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U of M English prof Maria Sanford was one of first female professors in U.S.

Her exceptional teaching, notable public lectures, and active community leadership led many to call her “the best loved woman in the Minnesota.”

Maria Sanford
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Professor Maria Louise Sanford, 1918.

One of the first female professors in the United States, Maria Sanford was an English professor at the University of Minnesota for nearly thirty years. Her exceptional teaching, notable public lectures, and active community leadership led many to call her “the best loved woman in Minnesota.”

Born in Saybrook, Connecticut in 1836, Maria Louise Sanford said that her love of learning started early. When she was fifteen, she asked her parents to let her use her dowry to go to the New Britain Normal School. She graduated with honors in 1855 and began teaching in a small school in Connecticut.

Over the next ten years, Sanford moved to larger schools and earned a reputation as a remarkable teacher. In 1867, Sanford left Connecticut to teach at a school in Pennsylvania. There she campaigned for county superintendent of schools but lost by a narrow margin to her male opponent. In 1869, she was hired to replace Anna Hallowell to teach history at Swarthmore College. Sanford became one of the first female professors in the nation.

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In 1880, Dr. William Watts Folwell, the president of the University of Minnesota, met Maria Sanford while looking for a female French professor. Sanford lacked an advanced degree and couldn’t speak any French, but Folwell thought that she was a remarkable teacher. Folwell hired her to teach English instead. He later claimed that bringing Sanford to the University was one of his proudest accomplishments.

Maria Sanford began teaching rhetoric and oratory at the University of Minnesota in 1880. She was an energetic lecturer and her classes were known for their impressive workload and devoted students. She held special “sunrise courses” for her best students and gave surprise exams and unexpected poetry recitations. She was deeply involved in the lives of her students, offering advice and support when she could. Sanford also opened her home near the University to students, taking in student boarders and offering to host student social events.

Sanford’s career as a public lecturer thrived while she was in Minnesota. She spoke to civic groups, teachers colleges, farmer’s organizations, and many others throughout the state and across the nation. She gave lectures four or five nights per week on poetry, art, social issues, and politics. Sanford depended on her income from public lecturing, especially after an investment in the 1880s left her 30,000 dollars in debt. Some at the University frowned on Sanford’s career on the lecture circuit. However, it was clear Sanford’s public lectures had generated goodwill toward the University throughout the state.

In 1909, at the age of seventy-two, Maria Sanford retired. She had seen the student body grow from 300 when she arrived at the university to 4,800 students when she retired. That year’s graduating class adopted her as a member, and she was asked to speak at the University’s commencement that spring. Her commencement speech urged students to appreciate the value of their education and serve their state well.

Although she had retired, many joked that Sanford didn’t notice. She continued her public speaking career and made cross-country trips to speak all over the nation. Sanford also campaigned for environmental preservation, healthcare, temperance, and education. She was a director of Northwestern Hospital and founded the Minneapolis Improvement League. In her seventies she began to support women’s suffrage. In 1920, she was chosen to speak at the state celebration of the passage of the nineteenth amendment.

In her eighties she began traveling the country giving patriotic lectures during World War I. She died April 21, 1920, in Washington D.C. while on a speaking tour. The University held a memorial convocation in her honor and news of her death made the front page of the Minneapolis Tribune.

Maria Sanford was honored across the state of Minnesota. In 1910, the University named the first dormitory for female students Sanford Hall, and several schools in the state were named for her. In 1958, Maria Sanford was chosen to be one of two Minnesotans represented in Statuary Hall. A statue of Sanford was donated by the state and stands in Washington D.C. today.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.