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Mankato State Normal School controversy, 1873

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Black and white photograph of Julia Ann Sears, c.1872.

Julia Ann Sears, c.1872.

In August 1872, Julia Sears (1839–1929) was hired to head the Mankato State Normal School. Upon taking the job, she became the first woman to hold such a position of power in a coeducational institution of higher learning in the United States. Her leadership challenged traditional gender roles at teachers’ colleges but led to controversy when the local school board replaced her with a man.

During the late nineteenth century Minnesota was quick to join the teachers’ college movement west of the Mississippi. By 1869 there were three teachers’ colleges (also called normal schools) in the state, all designed to train new instructors. Many women enrolled in these schools. They were eager to obtain careers in teaching—a profession increasingly considered to be appropriate for their gender.

Julia Sears was born in Massachusetts in 1839. She became a committed educator, studying and teaching at normal schools in New England. In 1871, the thirty-two-year-old Sears was hired to teach at the new Mankato State Normal School. There she joined many other women, both students and faculty. In 1872, the Normal School Board hired Sears to replace its first “principal,” or president, putting her in a position no other woman in the country had attained. However, her annual salary was set at a thousand dollars less than her male predecessor’s.

Sears operated the school with all the experience her years of teaching had given her. Under her care, the school was “running smoothly and making excellent advancement.” A local newspaper wrote, “We must score one for woman.” Sears ended her first term as principal with a graduation speech aimed directly at her female pupils. She pointed out the privileges that they could enjoy as professional women, stating, “Colleges open wide their doors and any place you are fitted to fill is no longer denied to you.”

The school board, however, became uncomfortable with a woman serving as principal and “there were some feelings in the Board that the position should be held by a man.” At the beginning of the 1873 school year the board acted independently and elected a man, David Clarke John, to replace Sears. Sears returned to her original role as assistant. John was hired at the standard male salary in spite of his lack of experience in teaching. Upset, Sears wrote to board president George Gage, “I do not think I have been justly treated at Mankato State Normal School when I was assured again and again by officials and non-officials of my success last year.”

When Sears went home to Massachusetts after her demotion, the board assumed that she would not return to claim her assistant position. They offered it to another man who lacked a teaching background, C.W.G. Hyde. In spite of her misgivings, however, Sears decided to accept the job after all.

Both candidates arrived at Mankato in the autumn to claim the position but the board chose Hyde, despite his inexperience. The community expressed disgust with the decision. A local editor called for Sears’ return, complaining, “The Board (which is composed entirely of men) in their masculine wisdom determined that it was for the interest of the school that a man should have the position.”

Sixty prominent Mankato residents signed a petition asking the board to retain “Miss Sears” as assistant principal. The students favored Sears overwhelmingly. In what became known as the “Sears Rebellion,” they walked out of classes in protest of her removal. Forty-one students (twenty-six women and fifteen men) refused to attend school until the board addressed their grievances. The matter was soon an object for debate in papers as far away as Minneapolis, and was seen to reflect poorly on the state as a whole.

In the end, after allowing the students three-day notices, John expelled thirty-one of them. Journalists widely attacked the “rebellion”—even those who had written in favor of Sears before. Sears left the state and never returned or spoke of her time in Minnesota. She spent the rest of her life as a mathematics professor at a college in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was active in the woman suffrage movement.

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Anderson, Debra L. “Mankato State Normal School: The Foundation Years, 1868–1880.” Master's thesis, Mankato State University, 1987.

Bernard, Jessie. Academic Women. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964.

Biographical Directory and Condensed History of the Alumni Association of the State Normal School, Mankato, Minn.: Including the Classes from 1870 to 1890; Together with a Brief History of the School, the Alumni Association, etc. Mankato, MN: Free Press Printing Company,1891.

Mankato State Normal School, 1867–1921
Archives Collection, Blue Earth County Historical Society, Mankato
Description: The “Presidents” folder contains newspaper clippings and photocopies, miscellaneous institution papers and publications.

Pengilly, Joan Forssmark. “The First Female President of a Co-educational Public Institution of Higher Learning: An Historical Examination of the Presidential Tenure of Julia Ann Sears, 1872–1873.” PhD. Diss., University of Akron, 1995.

Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Academic Women: A History of Women in Higher Education in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

MSU Archives Collection 10
State Normal School System collection, 1859–1898
University Archives and Southern Minnesota Historical Society Collections, Minnesota State University, Mankato
Description: This series contains information about the State Normal School System from 1859 through 1922. Items included range from quarterly journals to minutes of board meetings and an inventory of the board's publication.

Youel, Donald B. Mankato State College: An Interpretative Essay. Mankato, MN: Mankato State College, 1968.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Julia Ann Sears, c.1872.
Black and white photograph of Julia Ann Sears, c.1872.
Black and white photograph of Mankato State Normal School, 1871.
Black and white photograph of Mankato State Normal School, 1871.
Old Main, Mankato Normal School
Old Main, Mankato Normal School

Turning Point

On September 9, 1873, in what becomes known as the “Sears Rebellion,” students walk out of classes at Mankato State Normal School in protest of the removal of Julia Sears from her position as principal.



Mankato State Normal School is founded.


The school hires Julia Sears.


Sears becomes the school’s principal (president).

July 22, 1873

The Normal School Board demotes Sears to the position of first assistant principal and installs David Clark John in her place.

August 3, 1873

Sears writes to board president George Gage to say she will not be returning to the school.

August 6, 1873

Sears says she will likely return.

August 9, 1873

Gage informs C.W.G. Hyde he will be given the assistant principal position.

Septem-ber, 4 1873

The board passes a resolution stating that the position of first assistant belongs to Hyde.

Septem-ber 8, 1873

Mankato citizens circulate a petition criticizing the school board’s actions.

Septem-ber 9, 1873

Forty-one students walk out in support of Sears. Thirty-one are eventually expelled.

Septem-ber 23, 1873

Sears leaves Mankato.


On August 6, Minnesota State University Mankato (originally Mankato State Normal School) celebrates the opening of Julia A. Sears Residence Hall, named in Sears’ honor.