By SARAH AL-ARSHANI
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)