The First Female Graduate

Antionette Pires
Antoinette Pires, ca. 1906.

The Provost asked me to find a photograph of the first female graduate from IC to set right a cluster of photos in her office featuring prominent white men. Illinois College first admitted women in the fall of 1903 when it merged with the Jacksonville Female Academy. Legend had it that Antoinette Pires graduated in 1904 as valedictorian. What a great story, a triumphant tale of women breaking barriers. Or is it? Last week I wrote about history vs. heritage. This week we’ll put that into practice.

Because the Provost wanted only a photo, I figured it would be a quick job. Diving straight into the yearbook, the Rig Veda, I found that the 1904 senior class was all male, as was 1905. Finally, there was Antoinette in 1906. Both the Rig Veda and the student newspaper, The Rambler, confirmed that 1906 was the first commencement to include female graduates. That’s right – there was more than one. Four to be exact: Antoinette Pires, Eva Mace Cochran, Emily Ainslie Moore, and Eva C. Noelsch. Furthermore, it turned out Pires was not the valedictorian, but salutatorian (in a graduating class of sixteen).

So if there were four women, what was it that made Antoinette first? Curious on this point, I went to the magnificently thorough Illinois College: A Centennial History (Yale University Press, 1929) by IC president, Charles Rammelkamp. He mentioned Pires but only that they bestowed the honor of “first female graduate” because she was “a young woman of unusual personal charm, as well as scholarly ability.”

Are we splitting hairs? What does it matter if a few details were wrong in the popular telling? I am usually suspicious of “firsts,” so I was surprised at my failure to question this one. In The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, David Lowenthal argues, “precedence evokes pride and proves title” (174) and warns, “the charisma of precedence lures many to fabricate it (176).” Pires’ story, as I understood it, emphasized the conferring of the degree. 110 years later, we pat ourselves on the back because our institution embraced women’s education fourteen years before the 19th Amendment and seventy years before most Ivy League schools. A perfect example of heritage, this telling of the story is a tidy, two-dimensional tale of progress that looks a lot like a cartoon from the 1905 Rig Veda (with a reprinted image from 1897):


Even Pires doesn’t give us much to go on. In her salutatory address, she embraced a gendered rhetoric of careful gratitude, concluding that the first women to earn IC degrees should:

“Aspire to live that the unrivaled honor of the sweetness of pure womanhood may crown the efforts of illustrious men which have already made our dear and grand old Illinois great.” – The College Rambler 26, no. 16 (20 June 1906), 205.

Sweet as Pires may have been, her story is much more significant to the history of IC than many realize. A deeper exploration of her experience reveals a fascinating glimpse into community dynamics, how an all-male institution made the transition to co-education, and why it was so vitally important that women be educated.

The first question is: why were Antoinette, Eva, Eva, and Emily at Illinois College in the first place? Why did the JFA decide to merge with an all-male institution? The story of the first female graduate suggests that after decades of proving themselves at the JFA, the men of IC welcomed women as equals. That’s the story in the above cartoon. And that’s the story most in keeping with popular narratives of equal rights for women – that women earn their rights.

But the real story is a bit stickier. By 1900, both IC and the JFA were in dire financial straits. Having shared faculty and facilities for decades, their merger was more about consolidating resources. By taking control of the JFA’s assets, IC’s endowment grew by $200,000. JFA trustees and alumnae worried that women would be marginalized in a coeducational environment and insisted that another $50,000 endowment be set aside specifically for women’s education (the fund was dissolved about twenty-five years later, but more on that another time). The January 19, 1903 issue of The Rambler details the new endowment, but adds co-education as a footnote. Whether they liked it or not, one editorial argued, allowing women was “the only practical solution” to the institution’s financial situation (The Rambler 25, no. 26 (19 January 1903), 457, 459).

And it was clear that not everyone was happy with the arrangement. In the previous issue of The Rambler male students threatened to quit, others quietly accepted their fate out of “duty.” Most however believed that allowing women meant increased opportunities of social/sexual exploits. With so many “girls” around, they humorously argued, men would be too distracted to work and their grades would suffer (The Rambler 25, no. 25 (December 15, 1902), 445-446). None seemed to think women would stand on equal footing.

Their attitudes clearly delineate the IC campus as a distinctly male space wherein women were tolerated. Once women were on campus, an October 1903 article in The Rambler drew the lines of demarcation by declaring, “In general the old students find the new species quite fair and pleasant to look upon.” In this case, “students” referred to men and well, women were not even quite human. The writer puzzled over what the female students might be called. The term “‘co-ed’ was severely condemned [by the administration] and the death warrant of that word was signed on the spot.” Equally offensive were “lady friends” and “girls,” (one professor threatened to flunk students using the word). You would think the men could simply use “women,” but that “makes us feel foolish,” they said. (The Rambler 26, no. 5 (October 12, 1903), 84).

When Antoinette Pires entered Illinois College, she was already acquainted with life as an outsider. Her parents, the Rev. Emanuel and Arcenia Day Pires, immigrated from the Madeira Islands in the 1840s and 1850s as part of a larger migration of Portuguese protestants seeking religious freedom. Civic and religious leaders in Jacksonville rejoiced in their own charity as they heartily welcomed this wave of immigrants as domestic servants, laundresses, gardeners, handymen, factory workers, and farmhands who – according to one local newspaper editor – would take time to assimilate and graciously refuse wages “until they can become useful” (quoted in Don Doyle, Social Order of a Frontier Community, 126). According to Doyle, the Portuguese occupy “a very special place in Jacksonville’s half-mythical local history,” that tends to obscure the social and economic discrimination they encountered (126). The Portuguese did not assimilate to American culture as many civic leaders had hoped. For decades, they maintained their cultural traditions and language in a tightly knit neighborhood, named Madeira after their homeland and anchored by churches and networks of extended families.

As a pastor, Emanuel Pires was a leader within the predominately working class Portuguese community, and education was central to his experience of social mobility. After immigrating at the age of eleven, Emanuel grew up in Jacksonville, graduated from Hannover College in 1863, and from the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1866. He served as a missionary in Brazil before serving as pastor at the Portuguese churches in Jacksonville and Springfield. In 1871, he married Arcenia Day and they had eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood. After Rev. Pires died in 1896, when Antoinette was just ten years old, Arcenia raised her six surviving children who ranged in age from 1 to 21. They continued to live in the Portuguese neighborhood while Antoinette’s oldest sister, Rosaline (JFA ’94), worked as a teacher to support the entire family.

At this point in the story, I’m reminded of our current Illinois College students who could relate to Antoinette’s experience. Growing up in Madeira (the neighborhood) as the daughter of immigrants, she was surrounded by women who labored as domestic servants and factory workers. And having come of age with a single mother, Antoinette likely understood education as a means to provide for her family. A college degree meant entry into white-collar work, perhaps a profession, or a socially advantageous marriage. Unlike the daughters of wealthy, native-born families, Antoinette’s education was no luxury. It was a necessity. In 1906, the “immigrant problem,” consumed popular discourse: Upton Sinclair published The Jungle highlighting the struggles of recent immigrants, but nativist sentiment also
ran high. As a member of the Portuguese community, Antoinette must have been aware of how her status as a first-generation American affected her prospects.

Less than a year after graduation, on May 2, 1907, Antoinette married Dr. Lawrence M. Mendonsa, another first-generation American and son of Portuguese immigrants. The couple moved to St.Louis, but she died suddenly in June 1910 at the age of twenty-four. She is buried in Jacksonville at Diamond Grove Cemetery. President Charles Rammelkamp described her death as “a distinct loss in the ranks of our alumnae” (A Centennial History, 477). At the time of this post, I’ve not learned the cause of her death. In the Alumni Notes column of The Rambler for the remainder of 1910, they never mentioned the first female graduate.


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