts, became powerful mentors for the young women who began leaving the II&C to attend graduate schools, to teach, or to work as bookkeepers or telegraphers. Orr was active in the woman suffrage movement, and after retiring from teaching in 1913, she served as president of the state suffrage association and spoke up and down the eastern seaboard, using her connections with former students and faculty to further the cause. Other early faculty members became well known in Mississippi for their innovative teaching and their passion for their disciplines. Emma Ody Pohl, who taught at the school from 1907 to 1955, brought mandatory physical education courses to all students and created some of the most distinctive campus traditions: the Junior-Freshman Wedding and the Zouave marching drill. Weenona Poindexter, a member of the music faculty from 1894 to 1945, initiated the diploma in music and began decades of highly successful concert series by personally guaranteeing the funding for an Ignace Paderewski concert on campus in 1905. Mabel Ward, the first home economics professor in Mississippi, created innovative programs such as the Home Management Practice House, which set the standard for home economics departments all over the country,
In 1920, when the II&C became Mississippi State College for Women, the new name more clearly reflected the institution’s merging of professional training with four-year collegiate degrees. In 1966 the college admitted its first African American women, and in 1974, the school became Mississippi University for Women (MUW). In 1982 the US Supreme Court voted five to four that MUW had to admit male applicants to the School of Nursing. To avoid further litigation, the state’s Board of Institutions of Higher Learning then directed MUW to open all academic programs to men. Shortly thereafter, however, the board reaffirmed the original mission focused on women’s education, and in 1989 Dr. Clyda Stokes Rent became MUW’s first female president. Since 2012 James Borsig has headed the school.
MUW still provides a liberal arts education with a distinct emphasis on professional development and leadership opportunities for women. The institution remains an educational model and pioneer not only in Mississippi but in the nation. Among the many notable MUW alumni are scientist Elizabeth Lee Hogan, author Eudora Welty, educators Blanche Colton Williams and Bettye Rogers Coward, actress Ruth Ford, and legal figures Kay Cobb, Lenore Prather, Helen Carloss, and Mary Libby Payne.
- Janet R. Langley, Mississippi Industrial Institute and College: Forerunner of Women’s Higher Education in the New South (master’s thesis, Mississippi University for Women, 1999)
- John McCaleb Martin, Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Centenary Series (1921)
- Edward Mayes, History of Education in Mississippi (1889)
- Richard Aubrey McLemore, ed., A History of Education in Mississippi (1973)
- Mississippi University for Women website, www.muw.edu
- Sarah Neilson, “The History of Mississippi State College for Women” (unpublished, 1954)
- Bridget Smith Pieschel and Stephen Robert Pieschel, Loyal Daughters: One Hundred Years at Mississippi University for Women (1984)