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General History

The unique story of women at RIT is intersected by the themes of women and work and women and education. The history parallels the changing nature of women's place in society in the 19th and 20th century, as industrialization and urbanization altered work and family life and milestones such as the right to vote empowered women.

This exhibit, using documents, photographs and publications from RIT Archive Collections, forms an introduction to the history of women at RIT from 1885 to 1946. In 1885 the Mechanics Institute (MI), and later called Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (RAMI), was founded by local businessmen in Rochester to provide needed training for individuals to work in the city's growing industries. In the period under consideration the Institute became a busy center of education for women seeking job training, starting with the domestic science and fine arts programs, and later the food and retail programs. But an ambiguous message overlays this impressive fact – because at the same time women began to take advantage of the kinds of educational opportunities found at RAMI, popular belief held that the sphere of home and family was the most natural and fulfilling, and the highest application of their intellect. Even at RIT, the Domestic Science and Home Economics programs promoted this message about women's proper sphere alongside an equally encouraging, but contradictory message about gaining job skills.

The era in which women sought training at RIT for primarily traditional female occupations such as dressmaking, cooking, and home economics ended with World War II. These incredibly popular programs were folded into retailing and food administration. By the late 1930s and throughout the war years women began to enroll in some of the newer programs such as industrial chemistry, photographic technology and publishing and printing. After years of women students outnumbering the men, the trend would be permanently reversed. Women had changed, and RIT's educational focus had shifted to new postwar technological fields.

Art Education

The very first class in mechanical drawing offered in 1885 at the newly formed Mechanics Institute attracted large numbers of women, signaling a hunger and need for this type of education. The next year saw formation of a formal art program, and again, women rapidly filled the classes. Part of the appeal was the training in handicrafts, which allowed women to work in a variety of positions in industry. But MI soon offered training for art teachers, and this program was extremely attractive to women eager to find professional teaching positions in the schools. Indeed, this period coincided with a feminization of teaching across the country as education became a career possibility for women.

New York State was a major center of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the curriculum at Mechanics Institute, with a focus on handicrafts like ceramics and metalwork, was influenced by some of its basic tenets. Foster Wygant (1993) notes that "the Arts and Crafts Movement (was) one of the strongest influences on school art at the turn of the century." Student and faculty work both reflected the movement's aesthetic values and featured simpler forms and natural and floral decoration. Women, including those who studied at the Mechanics Institute, were vital to the development and success of the Arts and Crafts movement, although many in the workforce were required to work in subordinate positions to male designers. Executing their designs and remaining uncredited with their work, such women encountered a glass ceiling marking the failure of the more progressive, populist ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The presence and influence of women at MI was firmly established throughout this period. The faculty included women from the very beginning, but cheap labor and low wages were an accepted fact of life for working women in the nineteenth century. Although women instructors were clearly hired based on merit at the Institute, records show salary discrepancies that were evidently sex based. Nevertheless, as the Progressive and Arts and Crafts curriculums they had instructed took shape, women such as Laura Palmer, M. Louise Stowell and Lulu Scott Backus helped build the backbone of the future visual arts programs and a continued legacy of teacher-training in the arts at RIT.

Home Economics

The founding of the Mechanics Institute in 1885 formed a part of the progressive movement in American education – seeking to offer practical instruction with a focus on teaching immigrants and the lower middle class the skills needed to work in American industry. At the same time, progressive reformers sought to teach the wives of these workers how to become more efficient and health conscious housekeepers. The start of cooking classes, and the founding of Domestic Science program at RAMI in 1893, stems from this impulse.

A look at the records of RAMI reveal that women entered the Domestic Science and later Home Economics programs for a variety of reasons. The pioneering normal program was launched in response to demand for teachers to work in elementary and high schools. Other courses appealed to women already working at cooking or in dressmaking and millinery establishments, who wished to improve their skills with an eye on advancement. The early cooking classes eventually developed into sophisticated programs in dietetics and lunchroom management and graduates found plentiful jobs in local hospitals and schools. Many other individuals, both working and not, attended a few evening classes in cooking or sewing to better their housekeeping skills. For close to sixty years the Domestic Science and later, Home Economics programs for women expanded according to the need for new skills and knowledge, responded to technical and scientific innovations, and progressed along with 20th century business practices. The women left RAMI with an outstanding education and their skills in demand. Thousands took advantage of the opportunity to learn vital job skills, advance careers and become better educated mothers, wives, and consumers.