Hired to teach elocution at the University of Mississippi in 1885, Sarah “Sallie” Isom was the first woman in the state to hold a teaching position at a coeducational college or university. The daughter of physician Thomas Dudley Isom and Sarah McGehee Isom, Isom was born in 1850. She attended August Seminary in Virginia and studied drama and public speaking in Boston and Philadelphia.
The University of Mississippi had for years taught public speaking as part of the work of other departments, especially English, but in 1884 the board of trustees decided to hire an instructor of elocution. Isom, an Oxford native with a strong educational background, was hired, but only after some considerable argument among members of the board. The early 1880s were an important time for the development of public education for women in the state. The University of Mississippi first admitted women as full students in 1882 and hired its first full-time female employee, librarian Julia Wilcox, in 1884, the same year that the Mississippi legislature established Mississippi Industrial Institute and College (now Mississippi University for Women) in Columbus.
From the 1880s until her death in 1905, Isom was the only instructor of elocution at the university. She taught two courses whose primary goal was “to substitute natural methods of express for the faulty delivery which commonly prevails in the reading circle, the college, the pulpit, on the platform and the stage.” From the beginning of her teaching career, she encouraged her students to compete in public speaking in front of the entire university.
The University of Mississippi’s Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies is named in her honor.
- Historical Catalogue of the University of Mississippi, 1849–1909 (1910)
- David G. Sansing, The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History (1999)
- Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies website, http://sarahisomcenter.org/