Not Forgotten UConn: Midred French paved way for UConn women

July 16, 2019
Spe­cial to the Chron­i­cle

STORRS — Mil­dred French was a pio­neer for females at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut in the era between the two world wars.

An inde­pen­dent woman who stud­ied at five dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions of high­er edu­ca­tion, she earned both under­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate degrees at a time when few women even dreamed of high­er education.

She advo­cat­ed for a spa­cious and well-equipped School of Home Eco­nom­ics on cam­pus, yet she also under­stood soci­etal expec­ta­tions for women of her time.

French was the Dean of Home Eco­nom­ics, a field that includ­ed teacher train­ing as well as domes­tic sci­ences, and Dean of Women between 1928 and 1942.

She once wor­ried that allow­ing a mar­ried female stu­dent to live in under­grad­u­ate hous­ing might moral­ly cor­rupt unmar­ried female stu­dents. French also pro­hib­it­ed female stu­dents from hitch­hik­ing and pub­lic sun­bathing. She served the uni­ver­si­ty in an era marked by rapid expan­sion of the cam­pus and an increased enroll­ment of women.

French joined UConn, then called Con­necti­cut Agricul-tur­al Col­lege, as the Dean of Home Eco­nom­ics in 1928, when total cam­pus enroll­ment stood at just more than 500, of which about 160 were female.

By 1942 she became the first full-time Dean of Wo-men, one of only a hand­ful of women on cam­pus in lead­er­ship positions.

French was born in La Grande, Ore., Dec. 6, 1891. After grad­u­at­ing from high school in Boise, Ida­ho, she attend­ed Pratt Insti­tute in New York, a school orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to open up high­er edu­ca­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties for those who oth­er­wise would not have them.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ida­ho in 1919 and a master’s degree from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in 1925.

French worked as an instruc­tor at four uni­ver­si­ties before com­ing to Storrs.

While the study of home eco­nom­ics today is thought of as focus­ing on cook­ing and sewing, at that time it encom­passed teacher train­ing and also edu­cat­ed women in areas such as san­i­ta­tion and health.

Women study­ing home eco­nom­ics often were a part of the era’s pro­gres­sive move­ment, which sought solu­tions to prob­lems such as sub­stan­dard hous­ing, urban over­crowd­ing, pover­ty and poor pub­lic health.

French had fre­quent cor­re­spon­dence about female stu­dent behav­ior with Charles McCrack­en, uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dent from 1930 to 1935.

After her retire­ment from UConn, French spent a year in Cairo, Egypt, where she con­sult­ed on home eco­nom­ics under the aus­pices of the Ford Foun­da­tion and worked at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cairo’s Amer­i­can Col­lege for Girls.

She spent her final years in the Pacif­ic North­west and died at a Spokane, Wash., nurs­ing home on June 2, 1980.

Editor’s note: The writer is a Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut jour­nal­ism student.

Top pho­to: Mil­dred French, shown here from the 1938 Nut­meg Year­book, taught the fresh­men ori­en­ta­tion class­es in the 1930s. She became Dean of Women at UConn. (Pho­to cour­tesy of UConn Today)