Women at the Forefront of Student Affairs History

Student affairs has had a long history of women contributing to the profession that dates back to the turn of the century. This is something I feel too often goes under-appreciated.  In many ways, women were almost wholly responsible for many of the values and principles we uphold in our work.  Chief among them, the care for the whole person.

Although the field is usually noted as beginning with the appointment of LeBarron Briggs in 1890 as Harvard’s “Dean of the College” in charge of student welfare, women quickly followed with Elizabeth Powell Bond appointed the Dean of Women at Swarthmore that same year and Alice Freeman Palmer and Marion Talbott serving in the capacities of a Dean of Women’s role in 1892 at the University of Chicago (Drum, 1993, Nidiffer, 2000).

Literature and professional associations followed shortly thereafter with the publishing of Esther Lloyd Jones’ Student Personnel Work at Northwestern University in 1929 and the Journal of NAWD (the National Association of Women Deans) beginning in the 1930s (Schuh, 2002). Women thus contributed greatly to the foundations of student affairs work and eventually many of their professional associations and journals morphed into the present day comprehensive student affairs organizations: the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and the American College Personnel Association (ACPA).

Along with these original associations and publications, the “Dean of Women” position has since disappeared in all but a few of the nation’s remaining women’s colleges. At its time, however, the position reflected many of the common themes found in modern-day student affairs. These themes include the creation of a rich co-curricular life, community building, student welfare and discipline, and the social, intellectual, and spiritual development of students.


At the same time, the position was also imbued with the sense that women needed to be shielded, protected and socialized into what we may now consider to be sexist binary gender roles. These attitudes were also reflected onto the work of the Dean of Women themselves. Drum (1993) notes that female students were “generally not taken as seriously as those of their male counterparts [and] the deans of women were therefore taken less seriously also” (p. 4). The Dean of Women position thus contributed greatly to laying the foundation for student affairs, but struggled with and participated in the more overtly sexist American society of the turn of the century.

In reflecting on this history, what I often wonder is how far have we truly come?  Certainly some of the most egregious and blatant acts of sexism have receded, but the underlying more pernicious forms of it stay with us to the present day.  That does not even take into account the gender binary, genderism and cisgender bias, issues we are only now starting to deal with in earnest.

  • What progress have we made?
  • What more do we still need to work on?
  • How can we better honor the work of these pioneering Deans of Women?
Photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/263304


Drum, A. (1993). From dean of women to woman dean. NASPA Journal, 31(1), 2-7.
Nidiffer, J. (2000). Pioneering deans of women: More than wise and pious matrons. New York: Teacher’s College Press.
Schuh, J. H. (2002). Foundational scholarship in student affairs: A sampler. NASPA Journal, 39(2), 107-119.

One thought on “Women at the Forefront of Student Affairs History

  1. Paul, I love this post! I think we have come quite far, but there’s still a long way to go. I’ve been working on trying to address the gap in leadership studies literature and it highlights a lot of the same points.

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