THE HOURGLASS: Who was Alice Freeman Palmer?


Features Editor

In 1855, Alice Freeman Palmer was born in Broome County, New York to a devoutly  religious family of Scottish descent. The oldest of four children, young Freeman Palmer was exceptionally gifted; she taught herself to read and write at age three. This proved to be a portent of her future successes as president of Wellesley College from 1881 to 1887.

A historian and political scientist, Freeman Palmer overcame disadvantage and sexism to graduate from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Arts degree, all while teaching on the side to support her family back home. The University of Michigan would later award her an honorary Ph.D after she was elected the president of Wellesley. The gender inequality in schooling that she witnessed early on would eventually fuel her passion for female education.

After a range of other teaching positions, Freeman Palmer joined the faculty at Wellesley College as a history professor in 1879. During her professorship, Freeman Porter developed a rapport with her Wellesley students, and her magnetic, charismatic character made her well-loved by students and administrators alike. Two years after she arrived at Wellesley, the College administration asked Freeman to become president.

At age 27, Alice Freeman Palmer replaced Ada Howard to become the youngest-ever president of Wellesley College. However, those who crossed her path quickly learned not to underestimate her youth. Harvard President Charles William Eliot said of Palmer, “She was one of the bravest persons I ever saw, man or woman.”

Freeman Palmer steered the college from 1881-1887. Yet, during her tenure at the College, Cupid shot his arrow straight into her heart. She fell in love with George Herbert Palmer, a philosophy professor at Harvard.  “An Academic Courtship, Letters Of Alice Freeman and George Herbert Palmer, 1886-1887” calls it a “romance which still illuminates some of the more arid annals of Wellesley.” However, Freeman Palmer’s devotion to Wellesley nearly caused this love to end tragically, as she hesitated to accept Palmer’s marriage proposal in light of her presidency, which she planned to use to further her grand visions for the progression of the College. This was nearly a case of déjà vu—Freeman Palmer had broken off an engagement with her mentor Thomas Barclay many years before in order to pursue a college education.

After seeking counsel from friend and advisor Mrs. Henry Durant, she resigned as President of Wellesley in 1887 to marry George Herbert Palmer.  The two wed in the home of Governor William Claflin, the 27th Governor of Massachusetts and Wellesley Board of Trustees member. She was succeeded by Helen Schafer.

Freeman’s contributions to Wellesley and her accomplishments are vast. Former Wellesley College President Caroline Hazzard said of Palmer, “The work which she did in these foundation days can hardly be overestimated. There were no precedents, no traditions; she had a clear field to work in and she threw all her influence for the best things in scholarship, and the best things in life.”

Academic Council was established under the leadership of Freeman Palmer, an institution, still in place today, that has strengthened the role of faculty here at the College. She also helped establish prep schools for Wellesley, such as Philadelphia’s Wellesley School. Former Wellesley College President Ellen Pendleton praised Freeman for her “brilliant leadership” which brought “to the attention of the world a young and vigorous institution.” Indeed, Freeman came to Wellesley in a time of need. According to Professor of Literature Louise Manning Hodgkins, “Wellesley met her…need in 1881 in Miss Freeman as organizer.”

After her resignation, Freeman Palmer served on the Board of Trustees executive committee and actively pursued alumnae outreach across the nation. Even after leaving Wellesley, she remained dedicated to the education of women. Alice Freeman Palmer founded what is now the American Association of University Women, and served the Dean of Women at the  University of Chicago.

Over the years, Freeman Palmer struggled with health problems and finally passed away on Dec. 6, 1902 in Paris, France, with her husband at her side. However, Alice Freeman Palmer remains present on this campus. Freeman Hall, the namesake of Alice Freeman Palmer, stands as sentinel on the East Side of campus. Her ashes rest behind a white marble facade in the Houghton Chapel.

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