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As Sister, Wife, and Mother:
Education for Young Norwegian-American Lutheran Women*
    by by DeAne L. Lagerquist (Volume 33: Page 99)

*This article is based upon the author’s dissertation, published in 1991 by Carlson Publishers with the title In America the Men Milk the Cows: Gender, Ethnicity, and Religion in the Americanization of Norwegian-American Lutheran Women in the series Chicago Dissertations in American Religion.

"Out of a due consideration for the place woman occupies as sister but especially as wife and mother, we should consider providing our girls with an opportunity for more enlightenment than is generally the case now." {1}

When Lutheran patriarch H. A. Preus thus encouraged Norwegian-American Lutherans to assume responsibility for educating young women, the churches had not made any provisions for the girls’ formal education; however, in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, Norwegian-American Lutherans founded several schools which did so. {2} Daughters of farms and parsonages, girls from homesteads and towns enrolled in Lutheran academies and coeducational colleges such as St. Olaf, in "vocational" schools such as the United Church Normal School in Madison, Minnesota, and in schools exclusively for girls such as the Ladies’ Seminary in Red Wing. The education that these institutions offered to young women reveals something of the community’s [100] expectations about how women would fill their places as daughters and sisters, as wives and mothers. The message given at the schools was not, however, unambiguous. On the one hand, attending a Norwegian-American Lutheran school bound the student to her ethnic, religious community; on the other, it prepared her to move beyond it. Even as female students were trained to be enlightened wives and mothers, they had examples in female teachers and older graduates of women devoted to careers such as teaching or missionary work. The young women’s world was expanded by their studies and they were equipped with skills that could take them beyond the realm of wife and mother into careers in education, music, or the church. And yet the presence of faculty wives and explicit statements in favor of more traditional roles moderated unconventional influences, as did the possibility of forming romantic attachments. These schools could reinforce conventional expectations about female behavior and they could expand those expectations.

In addition to describing the educational opportunities offered to young women at St. Olaf College (founded 1874), the United Church Lutheran Normal School (1892—1932), and the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary (1894—1920), this study is concerned with what these educational options tell us about the interaction of gender, religion, and ethnicity between 1874 and 1920. It assumes that education serves to prepare students for the lives they will lead after graduation and thus can give an indication of what those lives are expected to be. Further, because the role of women and women’s education were matters of concern in American society generally in these decades and because educational institutions are particularly well positioned to mediate students’ contact with American culture and values, comparisons between these schools and other "American" schools may shed light on efforts by Norwegian Americans to adapt to American society.


When instruction began at Harvard College in 1636 the school’s purpose was to provide young men with the [101] education required to become Puritan clergymen. {3} Other colleges founded in the colonial period and in the early years of the nation had similar purposes and also were open exclusively to men, although by no means all students entered churchly careers. Only gradually and with struggle did American women gain access to higher education, first in women’s institutions such as Emma Willard’s Troy Seminary and Mount Holyoke College and then in coeducational ones such as Oberlin, Swarthmore, and the University of Iowa. In the decades under consideration here higher education became an increasingly acceptable option for American women. {4} As the number of colleges open to women grew, so did the number of women enrolled, with the result that in 1910 women had access to 73 percent of colleges and composed nearly 40 percent of college students. {5} According to Barbara Miller Solomon, these shifts in perception and access were due in large degree to popularization of education at all levels; to effects of the Civil War, including the experiences and new expectations it provided to women; and to developments in higher education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More specifically, the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 endowed state institutions and gave women access to the universities it funded. Reassessment of the purposes of collegiate education issued in curriculum innovations at Harvard and other prestigious schools. The demand for teachers grew with extension of public schools into the western frontier and with rapid population growth as a result of immigration; this trend coupled with greater willingness to allow women into the classroom and rising standards for teachers created a job market for women with higher education.

By the early twentieth century the types of schools women attended varied considerably, from the private women’s college such as Vassar, Smith, and Bryn Mawr {6} to the religiously oriented coeducational institution such as Oberlin College, from the secular coeducational universities such as the land grant institutions to vocationally oriented public and private normal schools and women’s medical schools. {7} Each sort of institution served a particular [102] educational need and provided a benefit to society as well as to the student. For the daughters of economically and socially mobile middle-class families and for those from farm families a higher education represented a "path to a fuller life" or "a way out of the constrictions, isolation, and poverty of rural life." {8} The contribution normal schools made to growing elementary school programs was clear. The benefit derived from a woman receiving a liberal education was less obvious, especially if she "would eventually marry and bear children and thus ‘waste’ advanced education." Solomon points out the ambiguity of expectations which caught women "between the attraction of using their education in professional ways and keeping in mind that a woman’s usefulness was not equated with professionalism." {9} One response was to include domestic science as a part of the women’s liberal arts curriculum, providing women with education which would prove useful in their homemaking role regardless of what other activities they undertook.


Schools associated with Lutheran churches followed many of the general American patterns. Like others which followed, Gettysburg College was founded primarily to provide preparatory work for young men destined for the ministry, which was not open to women. Thiel College, founded in 1866 by Pastor William A. Passavant, a major figure in American Lutheranism, was the first to open as coeducational. {10} Although Passavant’s "benevolent and inclusive spirit" may have made possible the fact that three of the first five students enrolled at Thiel were female, his remarks at the cornerstone laying six years later emphasize society’s need for their brothers. He assured his listeners that "They are wanted at the bar, in the ministry, in the healing art, in the editorial chair, in the school room, in every department of business, commerce, trade, in agriculture and the mechanical arts, everywhere, men of piety, of a positive faith, of a true manhood, who know in whom and in what they believe, and stand up in their place as God’s witnesses among their fellows! {11} The young women in [103] the audience may well have wondered about the use of their education. Of the fields Passavant named, only the school room and in a limited way the healing art would welcome participation by women, even women of piety. The ambiguity of expectations Solomon identified was also present for women at Lutheran colleges even as an increasing number of these colleges opened their classrooms to female students.

As was the usual American pattern before coeducation became common, nearly two dozen Lutheran schools were founded for women, many of them in the South. {12} Among these schools the level of education varied from the largely secondary level work offered by some female seminaries to accredited college courses leading to the bachelor’s degree at Irving, Elizabeth, and Marion colleges. Like most Lutheran educational institutions the women’s schools were often begun through the initiative of a small group of local lay and clerical leaders. Some women’s schools had the blessing and endorsement of the relevant jurisdiction but none received direct financial support. Of these schools the longest lasting was Marion College, which continued operation into the mid-1960s.

Not long after their arrival in the Upper Midwest, Norwegian immigrant Lutherans recognized the need to organize their own schools. Training for would-be pastors was undertaken by the Norwegian Synod at Halfway Creek, Wisconsin, in 1861; shortly thereafter Luther College was moved to Decorah, Iowa. The Norwegian-Danish Conference founded Augsburg Seminary in 1869. Many Norwegian-American families were economically and socially mobile, characteristics Barbara Solomon identifies as common among families likely to encourage their daughters to go to college. This pattern multiplied; each newly formed church body was eager to establish its own school where its own views would be taught. And the school — "our school" — served as a focal point of group identity. "The education of the girls was more of a problem," as Karen Larsen observed in her biography of Laur. Larsen, her father and president of Luther College. She continued, "The ideal was to give them the same education as [104] their mothers had received, but this was not easy in the new frontier society." {13} When H. A. Preus made the statement quoted at the beginning of this essay, at least a dozen daughters of Norwegian Lutheran clergy families were poised to take advantage of a preparatory or academy program if one was offered. {14} Instead, provisional arrangements were made for their education. A few of the girls, including Lulla Hjort and Sina Preus, attended an informal school, Comitia Dumriana, where they were given "crumbs from the table." This "community of dunces" studied under the supervision of Luther College professors, but not in college classes. In the same years a similar arrangement was in force in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where women received private instruction from Harvard professors through the Harvard annex, the predecessor of Radcliffe College. {15}

Immigration accelerated, the families of Norwegian Americans already in the United States grew, and the need to provide education for young women, whether from parsonages or not, became more pressing. Public common schools were available for elementary education, and congregation-based "Norwegian" schools provided religious education along with Norwegian language and culture, expanding the popular base of education and raising expectations. Nonetheless, informal arrangements to provide higher education were no longer adequate. Although some families, such as the Laur. Larsens, were willing to send their children to public universities or non-Lutheran private colleges, others were eager for the churches or at least church people to provide schools. {16} St. Olaf College, the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary, and the Lutheran Normal School gave Norwegian-American Lutheran women the opportunity to study in a school of the church.


St. Olaf College began in 1874 as an academy, an alternative to the common schools. When academies such as St. Olaf’s School developed into colleges they were coeducational as the colleges founded to train pastors were not. In his efforts to [105] establish a school Pastor B. J. Muus had committed lay supporters from Goodhue and Rice counties, who offered financial resources. The Norwegian Synod clergy, undoubtedly concerned that another school might siphon financial support from Luther College, responded positively but passively. Nonetheless, Muus and his local collaborators continued their efforts. Too many schools, including the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary and the United Church Normal School, closed in the years of St. Olaf’s growth for the success of the new academy in Northfield, Minnesota, to have been assured. St. Olaf’s success was aided by early and clear definition of its goals and audience. It was committed to general, practical education for all its students, not just those called to the ordained ministry. And St. Olaf was closely identified with the Norwegian Lutheran community, more specifically in the first fifteen years with the Norwegian Synod and then with the United Church. Promotional materials which emphasized the school’s Norwegian and Lutheran identity and its focus on general education attracted supporters who were committed to "thorough, practical education" in an institution that was "up to the times and thoroughly American in spirit" and to students who met the minimum admission requirements. One promotional piece informed its readers, "Students of either sex admitted, provided they are fourteen years of age, or more, and present a certificate from some reliable person (as a rule, from their pastor) to the effect that they are persons of good moral character, and endowed with capabilities to learn." {17} And from the first day St. Olaf was coeducational. Girls were a significant part of the academy student body and were present on the St. Olaf campus from its establishment. In retrospect they reported that they had selected St. Olaf because it was Christian, because their parents supported the United Church, and because of familial connections with the faculty or students. {18}

For the first few years the whole college community shared living quarters in the Main and in Ladies’ Hall. This arrangement gave the school a family atmosphere which President Thorbjørn N. Mohn assured one of his correspondents [106] mitigated against any dangers which might be involved in providing girls with the same education that their brothers received. Further he noted that coeducation did not lead to undesirable excesses; rather, it was in keeping with the way things were in families. {19} Some students lived with local families and in rooming houses, because Ladies’ Hall was never large enough to provide rooms for all the female students. Student life in the early years was closely supervised and the daily schedule well regulated. Standards of proper behavior excluded drinking, dancing, gambling, playing cards, using tobacco or foul language. The girls’ behavior was subjected to proper feminine standards. The preceptress informed them that throwing apple peelings around the parlor was "unladylike," and they were not allowed to attend a political torchlight rally in Northfield with their male classmates. Contacts between boys and girls were subject to institutional guidance. Sexually segregated dining was maintained into the 1890s. {20} Despite the rules and close schedule students found time for fun, and there is evidence that they were not docile in their acceptance of rules. In the early years of the century both single sex and coeducational social groups occupied students. The academy girls organized a literary society, Utile Dulci, which strove to combine the "useful with the sweet." {21} Minerva, another organization for female students in the college and the upper levels of the academy, aimed "through declamations, readings, and written matter . . . to develop [the members’] powers of delivery and abilities for graceful literary expression, as well as give a close acquaintance with the best production of classical and modern literature." {22} Among the coeducational groups, Normanna was devoted to the promotion of the Norwegian language. {23} Girls also took part in the whole music program of the school. Religion was not neglected. In addition to religion classes, devotions were conducted every day and students were expected at Sunday worship at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Petra Hagen and some adventuresome friends even dared to attend a revival meeting at the Congregational church. Petra judged the organ "just grand" and the singing "also good." However, they left just as [107] the main sermon began. {24} There were also extra-curricular Bible classes, and a YWCA group was organized in 1909 but was not affiliated with the national association.

In the fourteen years after St. Olaf achieved college status in 1889, six women and 132 men received B.A.s; each young woman was the only one in her class. {25} By 1914 there were almost ninety female B.A. graduates. Eight earned advanced degrees, four were in social work, three were missionaries to China, two were registered nurses, two were in the insurance business, and one was a foreign broadcast editor. Over fifty percent married. {26} Early graduates Georgina Dieson and Agnes Mellby furnish glimpses of the experiences of female students. Dieson, who came from a high school class composed of "eight bright girls and two rather insignificant boys," was shocked to attend a Greek class in which she was, of course, the only girl. {27} In the 1904 Viking she mused, "Still she can not help but wish that there were but one more girl in her class . . . . [But] she knows that she is a pioneer in a good cause." Agnes Mellby wrote about "Women and Professions" in the student newspaper. Observing that despite the opening of "nearly all fields" to women and the "ample chances of becoming independent" women seemed to take advantage of those opportunities out of necessity rather than choice, Mellby suggested that the fault fell upon those who imbued boys "with professional ideals from early childhood" but seldom encouraged girls "to develop [their] capabilities and become useful." {28}

Campaigns to replace Ladies’ Hall finally succeeded when (Old) Mohn Hall was built in 1912. The prolonged struggle for a women’s residence, which was also a struggle for the continuation of coeducation at St. Olaf, elicited statements about the value of education to women and the roles women were expected to take up. {29} An unnamed writer in the student annual appealed to the College’s religious purposes and to the female students’ future responsibilities as mothers: "Truly our church can no more sacrifice its young women than its men to religious indifferentism. If we recognize the necessity of giving those who are to be the fathers in our church a [108] Christian education and discipline, do we not admit that those who are to be its future mothers have the same imperative need? Or, can not a mother’s influence be favorably compared with a father’s?" {30} Another student defended the new women’s residence, citing the need to nurture women’s particular domestic, maternal nature even as they studied the Bible, American history, and world geography: "girls ought to have a home of their own. Instinctively they love home. . . . With them the home ideal is the most prominent, the great center around which everything else gathers. . . . The girls, too, would exert a wonderful influence upon each other, mutually developing love, sympathy, kindness, and regard for others. . . . And we must not forget our long wished for and long planned on cooking department, our ideal kitchen. . . . No girl has a complete or sufficient education who has not mastered the art of cooking." {31} This view of womanhood was not unusual on the St. Olaf campus. Phi Kappa Phi, a female student society, issued a cookbook in 1907 to raise funds in support of the proposed dormitory. The preface to its fourth edition suggests that the cookbook defends the students’ femininity as well as their need for a new building. "The idea generally prevalent is that the college girl knows or cares but little for the art of cooking. This, however, is not the case among girls of our own institution and we hope a few years of college will never counteract the good influences or training along these lines which they have received in their good Norwegian homes." {32} The contents and organization of the book suggest that its compilers retained their Norwegian heritage while acquiring American tastes and skills. Foods such as lefse, lutefisk, primost, and fattigmans bakkels were segregated in a Norwegian Department at the back of the book; the front section boasted recipes such as macaroni and cheese, escalloped cauliflower, and banana cake that may well have been innovations in a pioneer household.

Along with course work and extra-curricular activities students were influenced by the example of adult women: faculty wives, preceptresses, and female faculty members were all possible role models. Anna Mohn, Elise Ytterboe, and [109] Thea Felland, wives of early faculty, were in daily intimate contact with students who would remember their "wholesome influence." Student Emma Quie Bonhus recalled Thea Felland’s example: "despite finicky taste and diligent habits the slender, trim-looking lady was no drudge. Fond of wearing pin-check gingham dresses with starched white collar and cuffs, she would top the outfit with a sailor hat when she took the baby out in its carriage, or went on other errands. The blue eyes were always kind and sincere, just as the voice that spoke to us was full of friendly interest. From her we learned Queen Alexandra’s excellent maxim: ‘Be thankful for what you have; ask for what you want; never grumble.’" {33} In 1909 the faculty wives and female faculty organized themselves into the Women’s Social League "to foster good fellowship and social intercourse amongst its members [and] in college circles." {34}

Among the female faculty there were soon St. Olaf graduates who returned out of devotion to their alma mater. Agnes Mellby, hired in the 1890s, served as both preceptress and teacher. Her contributions to the school were extolled in The Viking of 1904. "Kind and sympathetic of mind, with a heart filled with noble Christian feelings, her influence is refreshing and ennobling. As preceptress she exerts her beneficent influence upon the young ladies, a power that will in the future manifest itself in the development of noble womanly traits." {35} Undoubtedly, Mellby did these things; however, the cost to her was not small. Salaries were low, especially for women. Loyalty to their school and its community induced St. Olaf graduates to remain despite salaries lower than their male colleagues’ and lower than they might have commanded elsewhere. Clara Hegg came in 1910 for only $700.00 per year, although she had hoped for $900.00, because she wanted to teach there. {36} Female faculty members, like their counterparts at many American colleges, were usually single and thus without either the emotional and professional support a family might have provided or the responsibilities of a husband and children. The closeness of the college faculty community and the presence of siblings or other relatives on campus may have been some compensation. Nonetheless, after a decade of [110] teaching Miss Mellby responded to plans for the coming year and expressed her discouragement to President J. N. Kildahl. "I suppose that means that I shall have to teach odds and ends in the sub-classes, and I am not very happy in the prospect. That work will not be at all satisfactory and I know that my natural abilities will not help me. The special qualities required are those of a drillmaster and a disciplinarian, which I consider my weakest points. Furthermore, beginning my tenth year, it is rather hard to start at the bottom again. . . . I should like in the future to get into some department where I would be secure against so much change. Having to experiment in different branches each year does not give one a fair chance." {37} Despite her sense of futility, Mellby stayed on. She reminded the president that the entire faculty needed to support its female members and urged hiring a teacher "who has been either at a woman’s college or in some Boston school." {38} Agnes Larson, class of 1916, was just such a person. She and two of her sisters were all St. Olaf graduates who earned advanced degrees. {39} Agnes began teaching at St. Olaf in 1922. After completing doctoral work at Radcliffe, Larson received offers from eastern women’s colleges but she returned to St. Olaf because it "was the place where I wished to give my services. These were my people and this was my church." {40} She, like Mellby, was not always entirely satisfied. For example, in 1942 she wrote to the president, "I get weary of these people who stress only the fact that we educate ministers in our church schools. The church would be sadly lacking if we didn’t have a few lay people too who did things." {41}

Among the lay women who were doing things were numerous former St. Olaf students and graduates such as Larson herself and Deaconess Anna Huseth. Sister Anna supplemented her three years of St. Olaf education with study at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine and the Lutheran Deaconess Hospital in Chicago before taking up her responsibilities as a missionary to native Alaskans in 1919. She described her activities: "There is not much time for leisure in this village. Sunday I conduct service in the morning, also Sunday school and Bible class; then service in the evening [111] again. Monday is my day of rest — more or less. Sometimes it is a pretty busy day. Tuesday I wash clothes and make calls in the village and any number of other things. On Wednesday I have the Women’s Club, and Thursday evening prayer meeting. Then I have a boys’ choir and girls’ class in personal hygiene. To keep house and run a mission keeps one person going pretty fast all day and sometimes part of the night. But I enjoy it immensely." {42} Huseth was also a fine dog-sled runner and she found time to pick, mount, and classify fifty varieties of wild flowers. Further evidence of St. Olaf women’s active participation in their churches and communities is provided by those whose biographies are found in Souvenir "Norse-American Women," published for the Norwegian-American centennial. {43}

St. Olaf College equipped these women with skills and knowledge which could expand their roles beyond that of wife and mother. The college contributed to their work by providing them with "a thorough, practical education." However, the St. Olaf students of the early decades experienced the ambiguity of expectations encountered by many American college women. While Agnes Mellby, Agnes Larson and her sisters, and Anna Huseth are notable examples of St. Olaf women who took the path of careers, many of their classmates did not. A similar dynamic of expansion and conservatism was at work in other areas as well. Even as their education eased the female students’ contacts outside their ethnic and religious community by teaching them English and American customs, it also bound them to that community through the ties of personal friendships and institutional loyalties.


Two decades after H. A. Preus urged establishment of a school for girls the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary corporation was founded. In the interval his own daughters passed the age at which the school could be useful to them and the Norwegian Synod was split by the predestination controversy. {44} Although the Synod did not found the Seminary, its leaders took prominent roles and the Articles of Incorporation [112] anticipated transfer of the school to the Synod. The overlap of constituency support was evident when construction of the building on a bluff above Red Wing and the opening of the seminary was delayed further because money was diverted to repair fire damages at Luther College. Finally in 1894 the school opened its doors to forty young women. At the dedicatory ceremony Dr. Johannes Ylvisaker extolled the benefits Christianity accords to women: "It is true that Christianity alone gives the true conception of the true place of man and woman in society, and it alone can elevate her to that place where she can fully enjoy the happiness God has intended for her, when she can both bless and be blessed. Christianity has been compared to a friendly angel that has opened the prison doors and now invites her to come out and enjoy the sunshine of truth and inhale the strengthening atmosphere of freedom." {45} In the next quarter of a century hundreds of students studied at the Seminary. Despite the founders’ intention, neither the Norwegian Synod nor its successor, the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America (NLCA), ever took official responsibility for the institution. After a fire destroyed the main buildings on the eve of graduation in 1920 the school’s active history came to an end.

The founders, President Hans Allen, and the staff of the Ladies’ Seminary were anxious to provide a top-quality education which was both liberal and practical, which would educate mind and body, and which would contribute to their Christian growth. The stated objective was to provide a "thorough and liberal education [and] also to furnish a practical course . . . and above all to imbue the student with a true Christian spirit." {46} As Todd Walsh pointed out, the school had much in common with others for women, such as Rockford Seminary, well known for its famous graduate, Jane Addams. {47} Although the Seminary and St. Olaf shared a commitment to practical education and the formation of Christian character, the women’s school made much less of its Norwegian and Lutheran origins in its promotional materials and its program was clearly designed for a female student body. {48} The curriculum seems designed to prepare young women for [113] conventional domestic roles. The final catalogue made this clear: "The founder of this institution . . . realized, as we do, that the welfare of our homes depends in the highest degree upon what type of woman is making them. Thrifty, neat, and well-trained home-makers create thrifty and well-ordered households. Intelligent, educated and cultured mothers and wives understand how to make the homes centers of noble interests and elevating influences. Pious, spiritually enlightened and devout Christian women are the most zealous guardians of earnest faith, pure morals and unselfish activities." {49} However, the possibility that some students would become teachers or business women was suggested by course offerings and by the normal and business, in fact secretarial, departments as well as the conservatory of music. So here too students received mixed messages about the ends of their education.

Every part of the day presented opportunities for learning of some sort. When a student arrived, the contents of her luggage indicated the sorts of activities she would take part in. She had a dictionary and a Bible for required religion and literature courses, a suit for drills in physical culture, a large apron to protect her cotton dresses during domestic science labs, and napkins and a ring for proper dining. {50} Faculty and students dined together from hand-painted china at tables covered with white linen; breaches in etiquette were corrected by notes under the offender’s dinner plate. Students in the four-year seminary and classical departments took courses such as Bible (in Norwegian or English), Augsburg Confession, physical geography, arithmetic, history, drawing, and optionally, Latin, German, or Greek. The 1894 catalogue listed housekeeping and needlework as "obligatory throughout the whole course." Students were also required to attend chapel exercises and Sunday worship. {51} Music and domestic science, both important aspects of students’ studies, equipped them with skills especially useful in the domestic arena. Every student participated in the chorus and sang in its two annual concerts. Dr. Bernard F. Laukandt, appointed director of the Conservatory of Music in 1907, built the program’s [114] reputation and strengthened recruitment among German Americans. {52} The seminary octet directed by Jacob Lauritz Hjort went on tour, providing entertainment to the school’s friends and soliciting support. {53} Some students continued their studies with private teachers or abroad and used their talents as church musicians or in concert halls. {54} In domestic science classes students mastered the art of setting a table, serving, and preparation of dishes such as hollandaise sauce, layer cake, and stuffed eggs, skills that would be useful regardless of their occupation. {55} One student found, however, that her new culinary skills were not immediately appreciated by her brothers: the college sister began to use the family as guinea pigs. . . . All summer they suffered, though not in silence. Fish on the half-shell — as if the shell covered up anything! They knew they were just plain pickerel from the old Mouse River! And fruit salad — a messy concoction — and angel food, sometimes as high as Mount Everest, and again something white and flat as a pancake called by the same name, ‘angel food.’ " {56}

The societal value of this training was defended by students as well as faculty. A local newspaper summarized Esther Lien’s essay, "The Value of Domestic Education": "[Lien] discussed the economic changes that had taken place in the past few years and the necessity that every girl should have a scientific training in woman’s greatest mission — housekeeping. She placed emphasis on this particular branch and believed that the awakening of the nation to its great and imperative value meant much for its future prosperity and happiness." {57} Nonetheless, singing, cooking, and cleaning were not deemed adequate skills for an educated woman. Even students in the Domestic Science department took two literature courses in addition to Bible. This requirement was initiated by a Board member who "noticed that many of the Home Ed. graduates would marry ministers, and he suggested that it would be very profitable for them to ‘take up’ some literary subjects too. ‘Saa de kan komme op til sin stand.’ [So that she would be equal to her position.]" {58}

The seminary students’ lives were shaped by "such rules [115] as are necessary for the well-being of the students and for the best interest of the school as a Christian school-home." {59} A daily schedule of activities with mandatory free time was enforced. As at St. Olaf proper female behavior was encouraged and social interaction regulated; leaning out of windows and reading dime novels were prohibited and visits from "gentlemen" allowed only with written permission from the student’s parents. {60} Students used their free time in extracurricular groups and less structured activities. Besides their Sunday trip to church, the young women were permitted to go downtown once a week. They patronized local merchants such as Kuhn’s and Bender’s drug stores, which served ice cream and "specialized in ‘dates.’" Martha Reishus looked back and reflected, "It would be interesting to know how many romances began there!" She also recalled the Hauge’s Synod book department as a place where romances sometimes began. {61} Literary contact with young men was achieved through exchanges between Luther College’s "Chips" and the Ladies’ Seminary’s "Cresset." {62} Alumnae were encouraged to subscribe and keep up with their alma mater via the "articles contributed by the pupils, reports of lectures delivered, concerts given, and an account of everything else worthy of note that happens at the school." {63} Among the student organizations were the Laurean and Lambda Sigma literary societies, Vaarliv, a Norwegian society, the Crescendo Club, and the Grieg Glee club. Each class organized upon arrival and planned activities for itself and the others: picnics, boat trips on the Mississippi, teas, and the like were recorded in photographs and memory books. Throughout that year there were traditions to be carried on; each class chose colors and a motto ("To be rather than to seem," 1911) to be placed on their class pin. {64} After Easter the senior students wore their caps and gowns. An unusual ceremony began when Native Americans gave the seminary a peace pipe in 1895 "in recognition of the burial site that existed where the seminary stood." {65} Each year thereafter the senior class attached ribbons in the junior class colors and passed the pipe on with a poem. The graduating class also wrote a class will and prophecy. [116]

Josephine Riveland, class of 1911, cast her prophecy as a letter written after her class’s five-year reunion. The futures she predicted indicated that not all the seminary students expected to settle down to fill "woman’s greatest mission — housekeeping." She foresaw that Clara Allen, daughter of the president, and Grace Eaton would have been on a concert tour of the western cities. "In the slums of Chicago . . . . Agnes Kalhein is rescuing boys from vice and Agnes Flaskerud is teaching them politeness. They are surely worthy successors of Jane Addams." Nora Hjermstad would have traded in her motor car for her own biplane. Other classmates would be employed as a detective for the Secret Service and as society columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press: three had returned to the Seminary — one as domestic science teacher, one as dressmaking teacher, and the other as nurse. Elise Smedal would have a successful career as a lecturer, with "Equality of the Sexes" and "Co-education" as her principal topics. {66} Emma Brandt she saw "as smiling and happy looking as ever, for she is now a prestefrue gladly performing her many duties as such." Aside from Emma Brandt’s marriage to a pastor, the accuracy of these predictions is unknown. However, some students did pursue careers, temporarily before marriage or throughout their lives. Henrietta Preus had a brief career as a nurse prior to her marriage; Viola Rossing became a partner in her family’s retail business; and Bessie Fries taught music at a Lutheran school in Toronto, South Dakota, before she married Rossing’s cousin Thaddeus Gullixson. {67} Other students, such as Elizabeth Clausen who went to the University of Wisconsin, continued their studies at other institutions.

Careful reading of enrollment rosters yields a notable number of students connected by birth or marriage to families prominent in Norwegian Lutheranism. {68} Despite the absence of male students at the Seminary, students’ families became entwined by marriage to each others’ brothers or cousins. However, the student body was more geographically and ethnically diverse than highlighting a few students from notable families might suggest. Writing to her aunt in about 1905 student Alma Engelbert described her living situation. "I have [117] three room-mates, one a German, Alma Bleckman, from Iowa, one a Swede, Frances Tornell, from South Dakota, and one a Norwegian, Cornelia Solberg, from North Dakota, so I have all the nationalities in my room, but they are all three very nice." {69} Data compiled by Walsh indicates that as much as 25 percent of the student body came from outside Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and Iowa. {70}

By the 1910s, enrollment was declining because of the strains of war, changes in leadership, and organizational shifts brought about by the formation of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America in 1917. From its establishment the seminary corporation had intended to turn the school over to the Norwegian Synod; however, neither the Synod nor its successor was willing to accept that responsibility. Rather, the Board of Education recommended that an endowment be established for the school’s support. {71} Then in 1919—1920 two fires ended the Seminary’s operation. The first was contained and repairs made during Christmas vacation. The second broke out the night before graduation; {72} both the main building and the music hall were declared total losses. When local business people and President Thoralf Hoff were unsuccessful in their attempts to raise the funds needed to begin anew, the Board of Trustees put the question of rebuilding to the church. {73} The decision was made not to rebuild the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary, the property went into receivership, and in 1935 it was sold.

The Alumnae Association (organized in 1910) continued to meet into the late 1960s when the Alumni Association of Luther College, by then coeducational, assumed the membership list. {74} Although there were approximately 500 graduates of the school’s various programs, the total enrollment list for its years of operation was far larger, since many students attended without receiving a degree. Unlike St. Olaf, which continues as a college, the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary lives through its individual students rather than through institutional continuity. The Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary aimed to provide its students with a "thorough and liberal education" supported by a practical course designed to "imbue the [118] student with a true Christian spirit." The lives of graduates such as Women’s Missionary Federation officer Lydia Bredesen Sundby, business woman Viola Rossing, and governor’s wife Idella Haugen Preus suggest its success in this purpose. Despite the female composition of its student body and its less explicitly ethnic or religious publicity, the Lutheran Ladies’ seminary, like St. Olaf College, exposed its Norwegian-American students to American culture and cultivated their participation in it while binding them to their own Norwegian-American, Lutheran subculture. Perhaps more than at St. Olaf, Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary students conformed to genteel expectations of women within the arenas of home and church.


A third sort of education, directed toward the vocation of teaching, was offered to young Norwegian-American women at coeducational normal schools. The primary purpose of these schools, like that of other public and private normal schools, was to train teachers; unlike some normal schools these prepared teachers for both public elementary schools and the Norwegian Lutheran summer schools held by congregations. {75} The annual catalogue of the United Lutheran Church Normal School in Madison, Minnesota, stated: "It aims to give to young men and women an education on a Christian foundation, and to qualify them as teachers in the schools of the church and in the public schools." {76} The Lutheran Normal School carried out this purpose from 1892 until declining enrollment and economic depression forced its closure in 1932. In contrast to St. Olaf College which had to wait for formal affiliation and to the Ladies’ Seminary which never received it, the Normal School was founded and operated by the United Norwegian Lutheran Church. Delegates to the first United Church convention in 1890 authorized establishment of a normal school. {77} Within two years a site had been selected and construction had begun on a multi-purpose building housing a chapel, classrooms, and dormitory space. The school’s success and its growing enrollment required [119] additional construction: in 1899 a second dormitory for sixty students and in 1914 Lokensgaard Hall with room for eighty-six girls. At a cost of $30,000 the latter had modern facilities — steam heat and electric lights — and provided a new dining hall for 200 persons. {78} The school reached its peak enrollment of 188 in 1916.

Students were attracted to Madison by its church and ethnic connections as well as by its curriculum. Some took their entire training there; others attended several institutions. Tilda Jorstad recalled that her path to the Normal School passed through St. Olaf’s academy and St. Ansgar Academy before she arrived at the Normal School in January, 1895. {79} She was able to graduate that year. Fewer than half of the students who attended the Normal School graduated. Some who did went on to pursue further education and perhaps a bachelor’s or professional degree. The alumni column in the Echo, a student publication, often noted the names of former students who were attending St. Olaf and other Lutheran schools. Exchange between the schools was also promoted when teachers trained at one joined the faculty of another, as when Cora Martinson, a St. Olaf graduate, taught at the Normal School for five years before she moved to Camrose and Gale Colleges and then took a position in Hong Kong. {80}

From its first year the Normal School offered both preparatory and normal courses to its students. The former was particularly attractive to recent immigrants whose age might have caused them to feel uncomfortable and out of place in a public high school. Among the eleven female Normalites who had careers as foreign missionaries, six came to the United States in their late teens or early twenties. At the Normal School these newcomers were given the opportunity to learn English while they pursued their other studies in Norwegian among students and faculty who shared their ethnic identity. The names of the students who attended LNS during its four decades indicate that nearly all of them were Norwegian in background even if they were not immigrants themselves. {81} The curriculum offered by the Normal School varied in details over its four decades of operation but the [120] general intent remained consistent. Every program required some study of Norwegian and religion; the courses offered in religion included Bible history, church history, symbolics, exegesis, and catechetics. Additionally, students received instruction in topics such as history, arithmetic, elocution, geography, didactics, and vocal music. Until 1913 graduates of the normal course were required to be examined by the appropriate state agency prior to certification for teaching. The model school begun that year brought the Madison institution into compliance with Minnesota state requirements; consequently, graduates qualified for a public school certificate in Minnesota without further examination. This arrangement continued until the normal department was closed in 1926 because of difficulty in meeting rising state standards. {82} A special one-year program was instituted in 1902 to prepare teachers to conduct the parochial schools held by Norwegian Lutheran congregations during summer months. Later expanded to two years, this program emphasized religion, Norwegian, and music. The "secular" subjects were left for the public schoolteachers. By 1914 a four-year school course was also available. {83}

As at St. Olaf and the Ladies’ Seminary, student life in Madison was enriched by student groups and organized activities outside the classroom and chapel. Each year the school held two series of special lectures. One was devoted to mission work, of great interest at the school. The other, more wide-ranging series featured religious, national, and cultural topics: Luther and the Reformation, Phrenology, Yellowstone Park, Reminiscences of the Civil War, Temperance, and Savonarola. {84} Student organizations were similar to those at other schools. The debate societies were organized by sex. Only male students participated in the Senate, which was modeled on the United States legislative body. After 1903 there was a Norwegian society, Det Norske Selskab, which met weekly. The professional goals of the majority of students were recognized by Lærerforeningen, the teachers’ society, devoted to discussion of topics related to their future task, "particularly as it could apply to parochial school teaching." {85} [121] On Thursday evenings prayer meetings were held for the edification of students and teachers. The physical aspects of education were not neglected: boys played football, basketball, and baseball; girls basketball, calisthenics, and tennis.

Two active groups cultivated interest in the church’s mission work: the mission society founded in 1892 and the girls’ mission society, which later affiliated with the Lutheran Daughters of the Reformation. Student response to the emphasis on foreign missions is illustrated by the testimony of Elise Holland Tverberg. "I have early childhood memories of accompanying my mother to Ladies Aid and hearing her read mission stories for Madagascar while the others were working for the mission. This seed sown in my young heart was nourished and naturally grew with the years. At the Lutheran Normal School we were met daily by the Word of God in chapel, in class room, Sunday School Bible class and in Sunday afternoon Mission Society. Maybe those of us who were more mature and were called on to contribute a few remarks based on a scripture passage received the greatest benefit to the hidden longings to carry the Gospel to those near by or to the uttermost part of the world. . . . I had the privilege of hearing Anna Lee, a Normalite, speak in chapel about her life and witnessing in China." {86} Elise and her husband worked in Madagascar from 1914 until 1946. Frequent references to the missionary societies in the columns of the Echo confirm the centrality of mission concerns in the school’s life.

Most of the students lived on campus, where accommodations improved as each new building was added. Petra Bly, a student in the mid-1910s, shared a room in Lokensgaard Hall; it was provided with a built-in clothes closet, two single beds, desks, and chairs. There was no longer any need for water pitchers and washbowls, as each floor was equipped with "modern washrooms," The students brought along dresser scarves, window curtains, and other amenities to make their rooms homey. They were responsible for cleaning. The day began at 6:30 when the morning bell was rung. Meals were provided by the boarding club and taken together. "Meals were served at 7:00 A.M., 12:00 noon and 6:00 P.M. The [122] women were privileged to have the dining room in the basement of their dormitory; thus they could get down there quickly. The menus were planned by a committee. The meals were plain but nutritious and substantial. . . . Table prayers were always given before and after meals, led by one of the men students in charge of the dining room. The girls took turns waiting on tables. Several girls earned part of their expenses by washing and ironing table-cloths." {87} The future Mrs. James Berdahl served on the menu committee in 1908—1909. She noted that "the cooks were husky rural girls who were used to cooking in large quantities. . . . The cooks who served during several years of the second decade of the school were: Emma Ofstie, Clara Vinge, Geta Vinge and Petra Trelstad. The names indicate that they had acquired the skills required for some of the Scandinavian dishes still in vogue in the ‘Trønder’ settlements of Lac qui Parle county." {88} In the evenings, Petra recalled, students sometimes gathered in one another’s rooms to share "goodies" received from home. In this breach of school regulations they were like their counterparts at St. Olaf or the Ladies’ Seminary.

Throughout the day there were other opportunities to socialize. Students who shared a similar religious and ethnic background formed friendships. "There was a family-like mingling of the boys and girls during the meal hours, choir practice, and the short free period on campus after supper. Dating would usually be two or three couples at a time. This may have been an economy measure if it involved the renting of a livery rig to go somewhere on a Sunday or a Monday when there were not classes. . . . Many of these co-educational friendships developed into courtships and marriages. The homes thus established have been happy and stable because of the compatibility and similar cultural backgrounds of husband and wife. {89} In this way, as well as by providing teachers, the Normal School contributed to stability and continuance of the Norwegian Lutheran community which founded and supported it." {90}

In accord with the school’s purpose, many of the 642 graduates from its normal program spent at least a few years [123] working as teachers in parochial or public schools. Of these, 558 were women; this high proportion is not surprising given the clear occupational usefulness of the normal program. Teaching was a relatively acceptable job for women and the field was opening even as reliance on female teachers increased in Norwegian Lutheran parochial schools as the century turned. {91} Students from the normal department at the Ladies’ Seminary and St. Olaf also took teaching positions. Women were expected to stop teaching if they married; in some cases, teaching careers came to fill the time between the completion of a woman’s education and marriage much as domestic service had in a earlier era. {92} Matilda Agneberg’s career represents a typical pattern. {93} She graduated from public high school in Whitehall, Wisconsin, and taught in the common school there for four years before entering the Normal School in 1899. There she took either the parochial or the normal course. She then returned to teach in the Whitehall common school from 1901 to 1903; during the next three years she taught parochial school in Whitehall and Pigeon Falls, Wisconsin, and Norman and Polk counties, Minnesota, and common school in Polk county. At age twenty-eight she married Iver Johnson and moved to Beltrami, Minnesota. Throughout her life Matilda was a member of Norwegian Lutheran congregations.

Lutheran Normal School students also pursued careers in other fields. {94} Male graduates went into law, medicine, and the ordained ministry. Female graduates also worked in medicine and the ministry. Among the female graduates were thirty-six nurses, including Petra Bly, who continued her education at the Lutheran Deaconess Home in Chicago and the University of Minnesota and later worked for the state Health Department. {95} Nellie Pederson Holman earned her M.D. at the University of Minnesota in 1918 and served as a missionary in China. In addition to Holman and Elise Holland Tverberg the school’s emphasis on missions yielded nine other women who served as missionaries in China or Madagascar, including Sister Inga Dvergsness.

Like St. Olaf College and the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary, [124] the Normal School in Madison had the Norwegian-American Lutheran community as its primary constituency and providing a practical, Christian education to the youth of that group as its primary goal. It also mediated contacts between "general" American life and its students’ Norwegian-American communities through bilingual instruction and by the composition and activities of the community. This was particularly so for those older students who had recently arrived in the United States. At the same time the school forged enduring links between students and trained them for professions which reinforced their connections with their religious and ethnic communities. The occupational emphasis of the Lutheran Normal School’s program and its commitment to mission encouraged female students to use their skills in churchly or educational careers, however briefly.


These schools, the education they offered to young Norwegian-American Lutheran women, and the lives of a few of their students provide mixed evidence about what was expected of women in their ethno-religious communities between 1874 and 1920. The three institutions shared general purposes and a broadly defined audience. At the same time they also resembled other American institutions and displayed characteristics in keeping with national developments in women’s education, such as expanding access tempered by lack of commensurate post-graduate opportunities. These similarities ought not, however, to obscure the particular features of St. Olaf, the Ladies’ Seminary, and the Normal School, each of which carried out even common purposes in distinctive ways. The schools differed from one another in their connection to church bodies, their courses of study, and their costs, in addition to the obvious differences in location and duration, and the Ladies’ Seminary’s all-female student body.

Of the three, only the Normal School was founded by the action of a national church body. This official status, first as an institution of the United Church and then, after the merger [125] which created it, of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, gave the school access to the resources of the larger church, although only to a limited degree. The connection may have strengthened ties with the constituency in those church bodies. It also gave the larger church greater control of the school, its program, and its finances, as acting President Feroe discovered when he tried to draw funds ahead of the budget to pay salaries. {96} St. Olaf achieved official recognition only after its leadership backed the Anti-Missourian Brotherhood and joined in forming the United Church. Even then the unseemly rivalry between supporters of St. Olaf and Augsburg for the designation "college of the church" made the 1890s difficult, lean ones on Manitou Heights. Recognition was given by the 1899 United Church Convention. The same delegates’ vote to replace President Thorbjørn N. Mohn demonstrated the shift in governance which came with the college’s new status. And, in response to the church’s action, the Northfield business community made a large donation to St. Olaf.

In contrast to these two and despite the intentions of its founders, the Ladies’ Seminary was never officially affiliated with either the Norwegian Synod or the NLCA, so it neither received financial support nor was subject to church control. It is nonetheless important to bear in mind that the connection between the school and prominent Synod families constituted an ad hoc relationship, as evidenced by the delay in building caused by a fire at Luther College in the 1890s and by the detrimental effect of the NLCA’s refusal of financial backing for rebuilding after the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary fire in 1920. Although the influence of these varying relationships with church bodies upon the schools’ operation and their students’ education is neither simple nor obvious, the following consequences are indicated. Official recognition conferred credibility among both the church constituency and the school’s local community. In St. Olaf’s case, support from local businesses was tied in part to that institutional recognition. But in the case of the Ladies’ Seminary, support from the citizens of Red Wing was not adequate to make up for lack of [126] support from the church. In addition, as both St. Olaf and the Normal School discovered, the financial support that official status brought was accompanied by loss of autonomy. The amount of support was not always in keeping with the degree of control the church sought formally or informally to exert.

Finances were another area of variation. The Ladies’ Seminary charged the highest fees; St. Olaf was in the middle; and the Normal School was the least expensive. {97} This range was consistent with what might be expected on the basis of the programs offered at each institution. The students in Red Wing were offered an education directed toward a genteel life. Many of them came from the elite of the Norwegian Synod. Others were daughters of Red Wing business families such as the Boxruds and the Hjemstads. However, not all students came from wealthy families. Lydia Bredesen Sundby, for example, recalled that her fees required a significant fraction of her father’s clerical salary. At the other extreme, students at the Normal School tended to come from the more recently settled areas of western Minnesota and the Dakotas. Their smaller costs were paid toward a more immediately useful goal, certification and employment as teachers. St. Olaf students received a less certain return on their tuition and other fees. Their academy or college course might be used as a step into a career such as teaching but there was no guarantee, particularly for women. In an era when little financial aid was available it seems likely that students with the fewest financial resources had the greatest need for an education which was directly applicable to their career goals. This supposition seems to be borne out by the fees at these schools and the sorts of programs they offered.

All three schools offered instruction in religion, music, English, and Norwegian; all claimed to provide a "practical" education as well as to nurture Christian character. The distinctive features of each curriculum were most evident in the ways this informal core was filled out, in the level of instruction offered, and in the use to which the education could be put. Until the St. Olaf preparatory department was moved to Red Wing following the 1917 merger that created the NLCA, [127] all of the these schools offered some high-school-level work. However, the proportion of St. Olaf students enrolled in the academy program was on the decline even before that transfer. By 1920 the earlier system of set sequences of college courses — the classical and the scientific — had given way to the system of requirements and modified electives which was becoming increasingly popular in American education. It allowed students a limited set of options. Along with a heavy dose of languages, they selected from options such as astronomy, biology, geology, economics, home economics, history, and political science. In its transformation from an alternative to the common schools into a liberal arts college St. Olaf developed a program which filled the shifting needs of its constituency and which continues to do so a century and a quarter after its founding.

In its final year the Ladies’ Seminary offered an extraordinary number of programs to its 131 students. The enrollment was not evenly distributed among college preparatory, seminary, home economics, civil service, expression, two music programs, and two normal courses. In the graduating class of 1919, the largest number of students, nine, were in the college preparatory program, which consisted of four years of courses such as algebra, Latin, and modern history as well as optional elementary instruction in home economy. A junior college curriculum including courses in languages, history, and government was also described, with an indication that the outline was taken from St. Olaf’s college bulletin; only a handful of students ever graduated from this program. Whether or not the Seminary might have become a worthy competitor to coeducational St. Olaf and a female counterpart of then all-male Luther College is a question whose answer is lost in the school’s ruins.

The 1919—1920 catalogue for the Normal School lists normal and parochial programs, indicating that it has moved away from giving pre-high-school-level education. Requirements in pedagogy, methods, and catechetics make clear the school’s focus on training teachers. Unfortunately, unlike St. Olaf, the Madison school concentrated its resources on a [128] shrinking rather than a growing market. By the late 1920s rising standards for public school teachers rendered the school’s normal program increasingly expensive. In 1927 it was dropped and more attention was given to the high school program. At the same time free, quality high-school education was more generally available even in small towns and the demand for a boarding school declined. The combination of escalating criteria for teacher certification and declining need for private secondary education contributed to the decision to close the Normal School in 1932.

During the three and a half decades that these institutions were all operating, they offered young Norwegian-American women access to three different sorts of education, but there were also many similarities among them. The composition of each school’s student body and faculty combined with its curriculum and other campus activities to affirm connections between this group of students and their ethno-religious community. Use of the Norwegian language as a means of instruction and as a subject of study, religion courses, and worship services reinforced students’ religious and ethnic identity. Friendships, romantic attachments, and personal loyalties formed during school years forged additional interlocking connections. The schools’ attention to the formation of Christian character, and especially at the Normal School and St. Olaf to service and mission, encouraged their students to use what they learned for the benefit of others. Knowledge and skills acquired at St. Olaf, the Ladies’ Seminary, and the Lutheran Normal School equipped young women to be contributing members of their families, congregations, and women’s societies as well as to embark on careers either within the church or beyond it.

Whichever school a student selected, her education gave her access to the mainstream of American culture. Course work in English and about American society accompanied by contacts with the occasional members of other national groups and churches had the potential to enlarge the student’s world beyond her ethnic community, beyond her church, and beyond the expected arenas of female activity. While this [129] possibility was attractive to some, others saw it as a danger. The schools’ strong identification with the Norwegian-American community and with Lutheran churches tempered the dangers of too complete assimilation or apostasy. In contrast to state institutions and other private schools, these three mediated their students’ contacts with things American, enabling them to go beyond the Norwegian-American community without demanding that it be left behind.

The charge that schooling would transform female students too much, perhaps making them unwomanly, was leveled against "American" schools as well. In these years confidence in the value of education was high throughout American society and there was a growing willingness to extend the opportunity of education to women. However, these positive developments were accompanied by lack of clarity about the end to which women’s education should, or could, be put. Ambiguity about the purposes of women’s education was grounded in the expectation that women would naturally marry and the corollary assumption that married women would devote themselves to their families rather than to more public occupations. Lutheran teaching about the dignity of all occupations as fields for one’s vocation could be interpreted as encouraging women to retreat into the domestic arena rather than agitate for entrance into conventionally masculine occupations such as the pastorate. Response to the charges that education made women into men and that education was wasted on women took several similar forms in American educational circles and at the Norwegian Lutheran schools. On the basis of surviving explicit defenses of women’s education and declarations of adherence to a conservative view of women’s roles, the dangers of education appear to have been raised most vehemently at the Ladies’ Seminary and St. Olaf, although both schools offered home economics courses, a common strategy to assure that women’s education would be useful. The lack of surviving defenses of women’s education at the Lutheran Normal School may indicate that the more obvious link between its program and relatively acceptable [130] professions — teaching and missions — reduced objections to female enrollment.

Student defenses of conventional femininity, defined by Victorian American standards, at both St. Olaf and the Ladies’ Seminary have already been noted. In Red Wing, Esther Lien exalted housekeeping as "woman’s greatest mission." One St. Olaf student asserted that mastery of the art of cooking was essential to a complete and sufficient female education while another emphasized the value of a mother’s education in rearing her children. This sort of conservative appeal to woman’s special nature and to her responsibilities as mother was a common theme at the Seminary. It was voiced in H.A. Preus’s call for "due consideration to the place woman occupies," in Ylvisaker’s dedicatory comments about woman’s true place, in the catalogue assertion that "intelligent, educated and cultured mothers and wives understand how to make the homes centers of noble interests and elevating influences." Lutheran statistician O. M. Norlie made a similar case in rather extreme terms in a series of essays in The Lutheran Herald. He rehearsed common objections to women’s education: its detrimental effect on women’s morality, their lack of mental capacities, the physical harm it would cause them, and the damage it would do to women’s natural duty. {98} Acknowledging that the first three arguments were no longer in force, Norlie characteristically provided figures to show why. Although he was a graduate of St. Olaf, he went on to argue that women’s education should not take place in coeducational institutions. Rather the proper setting should be ladies’ seminaries designed specifically to provide "special training in home duties," which, in his view, comprised woman’s "natural calling." Norlie’s argument had several goals. Practically, he was trying to encourage more of the 50,000 young women within "our synod . . . who could go to school" to enroll at the Ladies’ Seminary in Red Wing, where enrollment needed a boost. More ideologically, he worried that giving "a woman a college education in this country is practically the same as to send her to a Catholic nunnery to take the veil, for her chances of [131] getting married seem to be lost." And, his line of analysis continued, if women did not marry they did not have children. To the contrary they were likely to become suffragettes and hold "a man’s job." Because coeducation merely extended a course designed for young men to their sisters, it encouraged these ill-advised life choices. Because Norlie’s support for women’s education was grounded in his conviction that "if you educate a woman right away you educate a whole family," his support was limited to education toward marriage and motherhood.

While such defenses of women’s education moderated its radical potential, students at all three schools had "role models": their teachers and those alumnae who expanded conventional female roles with short-term careers before marriage and others who had lifelong careers and lives that did not include a husband and children. These possibilities were vividly portrayed in Jo Riveland’s prophecy for her Seminary classmates. Nonetheless, women such as nurse Petra Bly, businesswoman Viola Rossing, and missionary Anna Huseth are notable perhaps more as exceptions than as representative examples. The evidence from the Lutheran Normal School, the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary, and the early years of St. Olaf College bears out Agnes Mellby’s lament that all too frequently women were not encouraged to "to develop [their] capabilities and become useful" in fields newly open to them. In keeping with H. A. Preus’s earlier plea, and in accord with the ideas shared with many middle-class, native-born Americans, Norwegian-American Lutheran women were invited to avail themselves of "an opportunity for more enlightenment . . . especially as wife and mother" rather than as sisters and fellow workers. And yet, the education women received ought not to be dismissed as entirely conservative. Even those students who returned to their familial homes, married, and had children did so with broadened horizons: they had lived in another place, they had friends in other parts of the country and perhaps the world, they had learned to learn, perhaps they worked as teachers or nurses, and thus their perspectives were changed. [132]


<1> H. A. Preus, Kirkelig Maanedstidende, April 1, 1869, quoted in B. H. Narveson, "The Norwegian Lutheran Academies," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 14 (1944), 193—194.

<2> Augsburg became coeducational in 1921, Luther in 1936.

<3> For the general history of American higher education see Lawrence R. Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago, 1965), vol. 3; a useful introduction to the role of religion in higher education is found in F. Michael Perko, "Religion and Collegiate Education," in The Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience (New York, 1988), 1611—1625.

<4> This section relies heavily upon Barbara Miller Solomon’s useful study, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven, 1985).

<5> Solomon, Educated Women, Table 1, "Colleges Open to Men and Women, 1870—1981," 44, and Table 2, "Women Enrolled in Institutions of Higher Learning, 1870—1980," 63.

<6> For a fascinating account of the development of women’s colleges see Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s (Boston, 1984).

<7> Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women, 46—47.

<8> Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women, 64—65, 68.

<9> Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women, 83.

<10> Hartwick Seminary added a coordinate female department in 1851. Richard W. Solberg, Lutheran Higher Education in North America (Minneapolis, 1985), 276.

<11> George H. Gerberding, Life and Letters of William A. Passavant, D.D. (Greenville, Pennsylvania, 1911), 509—5 10.

<12> Solberg, Lutheran Higher Education, 107—109, 275—276.

<13> Karen Larsen, Laur. Larsen: Pioneer College President (Northfield, Minnesota, 1936), 283.

<14> These were daughters of the following pastors: H. A. Stub, H. A. Preus, J. A. Ottesen, U. V. Koren, Laur. Larsen, and o. J. Hjort.

<15> Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women, 54.

<16> Karen Larsen earned her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1905. Her sister Ingeborg received a diploma from Simmons College in Boston. Karen notes that when her father was criticized for allowing his children to attend secular institutions, "he tried to show his critics how un-reasonable it would be to deny the young people of the church the higher education — which in the case of girls the Synod was not giving." Larsen, Laur. Larsen, 330. Olaf Morgan Norlie’s School Calendar, 1824—1924: A Who’s Who among Teachers in the Norwegian Lutheran Synods of America (Minneapolis, 1924) lists 308 female teachers; analysis of the education of 65 yields the following colleges in addition to Lutheran institutions: Chicago Music College, Milwaukee-Downer College, University of Minnesota, [133] Northwestern School of Music, Drake University, Moorhead State Teachers’ College, The University of Chicago, and Oxford University.

<17> Promotional leaflet, 1880s. St. Olaf College Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.

<18> Questionnaires used in Julie Peterson," ‘Pluck and Perseverance’: The History of Women at St. Olaf College, 1874—1914" (MA. Thesis, Skid-more College, 1975).Joseph M. Shaw, History of St. Olaf College, 1874—1974 (Northfield, 1974).

<19> Shaw, History of St. Olaf College, 14.

<20> Manitou Messenger, St. Olaf College student newspaper, 1892.

<21> The Viking, St. Olaf College yearbook, 1904, 155.

<22> The Viking, 1904.

<23> The Viking, 1904, 149.

<24> Petra Hagen diary (1910s?), Norwegian-American Historical Association Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.

<25> Peterson, "Pluck and Perseverance," 16.

<26> Peterson, "Pluck and Perseverance," 49—50.

<27> Georgina Dieson Hegland, cited by Peterson, "Pluck and Perseverance."

<28> Manitou Messenger, January, 1891.

<29> For an insightful interpretation of this struggle and its significance related to coeducation and the role of women see Janice L. Shook, "Old Mohn Hall: Symbol of St. Olaf’s Coeducation Struggle," student paper, St. Olaf College, nd.

<30> The Viking, 1905, 29.

<31> Manitou Messenger, February, 1907.

<32> Phi Kappa Phi Cookbook (4th edition, Northfield, 1920).

<33> Emma Quie Bonhus, "We Live in Deeds, Not Years," in The Friend, July, 1939, 14.

<34> Women’s Social League, "Minutes book," St. Olaf College Archives, Northfield, Minnesota.

<35> The Viking, 1904, 35.

<36> Peterson, "Pluck and Perseverance," 57.

<37> Agnes Mellby to President J. N. Kildahl, 1903, cited in Peterson, "Pluck and Perseverance," 54.

<38> Peterson, "Pluck and Perseverance," 56.

<39> Henrietta, class of 1918, was the first female graduate of St. Olaf to earn a Ph. D. when she received hers in 1926; she was a professor of economic history at Harvard. Nora was a bacteriologist who worked for Hormel and later taught at St. Olaf. Henrietta and Nora were both active in the American Association of University Women and their local Lutheran congregations. Carol Jenson, "The Larson Sisters: Three Careers in Contrast," in Barbara Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter, eds., Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays (St. Paul, 1977), 30 1—324. [134]

<40> Agnes Larson to President Clemens M. Granskou, May 10, 1960, quoted in Jenson, "The Larson Sisters," 308.

<41> Agnes Larson to President Granskou, March 21, 1942, quoted in Jenson, "The Larson Sisters," 309.

<42> Women’s Missionary Federation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Some Marthas and Marys of the N.L.C.A.: Life Sketches of Pioneer Lutheran Women First in their Field, Series 1 (Minneapolis, nd.), 59.

<43> Alma A. Guttersen and Regina Hilleboe Christensen, eds., Souvenir "Norse-American Women" 1825—1925 (Minneapolis, 1926).

<44> E. Clifford Nelson, ed., The Lutherans in North America (Philadelphia, 1975), 323—324.

<45> Quoted in Lydia Bredeson Sundby, Speech for the 1955 Reunion of Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary alumnae, Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary (LLS), Box 6, Goodhue County Historical Society, Red Wing, Minnesota.

<46> Catalogue for 1894 and Announcements for 1895 and 1896: The Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary, Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Region III Archives, St. Paul, Minnesota.

<47> Todd Walsh, "The Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary of Red Wing, Minnesota (1894—1920)," student paper, Macalester College, 1982, 11—14.

<48> The curriculum of the Seminary, nonetheless, did include required courses in Norwegian, the Augsburg Confession, and Luther’s Larger Catechism; religion courses were offered in either Norwegian or English; and even after these requirements were eased weekly attendance at the Trinity (Norwegian) Lutheran Church was assumed. Catalogue for 1894, 15, and Twenty-fifth Annual Catalogue of the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary and School of Music (1919—1920), 10, 14, 16.

<49> Twenty-fifth Annual Catalogue, 8.

<50> Norma Thronson Kammen, "Personal History," LLS, Box 5, Goodhue County Historical Society.

<51> Catalogue for 1894, 14—15.

<52> Walsh makes much of the German influence on LLS, first as it contributed to the school’s growth, and then as a factor in its decline between 1914 and 1919, "The Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary," 44—45, 47—48, 49—50.

<53> Jacob Lauritz Hjort was the son of early Norwegian Synod leader Rev. Ove Jacob Hjort and his wife, Christine Elisabeth Ottesen. Among the LLS students were his nieces, the daughters of his sisters, Lulla Hjort Preus and Linka Hjort Preus.

<54> Lillian Seebach studied for a year at Konservatorium der Musik zu Leipzig just prior to World War I. Her certificate may be found in LLS, Box 5, Goodhue County Historical Society. Elfriede Straus Meyer, 1912, was working as a church organist and preparing for public concerts; she turned down the opportunity to accompany Lillian on the advice of her private teacher in Minneapolis. [135]

<55> Cooking Department," LLS, Box 5, Goodhue County Historical Society.

<56> Martha Reishus, The Rag Rug (New York, 1955), 248. Reishus was in the class of 1909.

<57> "Class Day at Ladies’ Sem.," unidentified newspaper clipping, LLS, Goodhue County Historical Society.

<58> Martha Reishus Langemo, "A History of the LLS, Red Wing, Minnesota" (Minneapolis, 1967), 12, LLS, Goodhue County Historical Society.

<59> 1919 Catalogue, 10.

<60> Langemo, "History of the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary," 4—5.

<61> Langemo, "History of the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary," 11. However, this sort of socializing was not encouraged. Roy A. Harrisville told me that his mother, Sigrid M. Reishus (Harrisville) was scolded for "fraternizing" with his father who was a student at the Red Wing Seminary of Hauge’s Synod. Private conversation, January 18, 1990.

<62> Langemo, "History of the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary," 10.

<63> Twenty-fifth Annual Catalogue, 9.

<64> Lillian Seebach, "School-Girl Days: A Memory Book, 1910," LLS, Goodhue County Historical Society; Jo Riveland, "My Commencement, 1911," LLS, Goodhue County Historical Society.

<65> Walsh, "The Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary," 25.

<66> Riveland, "My Commencement, 1911."

<67> Elizabeth Rossing Forell, The Rossings and Their Store, 1870—1970 (Iowa City, 1970);Johan Carl Keyser Preus, Herman Amberg Preus: A Family History (np., 1966); Thaddeus Gullixson biography file, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Region III Archives.

<68> For example, among the students were Lydia Bredesen Sundby, a grandniece of Elisabeth and Vilhelm Koren and a district and general president of the Women’s Missionary Federation; Bessie Fries Gullixson, the wife of a Luther Seminary president; Emma Brandt Naeseth, a daughter of Rev. R. O. and Thallette Brandt and a granddaughter of Rev. Nils and Diderikke Otteson Brandt; Henrietta Preus Teisberg, a daughter of Rev. C. K. and Lulla Hjort Preus; Idella Haugen Preus, the wife of the governor of Minnesota (her sister Alberta was also a student and married a Preus; their brother Rev. Clarence Haugen married Sibyl Ylvisaker, a LLS student); Sibyl and Selma, daughters of Gundrud Ylvisaker, president of the North Dakota Synod (their mother Delia Davidson Ylvisaker was the second general president of the Women’s Missionary Federation). Laura Forde, daughter of Rev. Nils and Nora Otilia Erickson Forde and sister-in-law of Rev. Ove Jacob Preus, was a student and returned to teach at LLS.

Although information from one family is by no means conclusive, the patterns of higher education among the female descendants of HA. and Linka Preus who survived into young adulthood are nonetheless striking. Second Generation: 2 daughters [136]

2 privately educated

2 in-laws also privately educated

Third Generation: 12 granddaughters who were at least 15 years old when LLS closed

4 to LLS

2 in-laws also to LLS

(2 born after 1905 to Miss Wood’s School, Minneapolis, then state institutions)

Fourth Generation: 19 great-granddaughters

7 to Luther College

3 to Pacific Lutheran

2 to St. Olaf

2 to Bethany, Mankato

1 to Augustana, Sioux Falls

1 each to Mt. Holyoke, Wells, Lawrence (followed by University of Minnesota), and Minneapolis College of Art and Design

<69> Alma Engelbert to "Aunt Lena," 1905, LLS, Goodhue County Historical Society.

<70> This percentage was reached in 1908; it was as low as 5% in the late 1890s. Walsh, "The Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary," 90.

<71> Walsh, "The Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary," 51—52.

<72> 1t is generally believed that the second fire was a case of arson. For details of the argument see Walsh, "The Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary," 63—66.

<73> In a 1985 letter to the Goodhue County Historical Society Elfriede Straus Meyer relates information she received from the daughter of former LLS Board President, Pastor Knut Bjorgo, which suggests that Treasurer C. F. Hjermstad made an unauthorized investment of the insurance money. When the investment proved unsound, the resources for rebuilding were further reduced. LLS, Goodhue County Historical Society.

<74> Two points are worth noting here. First, the fires in 1919 and 1920 appear to have destroyed the records of the LLS. Consequently the largest portion of the archival collection at the Goodhue County Historical Society consists of materials donated by former students in response to the appeal made when the Alumnae Association disbanded in 1968. Second, the Association had been making gifts to Luther College prior to 1969. In the following year a letter from Irene Langlie in the Luther College alumni office indicated that the LLS scholarship fund then contained $2,763.30 and that fourteen girls had received aid. LLS, Goodhue County Historical Society.

<75> For a brief discussion of the role of normal schools in women’s higher education see Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women, 46—47.

<76> Rev. H. O. Hendrikson, In Retrospect: A History of the Lutheran Normal School (n p., 1958), 197.

<77> The Norwegian Synod founded a normal school in Sioux Falls in 1889. Perhaps synodical rivalry contributed to the United Church’s [137] decision to build so similar a school less than 150 miles away in Madison, Minnesota.

<78> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 15.

<79> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 205.

<80> Cora Martinson, "Midwest China Oral History and Archives Project." A typed transcript of tape-recorded interviews. Midwest China Oral History and Archives Collection (St. Paul, Minnesota, 1976), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Region III Archives.

<81> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 123—179.

<82> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 23.

<83> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 32—36.

<84> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 37—39.

<85> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 26.

<86> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 83—84.

<87> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 213—214.

<88> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 51.

<89> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 46.

<90> Without making too much of one documented incident, a letter from acting President A. K. Feroe to Jon Valen, May 22, 1920, should be mentioned lest the lives of these students appear all sweetness and light. Feroe delicately discusses Lillian, Valen’s daughter who had been sent home, and her "condition." Evidently she was pregnant. Since the "rascal of a human being" who was responsible was not named, there is no way to know if he was also a student. Feroe less delicately asks that the school be reimbursed for the $8.37 expended on Lillian’s behalf. Professor Feroe was acting as president because Knute Lokensgaard resigned in the midst of rumors about his "card playing and other unseemly conduct." The exact nature of his activities is unclear in the somewhat veiled correspondence which took place in June, 1920, between L. A. Vigness, executive secretary of the Board of Education of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America and both Feroe and Lokensgaard. What is clear is that high standards of moral behavior were applied by members of the LNS community. Lutheran Normal School, Madison, Minnesota, ELCA, Region III Archives.

<91> A survey of the birthdate and birthplace of the 308 teachers listed in Norlie whose last names begin with A, B, or C shows that of the 88 female teachers none were born prior to 1870, 14.7% were born prior to 1880, and 90.9% (eighty women) were born in the United States. In contrast, of the 220 male teachers 56% were born prior to 1870 and fewer than 40% were born in the United States. While women were only 28.5% of the total, they were 39.2% of those born in the United States, 60% of those born after 1880, and 66.3% born after 1880 in the U.S.A. The assertation that American-born women were providing more of the teaching in the early 1900s is based on the fact that in the decade of 1880—1890 there were thirty-three future female teachers born and thirty-four future male teachers; in the [138] following decade the number of women increased to thirty-four while the number of men decreased to fifteen. If these teachers began their careers between ages fifteen and twenty an equal number of women and men commenced teaching in the years 1895—1905 and twice as many women as men did so in the years 1905—1915. Further analysis of the sixty-five women’s training shows that twenty-four attended or graduated from the Lutheran Normal School; fourteen from St. Olaf; and twelve from the Lutheran Ladies’ Seminary. In a few cases one woman attended two of these institutions.

<92> 1n this sample of sixty-five, only twenty-one women were married. This figure is, however, misleading, as Norlies’ information was gathered in the early 1 920s; as nearly half of the women were born after 1890 they were less than thirty years old at that time. Given that none of the women had married before they were twenty-one and sixteen had been over twenty-five, it seems safe to assume that others married in subsequent years.

<93> Norlie, School Calendar, 27.

<94> Hendrikson, In Retrospect, 198.

<95> Anniversary history of Peace Lutheran Church, Ruthton, Minnesota, 82. Congregational Files, ELCA, Region III Archives.

<96> This incident is described in correspondence between Feroe and L. A. Vigness, Executive Secretary, Board of Education, Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, October, 1920. Lutheran Normal School, Madison, Minnesota, ELCA, Region III Archives.

<97> School catalogues give the following basic annual costs. Private music lessons or laboratory courses were often in addition. In early decades St. Olaf offered a family discount on tuition.

  LLS St. Olaf LNS
mid-1890s $190.00 $125.00 $108.70
1910—11 $145.50 $122.30
1919—20 $262.00 $225.00 $212.00

<98> Norlie, "Luther Ladies’ Seminary, Red Wing," in Lutheran Herald, 1:16 (1917), 260; "Getting Married," Lutheran Herald, 2: 1 (1918), 9—10, and 2: 2 (1918), 20—21.

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