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Who was the first woman to graduate from Rochester?

March 5, 2020
Ella Salome WilcoxenIn 1901, Ella Salome Wilcoxen became the first woman to graduate from the University of Rochester. (University of Rochester photo / Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.)

Ella Salome Wilcoxen was the University of Rochester’s first female graduate, earning a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in 1901.

Wilcoxen, who lived in Macedon, New York, was in her mid-30s when she applied to be admitted to Rochester as a senior.

According to faculty meeting minutes from September 17, 1900, a special faculty committee was formed to approve her request. Rather than examine a transcript (if she submitted one), the committee advised Wilcoxen “to present, in person, her application blank for advanced standing to the different members of the faculty and get their official endorsements.”

By September 21, when the special committee met, it appears that the necessary endorsements had been obtained, and the committee gave its approval, according to Melissa Mead, the John M. and Barbara Keil University Archivist and Rochester Collections Librarian.

Wilcoxen’s road to the University was paved by civil rights icon Susan B. Anthony, who was instrumental in gaining admission for women at the University.

A month after winning admittance for women, Anthony took a carriage ride through campus, writing later in her diary: “l thought with joy, ‘These are no longer forbidden grounds to the girls of our city. It is good to feel that the old doors swing on their hinges to admit them.’”

After graduation, Wilcoxen continued her studies, attending Illinois Wesleyan University from 1903 to 1905. By 1920, she was seeking employment as a teacher, and a letter of reference in her alumna file describes her as appearing to be “a woman of force in character.” Wilcoxen died in 1933.

Wilcoxen’s younger brother, Wilfred, preceded his sister at the University and graduated in 1899.

Read more

portrait of Melissa Mead.
Ask the Archivist

Melissa Mead, the John M. and Barbara Keil University Archivist and Rochester Collections Librarian, writes about Wilcoxen and Charles Augustus Thompson, Class of 1891, who is believed to be the University of Rochester’s first African American graduate.
painting of Susan B. Anthony
Dear, Blessed Susan B.

The story of how Susan B. Anthony won women admission to the University of Rochester.

Celebration 2020

2020 Celebration calls attention to the achievements, contributions, and influence of Rochester women, both at the University and in the greater Rochester community.



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Category: Society & Culture