By Kim Clarke
Memory ... does not reveal a time when I did not long to attend at some time our state university.– Madelon Stockwell
Chapter 1 A Death in Kalamazoo
On a springtime afternoon in 1924, Minerva Moffett walked across the street from her Kalamazoo home to check on her elderly neighbor. Moffett operated a boarding house and the old woman often came by for meals; other days, Moffett took food to her.
Moffett now stared at a tray of food outside the neighbor’s door, cold and untouched from the previous evening. Forcing her way into the house, she found her neighbor on the kitchen floor. Madelon Stockwell Turner, 78, was dead. She died alone, a recluse in a stately brick home that was one of the grandest in the city.
Her death made headlines for two reasons. She was believed to be the richest woman in Kalamazoo. And a half-century earlier, she was the first woman to enroll at the University of Michigan.
Chapter 2 Alone on Campus
Madelon Stockwell stepped onto the Ann Arbor campus on a Wednesday, the second day of February 1870. Her arrival from Kalamazoo disrupted a world that had been wholly male since the fall of 1817, when the University of Michigan first opened its doors in Detroit.
“Who is she? Where is she from? What is her name? What class is she going into? And a thousand and one other questions were asked, with equal eagerness, by ‘grave and reverend seniors,’ and ‘freshmen green as grass,’” wrote the sophomore editors of The Oracle within days of her arrival.
She was 24 years old and the object of curiosity and stares, of whispers and murmurs. Students had grown up with mothers and sisters, but none had a woman as a classmate in Ann Arbor. Boys not registered for courses she was enrolled in nevertheless slipped into the classroom, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. She was an interloper.
From her perspective, everywhere she turned there were men: as classmates, as professors and as administrators. She was the lone woman on a campus of some 1,100 students – one of the largest universities in the country. After passing an entrance exam that was longer and more demanding than that given to men, she was admitted as a sophomore with plans to study the classics.
“I remember distinctly the February morning when she appeared to take the entrance examinations,” recalled a student from New Hampshire who was a junior that winter. “She found that she must walk between two long lines of young men, standing at attention and perfectly silent. The courtesy accorded her was of the cold and formal variety, for almost without exception the students were not in sympathy with the new departure.”
He himself had been a critic of admitting women, and said so in a campus newspaper. “We felt that the coming of women would inevitably lower the standard of scholarship and that their presence would be distracting and demoralizing.”
The detractor was Harry Burns Hutchins, a graduate of the Class of 1871 who would go on to be the University’s fourth president. After he left the President’s Office, he said he had long since retracted his “dismal prophecies” about Stockwell and U-M’s other early women students.
“The scholarship of the University did not suffer, and none of the anticipated administrative embarrassments arose,” Hutchins wrote. “The young women conquered the situation. It has been frequently said that the happy outcome was in large measure due to the ability, wisdom, and purposeful attitude of the women students of the early period.”
Madelon Stockwell did, indeed, have purpose.
"The courtesy accorded her was of the cold and formal variety."– Harry Burns Hutchins
Chapter 3 Cold Shoulders and Hot Rhetoric
That she adjusted to U-M so well should have been no surprise. All she had ever known was a love of learning.
“Even of my very early years,” she once wrote, “memory, all cobwebbed and rubbish-encumbered as it is, does not reveal a time when I did not long to attend at some time our state university.”
Her father, the Rev. Charles F. Stockwell, was a college graduate and the first leader of Albion College, a Methodist school then known as the Wesleyan Seminary of Albion. As a child, Maddie admired her father’s “beautiful diploma” from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and felt it was “my duty” to earn a college degree herself.
“Later, being allowed to dust the books in the home library, I thought I was a Big Girl because I could merely distinguish his Greek lexicon from the Latin,” she wrote. Studying Greek would become a lifelong passion for her.
She attended Kalamazoo College and Albion College, where she was valedictorian and graduated with a two-year degree in 1862. She then watched as male classmates from Albion moved on to Ann Arbor for more schooling. She once visited U-M and overheard a professor casually remark “that he did not think young women would be able physically or mentally to bear the strain of higher education.”
“My heart sank,” she wrote.
Regents, presidents and professors had argued for years about the merits and dangers of admitting women, and settled on an all-male university rather than deal with the potential “corruptions” they believed came with women on campus. U-M’s first president, Henry P. Tappan, argued co-education would upset the natural order of the sexes. Women students, he said, “will be something mongrel, hermaphroditic … We shall have a community of defeminated women and demasculated men.” When a group of women tried to enroll in 1858, regents rejected their applications and held firm to that opposition for a dozen years.
Taxpayers, however, began to agitate for the education of their daughters as well as their sons. A state university funded with public dollars, they argued, should be open to all.
In January 1870, the Board of Regents passed a one-sentence resolution that would forever alter the institution: “That the board of regents recognize the right of every resident of Michigan to the enjoyment of the privileges afforded by the University; and that no rule exists in any of the University statutes for the exclusion of any person from the University, who possesses the requisite literary and moral qualifications.”
Stockwell had a patron in Lucinda Hinsdale Stone, a longtime advocate of co-education and her mentor at Kalamazoo College. No sooner had the regents voted to admit women than Stone rushed to see Stockwell and tell her she must apply. Once on campus for her entrance exams, Stockwell was escorted by Moses Coit Tyler, a professor of rhetoric and English literature who supported the admission of women.
Not all faculty were as welcoming.
In the days after Stockwell enrolled, a dog wandered into a classroom. Rather than shoo away the stray, the professor came to its defense. He invoked the regents: “We recognize the right of every resident of Michigan to the enjoyment of the privileges afforded by the University.” The dog remained, given the same standing as women students.
This was Madelon’s world, a mix of cold shoulders and hot rhetoric, of mockery and mentors. Some of her male peers watched in awe as she alone integrated the University.
“The courage manifested by her, who has led the van in this movement and thus made the way comparatively easy for those who are to follow,” said editors of The Chronicle, a U-M student newspaper, “is worthy of the admiration which has been so generally accorded to it.”
Chapter 4 Living with Loss
As a child, as a U-M undergraduate, as an adult and as an elderly recluse, Madelon Stockwell lived in a world of books. “I have always stayed at home and studied, so that people think I do not go out at all,” she wrote in her diary when she was 15.
Sixty years later, she felt the same: “I have found the burdens of life greatly lightened by a load of books.”
Her contemplative environment helped diminish a constant companion: Grief.
When she was young, her father had struggled financially on his Albion salary. In 1850 he struck out for California and the newly discovered fields of gold, a mineral he hoped would supplement his family’s income. Traveling by ship from New York City and crossing through Latin America, he contracted a tropical disease that killed him within days. He was buried at sea as Maddie neared her fifth birthday.
As an adult, she watched as her husband fought a losing battle against tuberculosis. Charles K. Turner had been a classmate at U-M – seated alphabetically, she ended up next to him and they fell in love. They married in 1873, the year Turner received a law degree and a year after she graduated. Performing the ceremony was Benjamin F. Cocker, chair of U-M’s Philosophy Department and a Methodist minister, who teased that the couple’s union demonstrated “the ill effects of coeducation.”
Turner’s struggle with tuberculosis took the young couple to the mountains of Colorado and the coast of southern California in search of clean, dry air. It was to no avail, and when he died in 1880, the Turners had been married all of seven years.
Madelon never remarried. “This sorrow has cast its lengthening shadow over all the intervening years,” she wrote nearly 40 years after her husband’s death.
As a widow, she lived in the Kalamazoo house where she had grown up, a home built by her stepfather. A physician and a pharmacist, Dr. William Johnson had helped raise Madelon from the age of 7. He was a successful owner of a Kalamazoo pharmaceutical company and when he died three years after Charles Turner, Madelon and her mother were left with the house and his money.
Madelon busied herself with the Ladies Literary Association, giving talks on English language and Greek history, life and culture. She painted porcelain and entered her work in the state fair. And she excelled in finance, buying and selling real estate and investing in mortgages, to parlay her inheritance into a sizable fortune.
When her mother passed away, Stockwell was 58 and alone, with her books and her art supplies.
Chapter 5 “Don’t Let Your Brain Go To Rust”
Decades after she graduated, Stockwell responded to a request from the U-M alumni office to update its records. Asked about her occupation, she answered: “Student for life.”
She stayed in touch with her classmates and, by all accounts, had generally warm memories of her time as a student. “How shall I express my appreciation and gratitude for the spirit of fairness, of kindness, of cordiality, of camaraderie, shown the intruder by the Class of ’72?” she once wrote. She was less charitable toward the small number of women who came after her, saying they were cold toward her, but she did not hold a grudge. “They didn’t follow me, they went because they wanted to. The class of girls who attend college are too sensible and too much in earnest to need anyone to follow …”
She returned to Ann Arbor for her 35-year reunion in 1907, and again in 1912 when U-M marked its 75th anniversary (this was before regents changed the founding date from 1837 to 1817). That same year, the all-male Board of Regents awarded her an honorary degree, noting how “her poise and dignity and scholarship conquered at once what by many were thought to be insurmountable obstacles.”
As she aged, Stockwell withdrew from the broader world. “Her curtain of privacy darkened as the decades slid by,” observed the Kalamazoo Gazette. Behind that curtain, she studied Italian, Spanish and French, and took lessons in Hebrew from a local rabbi. She drew with pen and ink. She used fewer and fewer rooms in her house, resorting to just two – the kitchen and a sitting room that held a cot and two chairs. An upturned box served as a table.
But there was a feistiness that harkened back to her time as a pioneer on the Michigan campus.
As she neared 70, Stockwell ventured out to visit Frieda K. Blankenburg, a 1909 U-M graduate who lived in Kalamazoo and had just given birth to her first child. Stockwell was friends with Blankenburg’s mother, Caroline Hubbard Kleinstuck, who had enrolled a year after her and was the first woman to earn a master of science degree at Michigan.
Blankenburg believed Stockwell paid the call mainly to see the first grandson of her college friend.
“She looked at him, made the usual remarks, thought there was a ‘Hubbard’ more than a ‘Kleinstuck’ – and then looked at me and said – ‘Now Frieda don’t let your brain go to rust. You’ll have a lot of time to study, do what I have,’” Blankenburg recalled. “She then told how she had learned Spanish from a ‘record machine’ (she called it), and how she had enjoyed reading Don Quixoti in the original.”
Her poise and dignity and scholarship conquered at once what by many were thought to be insurmountable obstacles.– Board of Regents
Chapter 6 Madelon’s Legacy
Madelon Stockwell Turner’s business savvy and her love of learning became apparent when her will was unveiled. Real estate, bonds, mortgages, securities and cash amounted to $340,000 – roughly $5 million in today’s dollars. She bequeathed it all to promote books and scholarship for future generations.
She gave $10,000 for a U-M loan fund to support LSA women. She specified that officials pay attention “to excellence of character, and to intellectual promise, as well as to the need of help.”
The bulk of her estate went to Albion College, where her gift was larger than the school’s annual budget. She requested a new building to honor her parents, Charles and Louisa, and Albion responded with the Stockwell Memorial Library, the main library for the campus that featured books and art studios. It was designed to hold three times the number of books owned by the college at the time.
By the time of Stockwell’s 1924 death, 7,000 women had attended U-M and another 3,500 were enrolled on campus. That year the U-M Alumnae Council sent a survey to all of them to ask about their experiences, including their opinions of the most outstanding women to attend U-M. Several responded with Stockwell’s name, including Jeanette Grace Dean, a 1917 graduate teaching high school in Kalamazoo.
“The first woman graduate of Michigan lives across the street from me now. She has considerable wealth but no relatives – Mattie Turner.”
In 1939, the Board of Regents affixed Stockwell’s name to a new women’s dormitory.
Late in life, Madelon Stockwell Turner wrote a letter to her classmates. She said she knew her solitary, arcane studies – exploring the Latin roots of Romance languages, for example – might “seem somewhat dusty” and appeal to few. But that, she said, was not the point.
“Any pursuit whatsoever, that is really worthwhile, and that takes hold of the eternal verities, adds to the sum of personal knowledge and enjoyment – though gradually, as the dew gathers, drop by drop, in the heart of a rose.”
Sources: Madelon Louisa Stockwell correspondence, 1918-1921, Madelon Louisa Stockwell necrology file, Madelon Louisa Stockwell vertical file, all at the Bentley Historical Library; Women at Michigan: The “Dangerous Experiment,” 1870s to the Present, by Ruth Bordin; Emancipated Spirits: Portraits of Kalamazoo College Women, by Gail B. Griffin, Josephine Csete, Ruth Ann Moerdyk and Cheryl Limer; “This Ol’ House is Some Kind of Place,” Encore magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1986; “History of Co-Education in the University of Michigan,” by Lucinda Hinsdale Stone, Michigan Historical Collections, 1891; Lucinda Hinsdale Stone, her life story and reminiscences, by Belle McArthur Perry