North American Scholar
WOOD, Alice Robinson Boise
Univ. of Michigan, attended recitations as unregistered student, 1866-7; Old Univ. of Chicago, AB 1872, MA 1875.
- Professional Experience:
Teacher of Greek and modern languages, Wayland Academy (Beaver Dam, WI), 1877-1884.
Alice Robinson Boise was one of just eight women among the 151 inaugural members of the American Philological Association in 1869. She was elected at the age of 23—perhaps the youngest of the whole group. Proudly embracing the moniker "The Entering Wedge for Women", she was the first woman to attend University of Michigan (1866-7), and the first to matriculate in and graduate from the old University of Chicago (AB 1872, with a MA to follow in 1875). In both these institutions her father James Robinson Boise had been at the time of her studies a professor of Greek. After graduation and marriage Alice Boise (now with the surname Wood) served for a time as a teaching assistant in Classics at Chicago, before taking up a post at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam WI (1877-84). She also aided her father with his publications, especially his edition of Xenophon's Anabasis I-V (explicitly thanked in the 3rd ed., 1878). There is little sign of a professional involvement with Classics in the years after 1885; rather she seems to have focused on publishing her religious-themed poetry widely in periodicals (most notably the children's magazine St. Nicholas) and newspapers, as well as composing the lyrics for Baptist hymns.
Devotion to both classical languages and Christianity ran deep in Alice Boise's family. Her father, James Robinson Boise, had received his AB from Brown in 1840, and then taught Greek and Latin at the university until 1850. He served in the last half of that decade at Brown as Professor of Greek, and in Providence also received a license as a Baptist minister. After a year of travel and study in France, Germany and Greece, in 1852 James Boise and his wife Sarah Goodyear (a cousin of Charles Goodyear, who invented vulcanized rubber) moved their young family to Ann Arbor and its University of Michigan. There Boise together with Henry S. Frieze put the study of Greek and Latin on a firm footing; indeed, Boise was said to have been the first collegiate teacher in the United States to insist on the proper writing of ancient Greek with the accents. Boise's wife Sarah—who was of the conviction that "Greek was the most beautiful language"—died in 1857 at the age of 40, and her husband turned to the task of raising their three young daughters. While still Professor of Greek at Michigan he received ordination as a Baptist minister in 1864.
When the question first came up in 1854 of admitting women to the University of Michigan, James Robinson Boise is the only professor on record to vote in its favor. A dozen years later, when his daughter Alice had graduated Ann Arbor High School, he is said to have been enraged that she could not continue at Michigan, and in September 1866 informally invited his daughter to join his Greek recitations at the university. Some of his colleagues followed suit. As Alice Boise later recalled, "Professor C. K. Adams admitted me soon to his class in Livy; and, in the Sophomore year, for friendship's sake, Professor Frieze admitted me in Horace. And I studied! Grammar and dictionary yielded their secrets. The professor who doubted whether or not women could do it, turned day after day for the knotty points to the lone little woman."
Alice Boise recalled her male fellow-students as generally supportive—except for one. “He sought diligently for some mistake in my work; and one day, in the Greek room, upon the blackboard, he found it. I do not remember positively what it was; the omission of an iota subscript, I think. Dreadful blunder! My heart was lacerated. I crept homeward; locked myself in my room; and shed bitter tears. Most vividly do I remember them. I had failed! Women would now never be admitted to the University!” The fact that her father was a pioneer in his insistence on proper Greek accentuation must have added extra sting to the incident.
Sensing little support for the formal admission of women to University of Michigan, in December 1867 James Robinson Boise resigned his professorship and moved to the old (pre-Harper) University of Chicago, taking his daughter Alice with him. Alice Boise later recalled that "in Chicago...I was admitted to all the classes; much work was given me as teacher and in 1872 they graduated me; although women were not officially allowed to enter until later.” Newspaper reports of the time report "great enthusiasm and rounds of applause" at the graduation exercises where she received her undergraduate degree from University of Chicago, when it was announced she was the first woman to achieve that distinction.
In 1873 Alice Boise married a fellow Chicago student, Nathan Eusebius Wood (1849-1937), who after divinity school was ordained a Baptist minister in 1875. In the years 1877-84 they successfully set aright a then-financially troubled school in Beaver Dam WI, the Wayland Academy, Nathan as Principal and Alice as teacher of Greek and modern languages (French and German). Her husband's ministry then took the couple successively to Chicago (1884-7), Brooklyn (1887-92), and after 1892 the Boston area, culminating in his presidency of the Newton Theological Seminary (1899-1909). At the time of her death in 1919 her husband had been pastor of the First Baptist Church in Arlington MA for a decade.
Almost a quarter century after receiving her degree from Chicago, Alice Boise Wood recounted her chief inspiration. "I think it was Mrs. John Lawrence, of Ann Arbor [= Marie Louise Wilcox], who first called me 'The Entering Wedge for Women.' Some one told me of it. O strength-giving name, I have borne it upon my heart all my life since! Perhaps I had not quite realized until then that I was representing my sex. This thought gave me new vigor. Yes, I was not studying for myself alone. Surely I must not fail!" Just two years after the departure from Ann Arbor of the Boises—father and daughter—women gained formal admission to University of Michigan, in January 1870.
"University of Chicago: Fourteenth annual commencement", The Inter Ocean 28 June 1872 p. 2; Tributes in Memory of James Robinson Boise (Cambridge MA: John Wilson & Son, 1895); Wood, Alice Boise, "How Michigan University was opened to women", The Inlander, April 1896, pp. 273-276; Battle Creek [MI] Enquirer, 10 February 1957 sec. 3 p. 1.
Image: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center
- Author: T. Corey Brennan