Determination — undeterred

Ada Comstock, 1940
Ada Comstock worked tirelessly throughout her career to enhance opportunities for women in higher education. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

No one could have guessed that a leader in women’s education would come from Moorhead, Minn., when the city was first founded in 1871.

But Moorhead’s own Ada Comstock, throughout her lifetime, left her mark on many institutions, including the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Harvard.

Comstock was born Dec. 11, 1876, in Moorhead to Solomon and Sarah Comstock, a lawyer and former schoolteacher, who both valued education.

Comstock’s mother taught her at home until she was 8, attempting to make her self-professed tomboy daughter into a proper Victorian lady. When Comstock entered school, she quickly stood out, skipping grades until she graduated Moorhead High School at age 15 in 1892.

With her father’s encouragement, she entered the University of Minnesota’s College of Science, Literature and the Arts.

Ada Comstock (far left) with her father, Solomon, her mother, Sarah, her sister, Jessie and her brother, George. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Quite a college career

Women were a fairly small presence on campus. In 1893, 208 men and 42 women graduated. Female students often weren’t taken seriously. In 1940, Comstock recalled of her early college days: “The effort of women for higher education was still regarded as more or less a humorous thing.”

But even as a young college student, Comstock was determined to have the education she wanted. In a letter to her father, she wrote, “The Registrar objected to my taking both French and German, but I went to President Northrop and had it fixed.”

After two years, Comstock transferred to the all-female Smith College in Northhampton, Mass. She was elected Phi Beta Kappa and graduated in 1897. Comstock returned to Moorhead to earn a teaching certificate, and then she went on to complete a master’s degree at Columbia University in English, history and education. Only about 300 U.S. women earned master’s degrees in 1899–1900, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Working life

For her first job, Comstock became an assistant in the department of rhetoric and oratory at the University of Minnesota. In addition to her teaching, she focused on helping female students. Campus space exclusively for the university’s hundreds of women was limited to a single lounge in Old Main, which burned down in 1904.

After the fire, Comstock lobbied the university president to build a women’s center instead of a chemistry building. Her efforts succeeded, and Shevlin Hall was built. It offered an entire building for women to study, eat and socialize.

Comstock’s role as an advocate for female students was formalized in 1907 when she was named the University of Minnesota’s first Dean of Women.

She oversaw the creation of the first women’s residence hall — the majority of female students lived in off-campus boarding houses — and worked on women’s scholarships. She even took on the editor of a Minneapolis newspaper, asking that the paper stop writing about University of Minnesota women in a joking way.

Even when the editor laughed at her, her determination to advocate for women did not falter.

Ada Comstock in academic robes, 1920. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Keeping at it

In 1912, Comstock returned to Smith College to become its first dean. Like at the University of Minnesota, she evaluated student housing and worked to increase the number of scholarships. She also urged students to respect themselves and be aware of the opportunities they could have outside of marriage and motherhood.

For about six months in 1917, Comstock served as acting president of Smith. However, the college’s trustees refused to officially give her the acting president title because of her gender.

In her defense, incoming president William A. Neilson declared, “In a different world, Miss Comstock would have sat on the Supreme Bench of the United States.”

In 1923, Radcliffe College, an all-women’s college in Cambridge, Mass., offered Comstock the role of the school’s first full-time president.

There she launched a nationwide admission program and raised Radcliffe’s reputation nationally.

She also managed the school’s often-rocky relationship with Harvard, then an all-male institution. From Radcliffe’s beginning,

Harvard faculty repeated their classes for Radcliffe students. But by the 1930s, Harvard’s president was considering severing the relationship, feeling it drained Harvard’s resources.

Under Comstock, the two schools reached an agreement in 1943 where Harvard officially took full responsibility for educating Radcliffe women, who were finally allowed in Harvard classrooms.

Fifty years later, in 1999, the two schools officially merged.

The Comstock House in Moorhead, Minn., where Ada spent most of her childhood and adolescence. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Married life

After this achievement, Comstock retired and surprised many people when, at 67, she married Wallace Notestein, professor emeritus of history at Yale. They’d known each other since their time as University of Minnesota instructors, and Comstock had even turned down a marriage proposal from Notestein in 1910.

They lived in New Haven and traveled extensively. Comstock stayed involved in education, including serving on Smith’s board of trustees and working on a graduate center at Radcliffe. She died of congestive heart failure at age 97 in 1973.

Over her life, Comstock received 14 honorary degrees and three college dorms were named after her. Smith College has a scholarship program for nontraditional students in her honor, and the University of Minnesota honors female faculty every year with the Ada Comstock Distinguished Women Scholars Award.

Visitors can explore Ada Comstock’s childhood home in Moorhead and learn more about her life and family at the Comstock House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the Minnesota Historical Society’s historic sites.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.