FEATURE — Spring 2004

  A Successful Experiment: The Conquering Spirit of Alice Belcher

by Candace O'Connor

Mary Alice Belcher was the first female student to attend the Collegiate Department at the University in 1870.

In October 1870, one of the 12 brand-new freshmen at Washington University wrote home, in time-honored fashion, to exclaim about the tough courses and wearisome homework. But this student, Alice Belcher, faced pressures that the other 11 did not. She was a pioneer—the only woman in her class and the first ever to enter the Collegiate Department (later the College of Arts & Sciences). Her performance, she knew, would determine whether other women would follow.

"When the different professors meet me in the hall and say 'We expect a great deal from you,' 'Any mistake you make will be noticed,' and Dr. Eliot observes 'You are responsible that this experiment should be successful, so study,' then I realize how hard it will be to live up to this and every recitation seems an ordeal," she wrote to her mother, adding, with a touch of annoyance but also gritty resolve: "A boy student would escape all this, enter unnoticed, and work his own plans quietly and successfully. As for me, I need to be more courageous than he—hope I may grow so in time."

Indeed she did, and her stunning achievement soon smoothed the way for a fully co-educational institution. By the end of her first academic year, Alice Belcher had chalked up an 84 average—the highest in her class. Although she left to transfer to the University of Michigan, she had taken the usual undergraduate load—Greek, Latin, English literature and composition, French, mathematics, declamation, even physics with the sophomores—and carried the day. The "Dr. Eliot" of her letter, William Greenleaf Eliot, the University's co-founder, board chairman, and newly appointed interim chancellor, must have breathed a sigh of relief.

During this year, Alice also found time to write a weekly column for the St. Louis Democrat newspaper, as a way to earn book money. "I have the honor of being the first woman employed by the Democrat, I believe," she told her mother. To fool University faculty, who might not have approved, she wrote under a pseudonym, "N.D." It stood, she wrote, "for two Greek words which have always been my motto": nikeso dynamai—translated "I will conquer; I am able."

Until her death in 1934, she continued to demonstrate the same courage and originality. While marrying and raising a family, she sang in Carnegie Hall with the Oratorio Society of New York, honed her proficiency as a pianist, and wrote articles for several popular publications. During one brief stint, Alice—by then a well-to-do matron, whose friends must have been shocked by her temerity—auditioned for parts on the New York stage.

"She was brilliant and her interests were boundless," says John H. Tweedy, her only surviving grandchild. "Even later in life, she was always acquiring information—knowledge, knowledge, knowledge—and she had an immense store that she used to help her children."

Alice's childhood

Mary Alice Belcher—she preferred simply "Alice"—was born in St. Louis in 1850, the daughter of William and Mary Belcher. Ten years earlier, William and his brother, Charles, had founded the Belcher Sugar Refinery, soon the largest in the nation. In 1859, William moved his young family to Chicago, where he continued in the sugar business. When he died in 1866, the Chicago Tribune called him one of the city's "most honored and eminent citizens," adding that he was a "gentleman of high scholarly attainments [who] possessed a fine library in which he took a peculiar delight"—perhaps a clue to Alice's academic bent.
Alice Belcher Tweedy (left) married James F. Tweedy in 1872; one of their children was James Belcher Tweedy (right), born in 1878. (Photo, circa 1890, courtesy of John H. Tweedy, Alice's grandson)

From 1867-1869, Alice attended Milwaukee College, a women's school in her mother's Wisconsin hometown where the family moved after William's death. At age 20, Alice graduated—with an education superior to that of most women at the time. But her mother urged her to go further, so Alice returned to St. Louis and took private lessons in Latin and Greek from Washington University faculty George Jackson and Sylvester Waterhouse. Just before classes started in September 1870, she decided to apply for admission.

In her diary, Alice described the Saturday morning on which she visited Eliot in the "uncomfortable study" at his home to make her formal request. Eliot "asked me many questions relative to study, purpose[,] etc., but would not commit himself to encourage my hopes. Finally I told him that unless I was admitted to the University I should go to [the University of Michigan at] Ann Arbor[,] and he said that I was t[he] first young woman who had made regular application—the board of directors would therefore act upon it. He hoped the result would be favorable, advised me to study."

On Wednesday, she received word ("at last!" she wrote). "Dr. E. said the action of t[he] Directors and Faculty had been unanimous to admit me." That Friday, she took the grueling entrance examinations—which included the translation of nearly 100 lines of Virgil and Cicero—wearing a white piqué dress "loose and comfortable." The exams lasted from 10 a.m. to 5:10 p.m. "without any intermission," but she passed easily. "Commence studies Monday," she wrote proudly.

University days

Alice was not the first member of her family to attend Washington University. Her cousin George, son of Charles Belcher, was already a senior and an outstanding student. Class president and editor of the Irving Union student newspaper, he was also valedictorian of the 1871 class, delivering an oration that "well expressed the manly feeling of sorrow at severing old ties," reported the paper. Perhaps his success fueled Alice's desire to achieve. In February 1871, she wrote in her diary that "I must be the first in my class; it is a proposition which needs no proving."

The exams lasted from 10 a.m. to 5:10 p.m. "without any intermission," but she passed easily. "Commence studies Monday," she wrote proudly.

All the while, she lived a student life surrounded by men, both faculty and students—some skeptical about, even opposed to, higher education for women—with only one part-time woman classmate, Mary Strong, to look to for support. In the absence of any dormitories, she lived first with George's family, then her aunt, Lucy Stickney, and commuted to the tiny campus, located at 17th and Washington in downtown St. Louis.

The challenge of this academic adventure apparently tantalized Alice and helped carry her through. As she had told her mother in the October letter, "It is all so odd and exciting to me that I have quite enough anecdotes now to fill a respectable book."

Her later life

Alice Belcher Tweedy (left) with her husband, James F. Tweedy, sister Katherine Belcher Wilmot, and an unidentified woman at West Point in 1887. (Photo courtesy of John H. Tweedy)

In 1871-1872, discouraged by the lack of intellectual companionship, she transferred to the University of Michigan, where she met her future husband, James F. Tweedy, a Wisconsin native and graduate student. They married in 1872, moved to New York City, and eventually had five children. While James pursued a successful career as a stockbroker, Alice busied herself with music, the D.A.R., her family. She also wrote articles for the New York Evening Post and the prestigious Popular Science Monthly, such as "Is Education Opposed to Motherhood?" and "Woman and the Ballot."

Alice's life was far from idyllic, however. While one son made a successful career as an artist and another as a judge and Connecticut state representative, her husband and only daughter died within weeks of each other in 1914-1915, and two sons suffered from debilitating mental illness. Perhaps another of her beliefs, expressed in a student essay, saw her through these crises. In this paper, "Will versus Circumstances," she proposed using strength of mind to face life's inevitable problems.

"She expressed her strength of will by forthright presentation in St. Louis and clever guile in New York, which persuaded newspapers to accept her work—and pioneered the way in journalism for publication of the written word and commentary by other women," says John Tweedy. "This is her enduring legacy."

Candace O'Connor is author of the new University history book, Beginning a Great Work: Washington University in St. Louis, 1853-2003. The book may be ordered online at www.wustl.bkstr.com or by calling (314) 935-5580.