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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Julia A. Sears

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The first woman to head a public college in the United States

Julia Sears (1840-1929) became principal of what was then known as Minnesota State Normal College at Mankato in 1872.

Her first address to its female graduates demonstrated her typical frankness, as she told them,

“You are stepping out into life at a time when you hear not the sound, ‘thus far in education may you go and no farther, this place you may fill, but not that’; but, instead, universities and colleges open wide their doors and bid you enter, and any place you are fitted to fill is no longer denied you.”

This quotation can be found displayed today in the Minnesota State Mankato residence community named in honor of the groundbreaking suffragette.

Many in the predominantly male administration of the college were shocked by such a controversial idea nearly 50 years before women in the U.S. were given the right to vote. Although she had significant support from the student body and the Mankato community, Sears was forced to leave the college after just one year as principal. The heated controversy resulted in the expulsion of some students and became known as the "Sears Rebellion."

After that controversial first year, Sears was offered a $1500 salary to return in the position of Assistant Principal. Sears was not pleased, but agreed to return. On July 22, 1873, her salary reduced to $1200, and the position was to go to Cornelius Hyde if she didn't return. Sears complained to the Chairman of the Board, George M. Gage, that she had been unjustly treated. After Hyde was hired, Sears proposed to return for a half year. George W. Austin, the Resident Director, telegraphed her to come.

Both Sears and Hyde arrived for the position on September 1. After one week, it was decided that Hyde should become Assistant Principal. On September 9, 41 students walked out. They were given three days to return or face expulsion. In the end, 32 were expelled. Seventy Mankato residents, including well known businessmen and professionals, signed a petition asking the board to reinstate Sears as Assistant Principal. Four months later, the decision hadn't changed. Those expelled students that remained in Mankato were celebrated as local heroes.