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MSU honors women’s history through West Circle namesakes

March 26, 2024
<p>Landon Hall, part of Women of West Circle, named after the first female instructor at Michigan State University pictured on March 15, 2024.</p>

Landon Hall, part of Women of West Circle, named after the first female instructor at Michigan State University pictured on March 15, 2024.

Photo by Zari Dixson | The State News

The residence halls of West Circle Drive are easily distinguishable by their collegiate style architecture and traditional structure. These buildings are some of the oldest and most historic dorms on Michigan State’s campus. However, a deeper history lies within their namesakes. 

The West Circle residence halls are named after six women who were influential during the early days of the university: Louise H. Campbell, Maude Gilchrist, Linda Landon, Mary Mayo, Sarah Langdon Williams and Elida Yakeley. Originally the sole all-female residence halls on campus, these buildings play an important role in honoring women’s history at MSU.

The late 19th century brought about an extension of higher public education to include women, said associate history professor Emily Conroy-Krutz, and MSU was among the first to welcome them. 

“One of the things that's special about schools like MSU is that they opened their doors to women quite early, and that's an important thing to celebrate,” Conroy-Krutz said.

Director of MSU arts and cultural partnerships C. Kurt Dewhurst agrees. Dewhurst co-authored "MSU Campus–Buildings, Places, Spaces" and said he was happily surprised by his research to find that in the early days of the university, there was a dramatic presence of women. 

“It's something I think we can all take pride in at a period of time when today we’re giving serious thought to gender equity, gender inequalities,” Dewhurst said. “It was interesting to see, maybe in the educational arena, that there was at least an awareness and a value in the contributions of women at Michigan State at a very early part of our time as a university.”

Conroy-Krutz said these educational opportunities greatly benefitted not just women at the time, but for generations to come.

“Women who are able to attend schools like this are going to be able to form obviously lifelong friendships, but also get involved in social movements and professional organizations,” Conroy-Krutz said. “They’ll be able to have many more opportunities going forward and oftentimes work to advance opportunities for other women to follow.”

The six women for which the West Circle dorms were named were among the champions of women’s suffrage, access to higher education, and legacies in Michigan State’s history.

Louise H. Campbell

Louise H. Campbell was an advocate for the education of rural women at the university. She coordinated the first Farm Women’s Week in 1928 and was the head of the home economics extension in the 1920s. During this time, she re-organized the current curriculum and pushed for the establishment of a graduate and research department.

She also introduced the annual Homemaker’s Conference, which brought over a thousand women to campus each year for a week of cultural and technical education.

Louise Campbell Portrait.jpeg
Undated portrait of Louise H. Campbell. Picture courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

Maude Gilchrist

Maude Gilchrist was named the dean of the women’s department in 1901 and later became the first dean of home economics, a position she served in until 1913. She was adamant on re-vitalizing the current women’s course at the university, “insisting that music, art, and literature were as essential as domestic science in the training of a homemaker,” according to documents from the MSU archives.

Maude Gilchrist Portrait.jpeg
Undated portrait of Maude Gilchrist. Picture courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

Linda Landon

Linda Landon was the university’s first ever female instructor, teaching English composition. She also worked as the head librarian from 1891 to 1932. Following her 41-year career, she was honored with a life membership in the Alumni Association

Landon was described as exceedingly kind and helpful to everyone she met. Former President Frank Kedzie said, “she gave sympathy and friendship to all who came to seek them, and no person connected with the college has any more friends than she, or is more deeply respected and loved.”

The 1912 yearbook was dedicated in Landon’s honor for “tutoring the thousands of students in the art of appreciating, loving and valuing these true friends in life–books.”

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Linda Landon Portrait.jpeg
Undated portrait of Linda Landon. Picture courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

Mary Mayo

Mary Mayo was the main force behind the establishment of domestic science classes for women at the university. She also pushed for the funding of a women’s building on campus — a request that was filled in 1900 when Morrill Hall became the first women’s building.

Known to many as “Mother Mayo” because of her caring demeanor, she helped others while chairperson of the women’s work committee for a chapter of The Grange. Among their many purposes, looking after the sick and advancing education were most important to Mayo.

Shortly before her death in 1903, Mayo wrote, “I love everybody so much. I have wanted to help people to be kinder, truer, sweeter. And there is so much to do.”

Mary Mayo Portrait.jpeg
A photograph of a painting of Mary Mayo, circa 1865. Picture courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

Sarah Langdon Williams

Sarah Langdon Williams was a passionate advocate for women's suffrage. Williams was the founder and editor of “Ballot Box,” the official publication of the women’s suffrage movement. She and her husband Joseph Rickelson Williams, MSU’s first president, were both activists for civic and social reform as well. 

Known for her commitment to helping oppressed individuals, Williams also served as a nurse on the front lines of the Civil War for many years.

Sarah Williams Portrait.jpeg
Undated portrait of Sarah Langdon Williams. Picture courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

Elida Yakeley

Elida Yakeley worked as the university’s first registrar. During her career, Yakeley “conceived the idea of registering students and grades by machine” and helped modernize the student enrollment process. She’s described as knowing “personally nearly every student she registered in her 30 years service in that post,” according to documents from the archives.

In 1939, she was named an associate in historical research for “collecting and classifying material pertinent to the history of the university.” To this day, Yakeley Hall remains the only all-female dorm on campus.

Elida Yakeley Portrait.jpeg
Portrait of Elida Yakeley, circa 1908. Picture courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

Their legacy today

Criminal justice and psychology sophomore Lauren Keith has lived in the West Circle dorms the past two years. Having spent her first year on campus in Yakeley Hall, Keith said she grew to love her dorm.

“There weren't a lot of expectations because it was all girls. We weren't really trying to impress anyone,” Keith said. “And so I think that was a really sweet and sort of endearing kind of element that arose from that because it really made me appreciate my female friendships.”

Keith said she wasn’t aware of the building’s storied past and wishes the history was more prevalent to students.

“I think it's cool to learn that there was a purpose for all of these different names that you really don't think twice about in your daily life, but they are really meaningful,” Keith said. “I feel like that should definitely be more a part of MSU culture and student engagement because I think it's really interesting.”

Learning and valuing the university’s history is something Dewhurst is especially passionate about.

“I also think that we as a community don't value our history as much as we should,” Dewhurst said. “It would only increase our appreciation of what it means to spend the time that we're spending in East Lansing on this campus. It's a place that has a deep history that I think we should celebrate more.”

Conroy-Krutz said that remembering and honoring the early female contributions is essential to fully understanding history.

“You can’t really know history without understanding the place of women,” Conroy-Krutz said. “It's not just sort of adding women to the story, but understanding that women are at the heart of it.”

womenofwcircle_03152024_1.jpg
The street sign of West Circle Drive where dorms are named after impactful Michigan State University women taken on March 15, 2024.

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