Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Mankato’s teacher college was a 19th-century pioneer for women’s rights — for about a year

Courtesy of the University Archives at
Minnesota State University, Mankato
Julia Ann Sears in 1872

In August 1872, Julia Sears (1839–1929) was hired to head the Mankato State Normal School. Upon taking the job, she became the first woman to hold such a position of power in a coeducational institution of higher learning in the United States. Her leadership challenged traditional gender roles at teachers’ colleges but led to controversy when the local school board replaced her with a man.

During the late nineteenth century Minnesota was quick to join the teachers’ college movement west of the Mississippi. By 1868 there were three teachers’ colleges (also called normal schools) in the state, all designed to train new instructors. Many women enrolled in these schools. They were eager to obtain careers in teaching — a profession increasingly considered to be appropriate for their gender.

Julia Sears was born in Massachusetts in 1839. She became a committed educator, studying and teaching at normal schools in New England. In 1871, the thirty-two-year-old Sears was hired to teach at the new Mankato State Normal School. There she joined many other women, both students and faculty. In 1872, the Normal School Board hired Sears to replace its first “principal,” or president, putting her in a position no other woman in the country had attained. However, her annual salary was set at a thousand dollars less than her male predecessor’s.

Sears operated the school with all the experience her years of teaching had given her. Under her care, the school was “running smoothly and making excellent advancement.” A local newspaper wrote, “We must score one for woman.” Sears ended her first term as principal with a graduation speech aimed directly at her female pupils. She pointed out the privileges that they could enjoy as professional women, stating, “Colleges open wide their doors and any place you are fitted to fill is no longer denied to you.”

The school board, however, became uncomfortable with a woman serving as principal and “there were some feelings in the Board that the position should be held by a man.” At the beginning of the 1873 school year the board acted independently and elected a man, David Clarke John, to replace Sears. Sears returned to her original role as assistant. John was hired at the standard male salary in spite of his lack of experience in teaching. Upset, Sears wrote to board president George Gage, “I do not think I have been justly treated at Mankato State Normal School when I was assured again and again by officials and non-officials of my success last year.”

When Sears went home to Massachusetts after her demotion, the board assumed that she would not return to claim her assistant position. They offered it to another man who lacked a teaching background, C.W.G. Hyde. In spite of her misgivings, however, Sears decided to accept the job after all.

Both candidates arrived at Mankato in the autumn to claim the position but the board chose Hyde, despite his inexperience. The community expressed disgust with the decision. A local editor called for Sears’ return, complaining, “The Board (which is composed entirely of men) in their masculine wisdom determined that it was for the interest of the school that a man should have the position.”

Sixty prominent Mankato residents signed a petition asking the board to retain “Miss Sears” as assistant principal. The students favored Sears overwhelmingly. In what became known as the “Sears Rebellion,” they walked out of classes in protest of her removal. Forty-one students (twenty-six women and fifteen men) refused to attend school until the board addressed their grievances. The matter was soon an object for debate in papers as far away as Minneapolis, and was seen to reflect poorly on the state as a whole.

In the end, after allowing the students three-day notices, John expelled thirty-one of them. Journalists widely attacked the “rebellion” — even those who had written in favor of Sears before. Sears left the state and never returned or spoke of her time in Minnesota. She spent the rest of her life as a mathematics professor at a college in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was active in the woman suffrage movement.

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

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/07/2015 - 12:09 pm.

    No matter how many stories of such male discriminations against women we read, it still takes the breath away to hear of yet another qualified woman having been treated so shabbily.

    Thanks for adding Ms. Sears to the historical record–I had never heard of her, or her experience at Mankato.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/07/2015 - 12:20 pm.

    Wow.

    Just…wow.

  3. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 04/07/2015 - 09:57 pm.

    Late Recognition

    At least the institution (now Minnesota State University, Mankato) offers belated recognition. One of its newer residence halls is named in her honor. That it sits on the edge of a cliff and is home to the Vikings’ summer camp suggests its symbolic nature.

    • Submitted by Bob Holland on 04/30/2015 - 11:57 am.

      What does the location have to do with anything?

      Donald, your comment implies that the institution (and by extension the community) hasn’t changed. Quite the opposite in fact. The Julia Sears hall is the ‘premium’ residential hall. Further, it sits in a location that has a view of the river valley. The University has established a Gender and Women’s Studies department as well as a regular forum on the issues of the advancement of Women. The fact that Minnesota State was the first to even offer such a position to a women was seen as a step forward at the time. No other institution in the United States had before it. Times have changed since the backlash indeed.

      About the historical aspect of the article the incorrect figure cited by the author should have been “By 1869 there were three normal schools.” Winona was the first in 1858, Minnesota State – the second in 1868 and Saint Cloud the third in 1869.

Leave a Reply