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Downer College: The Roots of UWM

May. 27, 2009
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There is a 2.6-mile-long glacier in Alaska (whose measurement may be dwindling as you read this) named after a pioneering women’s college in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee-Downer College. The school was the product of an 1895 merger of two independent learning institutions, founded by two distinct groups of people in two separate locations within Wisconsin.

The first: the Milwaukee Female Seminary, established in 1848 by Lucy Ann Seymour Parsons, a progressive educator from upstate New York. The design of her institution was “by a systematic course of physical, moral, and intellectual discipline to secure to young ladies the formation of a useful and accomplished character, fitting them not only to adorn the higher circles of society but to meet the varied and practical responsibilities of life.” In 1851 Catherine Beecher, an instructor who devoted her life to the promotion of equal educational opportunities for women, began an association with the Seminary. She reformulated the curriculum so it streamlined with her Beecher Plan, a method aimed to raise women’s instruction to a collegiate level. The school, now by the name Milwaukee Female College, evolved into a hub of social and cultural life in Milwaukee when the principal of the college (the same man who dropped “Female” from the title) sponsored a series of art and science lectures.

The second: Wisconsin Female College in Fox Lake, where women were prepared for missionary service starting in 1854. It was renamed Downer College after Judge Jason Downer, associate justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and advocate for higher educational opportunities for women, died in 1883 and bequeathed a large sum of money to the school. When renowned educator Ellen Clara Sabin became president of the college in 1891, academic standards improved drastically and enrollment quickly outgrew the school’s Fox Lake campus.

Milwaukee College heard about Sabin’s outstanding accomplishments at Downer and suggested a merger of the two colleges in 1895. Two years later, Milwaukee- Downer College started constructing its campus on what was then the northeast “outskirts” of Milwaukee. Soon after, Milwaukee-Downer women could be seen navigating six-oared shells on the Milwaukee River for the school’s most popular past time, crew. In keeping with Beecher and Sabin’s firm belief in women’s physical education, a gymnasium with state-of-the-art equipment was built on campus in 1900, leading to an athletic association and sports programs. With their empowerment on a roll, students established an Equal Suffrage League in 1912, which later gave way to the League of Women Voters.

While there were plans to expand Milwaukee-Downer College in the late- 1950s, the school followed the trend occurring at women’s colleges throughout the country and declined in enrollment. In 1964, the Milwaukee-Downer College consolidated with Lawrence College to become Lawrence University, taking students, faculty members, the MDC’s endowment of $13 million, as well as items of historic and sentimental value, to Appleton. Milwaukee-Downer College’s 43-acre campus was sold to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which continues to use the buildings and land today.


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