A living monument to feminism’s first wave
“It is estimated that over 5,000 men pass through the doors of the Union every day. They meet around the cafeteria tables, they read together in the lounging rooms, the Pendleton Library, and swim together in the swimming pool.” In striking contrast, “the girls have a little corner of the upper hall of Barbour Gymnasium partitioned off for the League offices where only a small committee may gather at a time.”
The year was 1926, and the speaker, Mary Henderson, was advocating construction of a building for the Women’s League, the female counterpart to the all-male Michigan Union. The alumnae she was addressing scarcely needed to be reminded of the unequal status of women at the university. In 1870, U-M placed itself in the forefront of American colleges by admitting women. Since then, however, it had fallen behind the rapid gains women were making in society at large.
In 1919, after a fifty-year battle by America’s first generation of feminists, Congress approved a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote and sent it to the states for ratification. Yet even as they took a giant step toward equality on the national scene, women remained second-class citizens at the U-M. The only facilities for female students were two dorms (Martha Cook and Helen Newberry) and a few sororities. Most women lived scattered around town with families or in rooming houses, “where they have no opportunity to come into contact with the more refining and more highly cultural influences,” in the words of another League proponent.
So in 1919, the Women’s League started seriously discussing building a place of their own. In 1921 they asked the Alumnae Council (of which Mary Henderson was secretary) to support the effort. The council, in turn, petitioned the regents.
The regents approved the concept and offered to provide the land, but required that all other costs be covered by donations. The goal was $1 million—$600,000 for construction, $150,000 for furnishings, and $250,000 for an endowment to support the building’s operation.
The women raised money in many small ways. Students made flapper beads out of lamp pulls, hemmed handkerchiefs, and even shined shoes (a fund-raiser christened “She Stoops to Conquer”). Some double-bunked so that they could rent their rooms out on football weekends. Students and alumnae alike sold all sorts of small items, including “freshies” (thin leaves of paper in booklet form with films of face powder between the pages), pineapple-cloth linens from Hawaii, and League playing cards. Paul Robeson gave a benefit performance of Porgy (the play that Gershwin’s opera was based on) in Detroit, and Clara Clemens, daughter of Mark Twain, toured major Michigan cities performing Joan of Arc.
But the big money was raised by Mary Henderson, a U-M grad and the wife of the director of university extension. In a reminiscence for the League’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Mary Frances Gross characterized Henderson as “determined and ruthless in getting what she wanted.” Henderson traveled all over to talk to alumnae groups and potential donors, somehow convincing the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce to underwrite expenses. “Whenever she heard of a possible donor, or one who could afford to give, she always had a contact, and off she would go. And she always came back with a contribution,” recalled Gross.
“Toward the end of the campaign, after consulting with the architects, she [Henderson] was in her office and still trying to think of someone to contact for a large donation so that a theater could be included in the plans and building,” Gross recounted. “All of a sudden she thought of Gordon Mendelssohn of Detroit. He was wealthy and had a real interest in the theater. She immediately phoned Detroit but learned that he was in Europe. Securing his address there, she composed an obviously successful cablegram and sent it to him. In a few days she had her answer by cable. He would give $50,000 if the theater would always bear his mother’s name.” And so the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater was born.
By 1927 the women had gathered $1 million in gifts and pledges. Eliza Mosher, first dean of women, turned the first shovelful of dirt at the ground-breaking on June 18, 1927. The cornerstone, filled with items the women had sold as fund-raisers, was laid on March 29, 1928.
The League was designed by Allen and Irving Pond, the same Ann Arbor–born architects who had designed the Michigan Union. Compared with the Union, “the woman’s building will be more gracious and more feminine in its atmosphere, but the underlying strength will be there,” Allen Pond wrote. “The day of the purely charming young lady is past.” The Ponds also designed many of the building’s decorative touches, including the statues above the front entrance (female figures identified as Character and Friendship), the stained glass windows, and the murals. Allen Pond, sadly, never lived to see his creation completed. The building was dedicated on June 14, 1929, two months after his death.
Henderson ran the League for its first year on behalf of the Alumnae Council. But with the arrival of the Great Depression, even she had trouble getting pledges redeemed. Though the cost of the building and furnishings was in hand, the promised endowment was never collected. Left without operating funds, the alumnae had no choice but to give the building to the university in 1930.
Under Dr. Ethel McCormick, the U-M’s social director of women, the League nonetheless became exactly what its founders had wanted: the center of women’s activities on campus. Mary Marsh Matthews, who attended the university in the 1950s, remembers McCormick as “a small person, energetic, funny, fierce, but lovable. She made the League part of our lives.” The building hosted orientations, teas, dances, meetings, and recreational classes (such as bridge and ballroom dancing), but the real bonding activity was the annual play put on by each class: Frosh Weekend, Soph Cab (for cabaret), the Junior Girls’ Play, and Senior Night.
The school year ended with the Drama Season, which always followed the musical May Festival and attracted the same caliber of discerning audience from far beyond Ann Arbor. The Drama Season ran from 1929 to the late 1950s; Ted Heusel, who directed the series in its later years, recalls Grace Kelly appearing in Ring around the Moon, Charlton Heston in Macbeth, and E.G. Marshall in The Crucible.
Drama Season actors stayed at the League’s third-floor hotel, as did many musical performers appearing at nearby Hill Auditorium. Aileen Mengel-Schulze, who worked in the League while a student in the late 1940s, recalls seeing Danny Kaye, Skitch Henderson, and Eugene Ormandy. Another alumna remembers sitting in the lounge and hearing some wonderful piano music in an adjoining room. The pianist turned out to be Van Cliburn.
In 1954 the Union signaled a new age by letting women enter the building--though at first only through a side door. By 1965 both buildings were fully integrated. To eliminate needless duplication, the governing bodies of the Union and the League were merged to create the University Activities Center, today part of the Office of Student Affairs under vice-president Maureen Hartford.
In 1997, the Friends of the League was organized to increase student and community appreciation and use of the historic building. They’re researching the League’s history, restoring the enclosed garden on the building’s east side, and offering monthly docent-led tours of the building. Call 647–7463 for more information.