Violet DeLille Jayne sits on stairs with other professors at the turn of the century.Violet DeLille Jayne sits on stairs with other professors at the turn of the century.

Pioneering Powerhouse

As the first dean of the Office of Women at Illinois in 1897, Violet DeLille Jayne immediately got to work expanding, improving, and providing opportunities for female students at the university.

Written by Abigail Bobrow

In 1897, at the age of thirty, the unmarried Violet DeLille Jayne arrived at Illinois to begin her job as the first dean of the Office of Women. She acted as a feminine ambassador of sorts, representing the “gentler sex” studying at the university.

She was chosen by Illinois President Andrew Sloan Draper, who said his ideal candidate would embrace the compliant role he wanted women to play at the university, not “someone so possessed of the idea that the world has been doing women great wrongs through all the preceding centuries, that she is disposed to start issues upon controverted questions when there is no necessity for it.”

While Jayne appeared to be genteel and mild, her pursuits on behalf of the female student body were anything but. In her seven years in the role, she created a space for women to pursue similar opportunities as their male counterparts had—most notably, the formation of the women’s basketball team and its participation in intercollegiate competition.

Women basketball players with their heads on the arms posing with a basketball.
The Illinois women’s basketball team photograph appears in the 1902 Illio.

Not everyone at the time, however, was impressed. Illinois athletics icon George Huff was said to have thought basketball was only a “game fit for girls,” which, at the time, it was. Wearing billowy bloomers, the women played in the women’s gymnasium on the third floor of the Natural History Building.

Men came to watch, but it would be years before they would get the chance to play such a “girlie” sport. Nevertheless, it was a sanctioned athletic endeavor for women in the age of corsets and leg-of-mutton sleeves. Jayne’s drive to expand female students’ opportunities on campus extended to developing female student organizations to promote social responsibility among her students, such as the Watcheka League (later known as Women’s League), which was established to facilitate “united action on the part of the women students of the University.”

She also organized a special women’s issue of the Daily Illini student newspaper in 1898—the only time female students contributed to the school paper within twenty-six years—to encourage academic programs and social opportunities for women to become more independent. Jayne wasn’t alone in her advocacy. She and other like-minded women with roles analogous to hers at other universities banded together as part of “conferences of deans of women” to reexamine accepted Victorian notions of the time.

An accomplished academic in her own right, Jayne received her PhD from the University of Minnesota in in 1897. Her thesis was on feminist novelist George Eliot. Jayne left Illinois at the age of thirty-eight in 1904, around the time she married Edward Schmidt, head of the Department of Railway Engineering at Illinois. That same year they welcomed a daughter.

Today, Illinois doesn’t have a dean of women, of course. In 1943, the position, along with the dean of men, was absorbed and became part of Student Affairs. Yet, Jayne, occupying an ill-defined role with limited authority, became “possessed with the idea” that the world had been doing women great wrongs through all the preceding centuries and saw the necessity to make it better—starting at Illinois.

This story was published .