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Library exhibit commemorates 150 years of pathbreaking women at Northwestern

The exhibit provides a look at the complicated history of coeducation at Northwestern.

Northwestern University has launched a historical exhibition chronicling the challenging road for women in higher education. The exhibition, at Deering Library, will have an opening reception Thursday, Oct. 10, from 4 to 6 p.m., marking the start of a year-long commemoration of 150 years of pathbreaking women at the University.

On the Same Terms” examines how women’s lives have changed at Northwestern over the years. It also looks at women’s impact at the University, which admitted its first women in 1869.

As the University marks this milestone — and celebrates the individuals who have shaped Northwestern — events and programming will be held across the University in the upcoming year. A 150 website profiles some of the women who led and are leading the struggle to open doors at Northwestern and beyond.

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I hope people take away the influence that women had on making this campus better from the moment they got here.”

Student Kiki Yalamanchili, who worked on the exhibit

The exhibit at Deering Library was coordinated with the help of student researchers.

“I see this historical exhibit as supplying a background to understanding and appreciating the challenges and successes that produced our 150-year history of educated, motivated and significant women — students, alumnae, faculty, staff and administrators,” said Janet Olson, assistant university archivist, Northwestern University Libraries.

“I hope that people who walk through the exhibit will learn some of the same things I did as I was researching and selecting the images, artifacts and documents that went into the exhibit: how very complicated the actual history of coeducation at Northwestern has been; how much, and also how gradually, women’s experience changed over time over the first 100-plus years of their presence at Northwestern — in housing, curriculum, organizations, governance and more; and how women have persevered to push those changes through,” Olson said.

For the exhibit, Vivien Hough, a junior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, researched the rhetoric used to describe women students.

“Near the start of my research, I noticed that up until the 1980s, women were still being referred to as co-eds,” said Hough, an American Studies major. “Co-ed was used in such a way that it was cast to describe women as less serious about their education and as distractions to men. It was astonishing to me that such an overtly sexist term was being openly used so late in the University’s history, so I decided to track the word's history and evolution.”

Hough said she hopes that people will realize how far Northwestern has come in terms of supporting women students.

“That change has been largely due to the activism of female students on campus,” she said. “Northwestern women have taken profound risks in advocating for change.”

Another Northwestern student, Kiki Yalamanchili, created the women’s mental health timeline that is part of the exhibit, focusing on how developments in the past have created infrastructure in services we see today.

“I hope that people take away the influence that women had on making this campus better from the moment that they got here, and how their impact has shaped the way Northwestern has grown to be a really amazing institution,” Yalamanchili said. “I was most surprised by how involved women were as soon as they got to Northwestern. It was really inspiring and interesting.”

The exhibit runs through June 20, 2020 and is open during regular library hours.