Alice Freeman Palmer, Wellesley College President

Advocate of Higher Education for Women

Alice Freeman Palmer
Alice Freeman Palmer. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Known for: president of Wellesley College, noted essay on why women should attend college.

Dates: February 21, 1855 - December 6, 1902

Also known as: Alice Elvira Freeman, Alice Freeman

Alice Freeman Parker was known not only for her innovative and dedicated work for higher education in her capacity as president of Wellesley College, but for her advocacy of a position somewhere between women being educated to be the equals of men, and women being educated primarily for traditional women's roles. She firmly believed that women need to be "of service" to humanity, and that education furthered their ability to do so. She also recognized that women would be unlikely to do so in traditional male occupations, but could work not only in the home to educate another generation, but in social service work, teaching, and other occupations that played a role in creating a new future.

Her speech on Why Go to College? was addressed to young girls and their parents, giving them reasons for girls to be educated. She also wrote poetry.

Excerpt from Why Go to College?:

Our American girls themselves are becoming aware that they need the stimulus, the discipline, the knowledge, the interests of the college in addition to the school, if they are to prepare themselves for the most serviceable lives.
But there are still parents who say, “There is no need that my daughter should teach; then why should she go to college?” I will not reply that college training is a life insurance for a girl, a pledge that she possesses the disciplined ability to earn a living for herself and others in case of need, for I prefer to insist on the importance of giving every girl, no matter what her present circumstances, a special training in some one thing by which she can render society service, not amateur but of an expert sort, and service too for which it will be willing to pay a price. 


Born Alice Elvira Freeman, she grew up in small town New York. Her father's family came from early New York settlers, and her mother's father had served with General Washington. James Warren Freeman, her father, took on medical school, learning to be a physician when Alice was seven, and Elizabeth Higley Freeman, Alice's mother, supported the family while he studied.

Alice started school at four, having learned to read at three. She was a star student, and was admitted to Windsor Academy, a school for boys and girls. She became engaged to a teacher at the school when she was only fourteen. When he left to study at Yale Divinity School, she decided that she, too, wanted an education, and so she broke the engagement so that she could enter college.

She was admitted to the University of Michigan on trial, though she had failed the entrance exams. She combined work and school for seven years to gain her B.A. She took a position teaching in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, after she completed her degree. She had only been out of school a year when Wellesley first invited her to become a math instructor, and she declined.

She moved to Saginaw, Michigan, and became a teacher and then the principal of a high school there. Wellesley invited her again, this time to teach Greek. But with her father losing his fortune, and her sister ill, she chose to remain in Saginaw and help support her family.

In 1879, Wellesley invited her a third time. This time, they offered her a position at the head of the history department. She began her work there in 1879. She became vice president of the college and acting president in 1881, and in 1882 became president.

In her six years as president at Wellesley, she significantly strengthened its academic position. She also helped found the organization that later became the American Association of University Women, and served several terms as president. She was in that office when the AAUW issued a report in 1885 debunking misinformation about the ill effects of education on women.

In late 1887, Alice Freeman married George Herbert Palmer, a philosophy professor at Harvard. She resigned as president of Wellesley, but joined the board of trustees, where she continued to support the college until her death. She was suffering from tuberculosis, and her resignation as president allowed her to spend some time recovering. She then took up a career in public speaking, often addressing the importance of higher education for women. She became a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education and worked for legislation that promoted education.

In 1891--2, she served as a manager for the Massachusetts exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. From 1892 to 1895, she took a position with the University of Chicago as dean of women, as the university expanded the female student body. President William Rainey Harper, who wanted her in this position because of her reputation which he believed would draw women students, permitted her to take the position and be in residence for only twelve weeks each year. She was permitted to appoint her own subdean to take care of immediate matters. When women had established themselves more firmly among the students at the University, Palmer resigned so that someone who could serve more actively could be appointed.

Back in Massachusetts, she worked to bring Radcliffe College into formal association with Harvard University. She served in many voluntary roles in higher education.

In 1902, while in Paris with her husband on a vacation, she had an operation for an intestinal condition, and died afterwards of heart failure, only 47 years old.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Alice Freeman Palmer, Wellesley College President." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Alice Freeman Palmer, Wellesley College President. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Alice Freeman Palmer, Wellesley College President." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).