UC Berkeley Trailblazers: Recognizing Cal’s First Women Scholars, 1870–1900

Heather R. Johnson

As you swim laps in one of the campus pools or get checked out at the Tang Center, thank Cal’s first female graduates.

The women graduates from Cal’s first 30 years defied assumptions of inferiority and fragility. They earned Ph.D.s and professorships in science, math and economics. They also fought for and raised funds for services vital to campus life, including the first infirmary, women’s gymnasium, women’s housing and student loans.

“They went against the grain of common thought that it would be wasteful for women to go to school,” says Maria Protti ’79, longtime board member and former programs, events and prizes chair for the Prytanean Women’s Honor Society.

Senior Class Pilgrimage, 1903

“The average freshman, walking to campus for the first time, may not know that most things that surround them were thought of, and influenced, by women. The university is like a living organism, and through the years, women have tinkered with it to make it better.”

Despite societal belief that education would interfere with women’s roles as wives and mothers, UC Berkeley began admitting women in 1870, only two years after it opened. The university also allowed women to take any class they chose; which, at the time, included agricultural, mining and mechanical arts programs. The Register of the University of 1870 said, under its terms of admission, “Young ladies are admitted into the University on equal terms, in all respects with young men.”1

During that first year, 17 women enrolled—five more than the entire 1873 charter class. Four years later, president Daniel Coit Gilman remarked the university had more women who ranked high in scholarship than men.2 By 1900, women comprised 60 percent of the student body—at a time when most U.S. colleges and universities either excluded women or enforced quotas to keep the numbers low.3

Cal’s first women graduates paved the way for female scholars, professionals and leaders to come. Here, we take a look at a few of UC Berkeley’s inaugural women graduates.

Rosa L. ScrivnerRosa L. Scrivner

Rosa Scrivner earns recognition as the first woman to receive a degree from UC Berkeley, earning a Ph.B. in agriculture in 1874. Not much is known about Ms. Scrivner (later Mrs. Robinson)’s post-graduate career. According to the Sacramento Daily Union, December 1886, Scrivner received a Life Diploma that year, which is a permanent form of teacher certification.

Milicent Washburn ShinnMilicent Washburn Shinn (1858–1940)

Milicent Washburn Shinn earned a Ph.D.—the first woman at Cal to do so—in education in 1898. Shinn earned her undergraduate degree in 1880, also from Cal.

Shinn, a native of what’s now known as Niles, California, made a mark in two divergent fields: publishing and early childhood development. Two years after earning her undergrad degree, Shinn took a job as editor of Overland Monthly, a literary magazine founded in 1868 by Bavarian bookseller Anton Roman.

By the time Shinn came on board, in 1882, the publication was close to folding. Shinn worked for free because she felt California needed a literary magazine. The magazine stayed in publication until 1935.4, 5

Although Shinn showed promise as an editor, a personal project brought her the most notoriety. While living on the family farm, Shinn started keeping detailed records of her infant niece, Ruth. Possibly to keep her writing and reporting skills sharp, Shinn wrote in detail about Ruth’s development: her growth, reflexes and language.

Shinn compiled more than three years of data on Ruth. Although she did so with no professional intention, child psychologists considered her work groundbreaking. Shinn received an invitation to speak at the World’s Columbian Exposition (a world’s fair) in Chicago in 1893. The presentation led to multiple invitations for graduate study. She chose to stay close to home, pursuing her Ph.D. at Cal.

Shinn published her dissertation, Notes on the Development of a Child, in three installments between 1893 and 1899. The publication became foundational text for developmental psychology classes across the United States.

Jessica Blanche PiexottoJessica Blanche Piexotto (1864–1941)

Piexotto followed closely behind Shinn as the second woman to earn a Ph.D. from Cal, in political science. She also became the university’s first female professor.

A native New Yorker, Piexotto moved with her parents and three younger brothers to San Francisco in 1870. Piexotto graduated from Girls’ High School in 1880, but studied at home for ten years before entering college6.

With her parents’ disapproval, the young Piexotto enrolled in Cal in 1891. Academic life presumably suited her, as she continued at Cal to pursue graduate degrees in economics and political science. She lived at Cloyne Court.

Piexotto received her Ph.D. in 1900. Thomas Y. Crowell & Company published her thesis, French Revolution and Modern French Socialism, in 1901.

In 1904, Piexotto joined the UC Berkeley faculty as a sociology lecturer. Four years later, she moved to the economics department, where she taught until her retirement in 1935.

In 1918, Cal appointed Piexotto full professor of social economics, making her both the first woman professor and first department head. During this time, she served as vice president of the American Economic Association and on the California State Board of Charities and Correction. She also established the curriculum later used in the School of Social Welfare7.

Prior to her professorship, During World War I, Piexotto served as executive chairperson of the child welfare department of the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. President Woodrow Wilson established the organization to coordinate the domestic war effort. It was the first governmental organization composed of, and focused on, women8.

Piexotto published several books, essays and articles during her UC Berkeley tenure. Both Mills College and Berkeley presented Piexotto with honorary law doctorates in recognition of her professional achievements.

The Prytanean Society logoAnges FrisiusAdele LewisAgnes Frisius and Adele Lewis

Many of the services and facilities available at Cal today evolved from the hard work of Agnes Frisius (1901) and Adele Gerard Lewis (1902).

The dynamic duo successfully fought for the first women’s gymnasium, a university infirmary (which later became Cowell Memorial Hospital and evolved into the Tang Center), women’s housing and student loans. They achieved most of this work under the Prytanean Society, the oldest collegiate women’s honorary society in the US, which they founded in 1901.

Derived from the Greek word Prytanes, which means, generally, a representative, the Prytanean Society brought together leaders from all disciplines. Frisius and Lewis wanted to establish a respected women’s organization that worked for the greater good of the university.

In its first year, the Prytanean Society raised $5,000—the equivalent of about $138,000 today—to establish a student infirmary. And they did it without the help of banks or investors.

“They sold sandwiches on campus to fund the infirmary,” says Protti. “They also held annual Greek pageants, which brought in about $1,500 a year. They funded a lot of services with the money they raised.”

During Frisius and Lewis’s college years, and prior, women lived cramped in small attics and basements near campus. Only men had dormitories. The Prytaneans pushed for housing, but instead of dorms, they worked to convert nearby houses into university-supported co-ops.

Influenced by Frisius and Lewis’s early work, in 1937 Prytanean Society established Ritter Hall, a women’s co-operative dorm named in honor of pioneering physician Mary Ritter. Frisius and Lewis also played instrumental roles in establishing women’s physical education programs, sports teams and a dedicated gym, which later evolved into Hearst Gymnasium.

Figure 3 from <i>Constructive theory of the unicursal plane quartic by synthetic methods</i>Annie Dale Biddle Andrews (1885–1940)

Annie Dale Biddle showed by example women could excel in math. As the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics at Cal, in 1911, Biddle wrote her dissertation on “Constructive theory of the unicursal plane quartic by synthetic methods” under the joint supervision of Derrick Lehmer and Mellen Haskell. University of California Press published the work in 1912.

After a short stint teaching mathematics at University of Washington, the newly married Biddle Andrews returned to Cal to teach between 1915 and 1932. In 1933 she presented her research, “the space quartic of the second kind by synthetic,” at an American Mathematical Society meeting in Palo Alto, California. The organization later published her work in its journal.

Cal’s first women graduates showed women across the west that they too had the intellect and ability to pursue college and a career. With none of today’s advantages, they achieved the highest levels of learning. They pursued advanced degrees not only for knowledge’s sake, but to educate future generations.

“If more students knew what these women went through, in addition to just plain learning, they would not be deterred from accomplishing their goals,” says Protti. “They looked for opportunities and created their own.”



Hi there- Great article! I’m a 3rd generation UCB graduate. My Great Aunt Irma Crane, was apparently one of the first doctors to graduate from Cal. I’d sure like to confirm that! I have asked many times and even sent a check to get a copy of her diploma, her brother Frank Crane’s diploma, as well as my Grandpa’s (Lawrence E. Hope-pharmacology) and after many calls, I gave up. It would be super to get some assistance with recovering this valuable family history! I take great pride in being a Cal grad!
This is a great article and sorry I missed it earlier. Annie Dale Biddle Andrews—taught at Berkeley from 1915-1932. What was her title? Was she a professor or a lecturer? Please reply.. Sheila Humphreys, Emerita Diversity Director, EECS, 510-325-3905 or email
Hello Jennifer, My name is Hunter Schiff, and I work at UC Berkeley. I read the article above, and then your comment below and I found it very inspiring! Family history is very important to me as well, so I understand your motivations to obtain your family history! I know you tried mailing in a request and check, but you did not have any luck, and I am working on finding a way to get diplomas. I found a pathway to get transcripts, but I know that is not what you are looking for. The link for the site is below: https://registrar.berkeley.edu/academic-records/transcripts-diplomas If family members are living, they must order the transcript for themselves using TranscriptsPlus. If the family member is deceased, you may order the transcript by including a death certificate or obituary along with the order. Please write a letter and include the following: Name Birth date, Dates of attendance Field of study (if known) Please mail the letter to Transcripts, Office of the Registrar, 128 Sproul Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-5404. The transcripts will be sent via first-class mail and typically take seven to ten days to arrive. There is no fee for this service.
Hello Hunter- Thank you so much for contacting me!!!! Unfortunately, I don’t have death certificates nor obituaries for these relatives. 2 of them were deceased well before I was born! I can prove that I’m related to Lawrence Edgar Hope via the Cal Yearbook, as well as my mother’s diploma in my possession (1954 grad, same last name Hope, English BA) but that’s all I have. Getting his diploma is the most important. Any suggestions? Would obtaining their transcripts be helpful as proof? Thanks very much! Jennifer
Hello Jennifer Meighan, I reached out to Maggie Brydolf Jacobs in records and admissions, and she said you can contact her and she will help you! I hope she can help you with tracking down the diplomas and maybe the transcripts. Her email address is: brydolf6@berkeley.edu I am happy to help an alumna! May I ask what you majored in?
Please let me know how the situation works out!?
Hi there- Thanks so much! Wonderful! I finished my senior year and graduated in 2014 (at 50 years old!) with an English degree. I’ll definitely let you know what happens. Once again, thank you SO much!!!!! My niece is very focused on going to Cal (fourth generation), so who knows, maybe having all of our family diplomas will also be a treasure for her. Jennifer
I’m interested in the names of the four women graduating as undergrads, from Cal in 1880. I’ve been working on a profile of Edith Briggs (Moses) and would like the names of the three other women. From your history Milicent Shinn appears to be one of her class mates. Thanks
Cal grad here. It would be more responsible and accurate to clarify that these were the first white women scholars of Cal and that it was one of the first universities to admit white women. To write about these events of increasing inclusion in admittance as if all women were admitted equally is not responsible and not accurate.
My daughter and I are going through letters written to Milicent Shinn by her mother, Lucy, before, during, and after the time that Milicent attended the University. We are enjoying the parallels of mother/daughter communications so many years apart - all the care and loving and details of studies, clothing, boarding, professors, and reports of the family. The Shinn House is at the center of Shinn Park in Fremont (once Niles) where Milicent grew up. The letters came from a Shinn family member and were transcribed by the great-grandaughter of Milcent’s brother, Charles Howard Shinn. This was a pandemic project for all of us. We love the parallels as Cal grads, too. I graduated from Cal in 1975 with a BA in biology and my daughter graduated in 2017 with an MSW. I came your interesting article when looking for Jessica Peixotto whose brother, Ernest, was mentioned in a letter. We wondered if Milicent and Jessica knew each other.

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