Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Amelia Earhart and Purdue University

In his twenty-three years as Purdue University’s president, Dr. Edward Charles Elliott made many changes to the West Lafayette campus, making it one of the country’s leading technical and engineering institutions. As the university’s leader, Elliott operated under what he called “a doctrine of chance.” He noted that “chance meetings, unexpected conversations, all play a more important part of an individual’s life than do most planned and carefully executed experiences.”

One of the “chance meetings” Elliott described resulted in a major coup for Purdue when, in June 1935, the president announced the appointment of a visiting faculty member as a career counselor for the university’s female students. The new addition to the staff had already achieved worldwide fame, but would pass into legend following her stint at the Hoosier school. Purdue had landed Amelia Earhart.

Although Earhart spent only a short time at Purdue, both she and the university benefited from the relationship. Along with the mountains of publicity garnered from her presence on the faculty, Purdue also became the beneficiary of Earhart’s person-to-person talents as she encouraged female students to embark on careers normally reserved for men.

In Earhart’s case, her husband, George P. Putnam, convinced Elliott and the university to help fund a “flying laboratory” for his wife’s use. Through the Purdue University Research Foundation, and donations from Hoosier businessmen David Ross, J. K. Lilly Sr., and others, the university established in April 1936 an Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research that aided the aviatrix in purchasing the twin-motored Lockheed Electra airplane Earhart used on her ill-fated “Round-the-World” flight, from which she vanishedin July 1937.

Because of her busy scheduled, Earhart could not be a full-time faculty member at Purdue, but attempted to spend at least a month at the university during the school year as a career consultant for women. For her efforts she received from Purdue a $2,000 salary. Along with guiding women students toward new careers she also served as a technical adviser in aeronautics to Purdue, which was, at that time, the only university in the country equipped with its own airport.

To Earhart, however, the “problems and opportunities of these girls [at Purdue] were quite as much my concern as aviation matters” when she agreed to take the job. Writing about her time at the university in her posthumously published book Last Flight, Earhart admitted that she had “something of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to modern feminine education.” She noted that women, especially those whose tastes are outside the normal routine, often did not get a fair chance to develop their talents. “I have known girls who should be tinkering with mechanical things instead of making dresses, and boys who would do better at cooking than engineering.” Purdue offered her a chance to test those beliefs.

Earhart arrived on campus to assume her duties on November 6, 1935. The Lafayette Journal and Courier heralded the famous flier’s arrival in Indiana with a page-one headlines declaring “Amelia Earhart Leaves Air to Guide Purdue Girls in Careers.” With Earhart scheduled to be at the university only three weeks, the newspaper noted that she would “have little opportunity for leisure during her sojourn on the campus.

The reporter’s prediction quickly came to pass. In her first few days at Purdue, Earhart attended a luncheon for the home economics department, served as guest of honor at a Mortar Board luncheon, met the student body at an afternoon tea in the Memorial Union building, and spoke at a special convocation at the Memorial gymnasium.

Given work space in the dean of women’s office and living in South Hall, Earhart became a familiar sight on campus. Students flocked to the flier’s side, especially at dinnertime, and tried not only to imitate her style of dress (which was casual, to say the least), but her mannerisms as well. “These were the days when table manners were considered somewhat important,” noted Helen Schleman, in charge of the dormitory where Earhart stayed. “Amelia’s posture at table, when she was deep in conversation, was apt to be sitting forward on the edge of her chair—both elbows on the table—and chin cupped in hands. Naturally, the question was ‘If Miss Earhart can do it why can’t we?’ The stock reply was ‘As soon as you fly the Atlantic, you may!’”

Earhart managed to fit in well with dormitory life at Purdue. Marian Frazier, who lived in the same dorm as the flier, remembered that it seemed as though Earhart was always “terribly busy,” noting that she heard Earhart working away at her typewriter as late as midnight. Frazier also recalled studying one night when Earhart suddenly appeared and asked to borrow a pen for a short time. The excited Frazier could not keep the news to herself so, when her celebrity neighbor returned the borrowed pen, she was greeted by a roomful of coeds, all wanting to catch a glimpse of the celebrated pilot.

To fulfill her job as a career counselor for Purdue’s female students, Earhart prepared a questionnaire seeking answers from them about such issues as why they were in college, if they wanted a career, how marriage might affect their choices, and what part a husband might play in their life. Of those responding to the questionnaire, Earhart found that approximately 92 percent indicated that they wanted a career. According to Putnam, his wife wanted to find out about the student’s after-college plans to help university officials in reconstructing courses so that they might be more beneficial.

Toward that end, Earhart discussed with Purdue administrators the possibility of creating a “household engineering” course for those women who wanted to remain homemakers. “Many a stay-at-home girl,” said Earhart, “would welcome practical training in what to do when the doorbell fails to function, the plumbing clogs . . . and the thousand-and-one other mechanical indispositions that can occur about the house, often easily enough fixed if one has rudimentary knowledge how to fix them.” She also pointed out the need for male students to gather some experience in homemaking, noting that most men “enter into marriage with little training in domestic economy, know little about food and how it should be prepared, little about child training and their duties as parents. What, I wonder, is going to be done about all that.”

Although she only spent a short time at the university, Earhart’s ties to Purdue played a key role in securing for her the money and equipment necessary for attempting what became her final flight. Thanks to donations to the Earhart Fund established by the university, and contributions in equipment from such companies as Western Electric, Goodyear, and Goodrich, Earhart purchased a twin-motored, ten-passenger Lockheed Electra aircraft. The plane, built in Burbank, California, included such special features as extra gasoline tanks for extended flight, an automatic pilot, and a two-way radio.

On June 1, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Miami, Florida, in the Electra on the first leg of a planned around-the-world flight. The trip proceeded smoothly until the difficult 2,570-mile flight from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island. The two never reached their destination. Despite a massive search, no trace could be found of the plane and its crew. Two weeks after Earhart disappeared, Elliott telegraphed Putnam the following message: “George, she would not want us to grieve or weep; she would have been a heroine in any age.”

Although Purdue’s investment had crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, the university received tangible benefits from its association with Earhart, including nationwide publicity. Also, Purdue’s female students had a unique opportunity to interact with a person who typified women’s changing role in modern society.

As for Earhart, her time at the Hoosier university offered her a chance to test both her skills as a pilot and educator. Looking back at that short period in his wife’s career, Putnam said that Earhart’s job at Purdue provided her with “one of the most satisfying adventures of her life.”



Friday, March 3, 2017

"Advanced Ideas": The Early Fight for Equal Suffrage in Indiana

During the spring of 1878 Indianapolis society crackled with “mysterious whisperings” concerning a proposed meeting involving women in the community with “advanced ideas” about their proper place in society. A secret call drew ten people—nine women and one man—to a gathering at Circle Hall.

Although the issue of improved rights for women had been seriously debated in Indiana as far back as the 1850s—and Indiana had been one of the first states in the country to form a woman’s suffrage organization—most respectable citizens considered the idea radical at best.

“Had we convened consciously to plot the ruin of our domestic life,” noted one participant, “which opponents predict as the result of woman’s enfranchisement, we could not have looked more guilty or have moved about with more unnatural stealth.” The conservative atmosphere that dominated Indianapolis could be seen from the group’s taking more than two hours to discuss whether or not the new society should take a name for itself that would clearly advertise its goal, or one that would hide it from the outside world.

About a month after this initial meeting, twenty-six people attended a second gathering and formed the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society. The society consisted of men and women “willing to labor for the attainment of equal rights at the ballot-box for all citizens on the same conditions.”

The Society followed a path blazed by such early pioneers in the fight for women’s rights as New Harmony’s Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, who fought in the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850 and 1851 to include in the new state constitution provisions guaranteeing a woman’s right to hold property. Indiana’s early property laws, said one Indiana historian, were based upon an English common law tradition that viewed women as “perpetual juveniles.”

Owen wrote Susan B. Anthony that although he campaigned on behalf of property rights for women while in the legislature, he did nothing in regard to suffrages. “In those days,” he said, “it would have been utterly unavailing.”

Owen had a solid basis for his pessimistic outlook. Many of his fellow delegates at the constitutional convention were appalled by his efforts to enhance property rights for women. One delegate claimed that if the convention adopted Owen’s measure, “it would be to throw a whole population morally and politically into confusion. Is it necessary to explode a volcano under the foundation of the family union?” Another delegate rather piously stated that he opposed Owen’s proposal, “not because I love justice less, but women more.”

Writing about the views of that time, Indiana historian Jacob P. Dunn Jr. said that those women who were brave enough to advocate on behalf of for votes for their sex “were subjects of almost universal condemnation and ridicule, and the great majority of women shrank from anything that savored of political publicity.”

There were some in Indiana, however, bold enough to consider the shocking notion that a woman should be allowed to vote. At an anti-slavery meeting in Greensboro in 1851, Amanda Way, an abolitionist, prohibitionist, and licensed minister, offered a resolution declaring that women were “being oppressed and degraded by the laws and customs of our country, and are in but little better condition than chattel slaves.”

To help remedy the situation, Way, who when asked once why she never married replied, “I never had the time,” called for holding a women’s right convention. In October 1851 at Dublin, Indiana, a group of women met for a “full, free, and candid discussion of the legal and social position of women,” said Way.

A year after the Dublin meeting during a convention in Richmond, the Indiana Woman’s Rights Association was formed. Elected as the organization’s vice president, Way insisted that unless women demanded their political, social, and economic rights—including suffrage—they would continue “in the future, as in the past, to be classed with criminals, insane persons, idiots, and infants.” In 1859 the association presented a petition to the Indiana General Assembly, signed by a thousand men and women, seeking for women not only the same property rights as men, but also asking that the state constitution be amended to extend the right to vote to women. The legislature accepted the petition and passed it along to a committee, which, to no one’s surprise, decided that the time was not yet right to grant Hoosier women such privileges.

After this high-water mark, which included the first woman speaker to appear at the legislature, the women’s rights movement in Indiana came to a standstill because of an overriding national emergency—the Civil War. The Woman’s Rights Association held no meetings from 1859 to 1869, years, association minutes noted, when suffragists were giving their time, labor, money, and even lives to the cause of freedom. The association reconstituted itself after the war as the Indiana Woman’s Suffrage Association and sponsored its first meeting in ten years from June 8 to 9, 1869, at Indianapolis’s Masonic Hall. The gathering received positive notices from the Indianapolis Journal, which noted, somewhat condescendingly, that the assembly “compared favorably with the best that have ever been conducted by our own sex.”

Women still faced a long road to equal rights in the state. In the 1870s Zeralda Wallace, the widow of Governor David Wallace and president of the Woman’s Christian TemperanceUnion’s Indiana chapter, attempted to present to the state legislature a petition supporting temperance signed by thousands of Hoosier women—she faced “open contempt” by the lawmakers. One legislator even went as far as to tell Wallace that since women held not political power, her petition “might as well have been signed by 10,000 mice.”

By the 1880s, however, the tide seemed to shift. In December 1880 the Indianapolis suffrage society issued a letter to each legislator and to leading newspapers in the state indicating that during the next session of the Indiana General Assembly the group would seek action on the suffrage question. Suffragists were determined to make a two-pronged attack on the legislature. One was to seek passage of a bill that would “immediately authorize women to vote for presidential electors.” The second involved approval of an amendment to the state constitution allowing women to vote in all elections.

Although the presidential elector bill, introduced by Marion County representative John W. Furnas, passed two readings in the House, it fell three votes short of making it past a third reading.

Failure in one area, however, did not mean the dashing of all the suffragists’ hopes. The regular legislative session had expired before lawmakers had the opportunity to act on important state matters. Therefore, the legislators had to remain in Indianapolis for a special session from March 8 to April 16. The special session gave Indiana women the opportunity to pursue their second route for winning the right to vote: amending article two, section two of the state constitution to give women the vote in all elections.

On March 15 Furnas introduced a resolution in the House outlining a constitutional amendment giving Hoosier women the right to vote. The resolution passed the House on April 7 and, one day later, the Senate followed suit by approving the resolution.

The battle for woman’s suffrage in Indiana, however, was far from over. According to the terms of Indiana’s constitution, any amendment to it had to be passed by two consecutive legislatures and then sent on to voters for their approval. Recognizing the difficult road ahead, the Indianapolis suffrage group worked feverishly to attract supporters to its cause.

When the Indiana General Assembly opened for business in January 1883, the suffragists faced firm opposition from the Democratic Party, which controlled both houses of the legislature. Instead of risking a direct vote against the suffrage and temperance amendments, Democrats argued that all the proposed constitutional amendments, which seemed to have been approved by the previous legislature, had in fact not been legally adopted because they had not been properly entered in the journals of either the House or Senate. A majority report from the senate judiciary committee claimed that there was no evidence in the journals to indicate that either the houses of the legislature “referred, or intended to refer, a proposition to amend the Constitution to this Assembly.”


Suffragists were disappointed by the legislative defeat, but sought every opportunity over the years to prove that women could be a factor in state politics. They had to wait a long time, however, until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, to achieve their goal of equal suffrage for their sex. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

May Wright Sewall and the Girls' Classical School

During the late nineteenth century, Indianapolis experienced a boom in both its population and industry. In spite of this, the city had, as historian and author Claude Bowers noted, “the charm of a large country town.”

One of the most fashionable avenues in the community was Pennsylvania Street. Mary McLaughlin, who lived in a comfortable home on that street, remembered that maple trees lined the roadway, offering cool shade even on the warmest days. The street was also a place where mule-driven streetcars kindly stopped for passengers in the middle of the block, “as they never seemed to be in a hurry to get downtown,” McLaughlin remembered.

Although she remembered a number of famous people who frequented the neighborhood, including Benjamin Harrison, elected as president in 1888, and several Indiana governors, McLaughlin in particular recalled a woman whom she often saw “coming up our street, often carrying a large bag of books, and walking briskly along”—May Wright Sewall. It was not surprising that McLaughlin frequently spied May strolling down the sidewalk, as the McLaughlin home on Pennsylvania Street was just one door down from the Girls’ Classical School, which had opened in 1882 and which May ran with her husband, Theodore.

Until its closing in 1907, the school offered Indianapolis’s girls an education equal to that found for boys in the Indianapolis Classical School and one based on the entrance requirements established for admission to such nationally known women’s colleges as Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. A college graduate herself, May believed that higher education was “a means to some of the largest and noblest ends, but it is also in itself a noble end.”

The Girls’ Classical School opened with forty-four students in attendance in September 1882 on the southeast corner of Pennsylvania and Saint Joseph streets. The school, which eventually attracted pupils from across the country, taught its students something different from the usual courses girls had been taking in other schools, including such subjects as painting, drawing, and music.

Earlier schools for women organized in the city, such as the Indianapolis Female School and Miss Hooker’s Female School, had concentrated on teaching students how to act like ladies rather than to train their minds for serious study. The Girls’ Classical School offered two four-year courses of study, classics and English, with an additional year for pupils preparing for college entrance examinations. The course also included French and German, and the school emphasized that “Music, Painting, Drawing and similar branches” would not be offered.

May served as principal and also taught literature at the school. She took a firm hand in running the operation. “There was no nonsense about Mrs. Sewall,” one student remembered. The pupil noted that May used to come into her classroom, and after briefly speaking to the teacher, she talked to the students, all the time looking at them “through a large magnifying glass which enlarged her eye” and transformed her into “a Cyclops of most forbidding appearance.”

In opening a school with high standards, May, with her husband’s support, had given herself, as one Hoosier education historian noted, an ample “opportunity to apply some theories of her own in the education of girls.” One of these theories involved physical training for her students, something not usually offered to girls who attended school during the nineteenth century.

After a visit to the school, a reporter from the Indianapolis News came away with the opinion that a “spirit of happiness is suffused through the school.” The reporter was particularly impressed by the senior class of girls, noting the following: “They are not the kind of girls who lose their temper and self-possession under difficulties. They are not the sort of person who scream at trifles, nor do they call everything ‘lovely’—cabbages, waterfalls and all—and they are not the ones who wear shoes a great deal too small when they are young, and require shoes a great deal too large when they are old. They appear permanently well poised, mentally and bodily.”

The discipline shown by pupils at the Girls’ Classical School came about in no small part from the strict way in which May ran the school. Reminiscing about their former school, students—the daughters of Indianapolis’s leading businessmen and socially prominent mothers—described May as “a bit of a tyrant,” whose stern look could strike terror in their young hearts.

During school hours, students maintained a strict study schedule, with set hours for subjects such as reading, geography, writing, spelling, arithmetic, foreign languages, gymnastics, and grammar. Known for her promptness, May expected the same behavior from her students, often reminding them that school started at 8:30 a.m., and not a minute later. To those who claimed they did not have the time to work out a problem or translate a sentence, May always replied: “You mean you did not budget your time—you had all the time there was. You wasted it.”

May also offered advice to parents on how students should act outside of the classroom. In a letter sent to parents she noted that the hours of 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. should be set aside as a time for students to relax, but only in a certain way. She warned parents not to let their daughters waste their free time by visiting friends, shopping, or attending society parties.


May’s strict standards could, however, be too much on occasion, even for someone as sure of herself as famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Once while visiting May in Indianapolis to discuss suffrage matters, Anthony also toured the girls’ school. Writing about the visit in her diary, Anthony noted: “Mrs. Sewall introduced me to the girls of her Classical School as one who has dared [to] live up to her highest dream. I did not say a word for fear it might not be the right one.”