Irma E. Voigt papers
Ohio University’s first, longest-serving, and best remembered Dean of Women, Dr. Irma E. Voigt empowered “her girls” to take charge of their studies while giving back to their communities. Her position made her the most influential woman on campus for 36 years and allowed her to mentor a growing cohort of female students through two world wars, the 1917 Flu Pandemic, Prohibition, and the Great Depression. She is most known for instituting a system of self-government among her many charges, writing and directing the university’s centennial pageant (as well as many other productions both sacred and profane), holding weekly “fireside chats” in her Park Place home, and revitalizing the university’s clubs and social traditions.
Following her retirement, Voigt and her partner Dr. Edith Wray built a new home together in Athens. There, Voigt set out write her memoirs. The intended title of this partially-realized work is unknown; in 1949 The Athens Messenger reported that Voigt was working on a book called A Dean’s Talk To Her Girls while The Columbus Dispatch relayed the title as Short Talks to Girls. Voigt’s failing health prevented her from completing the project, however, and she died having just begun the process of gathering together some thirty of her existing essays and speeches into a folder titled “These Things I Remember”—a reference to her hero Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography This I Remember.
Now online, these selected essays, as well as many photographs and other ephemera from among Voigt’s personal papers, provide privileged insight into the defining years of a modernizing university shaped by a leader of uncommon drive, vision, and insight.
Already a high school principal at age 25, by 1907 Irma Voigt had taken her teaching certificate as far as it would go. Realizing that career advancement would require advanced degrees, she began taking summer classes at the University of Illinois and eventually left her job to pursue a Ph.D. full-time. Following the acceptance of her doctoral dissertation, Voigt prevailed upon University President Edmund J. James to solicit a position for her at “some reputable college or university” as its Dean of Women. In his June 1913 letter to Ohio University President Allston Ellis, James heartily recommended Voigt—with some caveats:
She is a fine character and for some unaccountable reason—for I have never been able to see why any woman should be willing to act as dean of women—is desirous of taking up the career… I think she has had no experience in this particular work. But deans of women are very difficult to find. Most of them are very unsatisfactory, and when we can find a young woman who has the scholarship and moral character and personal qualities of a high type who is willing to undertake this work, I think we ought to help her to an opportunity… I think she is a very good person to take risks upon.
On “a hot, sultry, dusty afternoon” three months later, the newly christened “Dean Voigt” arrived in Athens to begin her life’s work.
Click on the essays below to learn more about Voigt’s early experiences at Ohio University.
“Her name Irma means strength. Her magnificent physique made this name appropriate… There was a buoyancy—a joyous lilt and a vibrancy in her low-pitched voice, and above all a sincerity which was contagious.”
Edith Wray, speaking at the 1956 dedication of Voigt Hall (via The Ohio Alumnus)
Drs. Irma Voigt and Edith Wray lived together in a loving personal and professional partnership that lasted two decades. Known as “Dean” and “Edie” to their friends, Voigt and Wray both came of age in an era characterized by a remarkable tolerance for “romantic friendships,” including the so-called Boston marriages of financially independent New Women and turn-of-the-century feminists. Letters written by the University of Chicago’s Dean of Women Marion Talbot, for example, describe a romantic relationship with her Assistant Dean Sophonisba Breckinridge throughout the 1910s which ended only when rival administrator Edith Abbott wooed Breckinridge away. Talbot, who reportedly served as Voigt’s inspiration to become a Dean of Women herself, was known for courting “such affairs” and had also, in the words of one student, “got[ten] involved with” “a girl who is now a homosexual.” The paradoxical latitude accorded these relationships stemmed from 19th-century assumptions about women’s perceived lack of sexual desire, though historical accounts demonstrate that at least some couples were lovers.
To be sure, Voigt and Wray’s relationship existed as part of a nexus of same-sex cohabitations and life partnerships among the female faculty of Ohio University during the first half of the twentieth century. For many professional women, the legal and financial penalties of marriage, as well as social expectations regarding the priorities of wives and mothers, made the prospect of relationships with men unattractive. Wray herself had taken up with fellow faculty member Genevieve Apgar soon after entering the English Department in 1926. Their Grosvenor Street home in Athens served as a frequent venue for amateur dramatics, earning it the nickname “The Hillside Theater.”
By the time Voigt and Wray moved in together in the 1930s however, the cachet of romantic friendship as a natural or admirable connection between two women had faded, replaced by growing anxieties about sexual corruption and “inverted” desires. This was the era of letter-burning, of scandalous exposés and psychiatric intervention. Wray perhaps acknowledged this scrutiny in a private letter to Voigt on the occasion of Voigt’s 20th anniversary celebration as Dean of Women. “My Dear,” she wrote,
This is just a little note to wish great joy to my “very special friend” on the night when everyone is honoring her. I’m very happy and proud that the one I love so much is given the acclaim she should have for faithful service, great human sympathy, and unselfish love and devotion to all who know her and work with her.
Even given the constraints of life in the public eye, Voigt and Wray cooperated frequently on projects undertaken under the auspices of the AAUW, YWCA, Tuesday Club, Tea Ring, Community Concerts Association, First Methodist Church, and several OU sororities. Their co-written and –produced pageant, McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers Revue, debuted in 1928 and set the stage for many theatrical collaborations to come. At the same time, Voigt and Wray made sure to give themselves time away from Athens and the pressures of the job. They owned a country home called Five Oaks and often spent summers there with Wray’s mother when class was not in session. Their extensive travel adventures included expeditions to places as distant as Panama and Penaquid Point, Maine, where they visited several times with Apgar and her new companion.
By 1949, however, Voigt– who was ten years older than Wray– had begun to slow down. On a summer trip to Alaska to celebrate Voigt’s retirement, Wray wrote in her travel diary that a doctor had come “to see Dean to give her suggestions about coming for an examination…” and had prescribed medications to get her through the journey. Worriedly, Wray noted the cause of Voigt’s “lethargy and sleepiness” as exhaustion. Over the next three years, Voigt’s health continued to fade. She and Wray moved into the new home that they had built together on Elmwood Place in 1951, where Voigt attempted to organize her memoirs. They traveled with decreasing frequency but made one last trip to Penaquid Point in 1952. A few months later, Voigt was admitted to Sheltering Arms Hospital (now O’Bleness), the first of several hospitalizations leading up to her death on May 9, 1953. Shortly before the end, Wray visited Voigt in hospital to tell her the university planned to name a new women’s dormitory in Voigt’s honor. “One of my dreams come true,” Voigt replied.
Voigt’s obituary in Ohio University’s student newspaper The Post described Wray as the former dean’s “close friend and constant companion.” She continued to live in the home they had created together for another 17 years before passing away herself in 1971. With only a few distant family members yet living, their joint estate was put up for auction and the last material vestiges of this Ohio University power couple either scattered or destroyed.
Dean Voigt’s influence and activism shaped the college experiences of tens of thousands of young women during her career at Ohio University. She consistently encouraged students to take responsibility for their own conduct by spearheading community governance initiatives, but she also wanted “her girls” to have fun. Beginning in the 1910s, Voigt led popular weekly hiking expeditions to Chauncey– even “when the thermometer stood at 10° below”– and campaigned to make campus dances open and affordable to all. Under her leadership the YWCA ramped up outreach to the poverty-stricken mining towns of Appalachian Ohio and staged critical conversations about “the inter-racial problem“– segregation. At the same time, the YWCA and larger campus community also benefited from Voigt’s love of theatrics; her yearly Pageant of the Cross during Palm Sunday services in Memorial Auditorium involved an elaborate light show, aerial rigging, and a fifty member children’s choir. She even commissioned a sunken amphitheater to be constructed in her backyard garden, ringing an imposing outdoor fireplace she called “Stonehearth.” Illuminated by electric lights and capable of seating up to 40 people, Voigt used this stage to conduct night time “Cresset initiations, fireside readings, cabinet meetings and the like,” according to The Athens Messenger.
Many of the most lasting effects of Voigt’s tenure as Dean of Women were also the most intangible, however. In addition to her official involvement with campus organizations, Voigt also provided guidance and mentorship on a drop-in basis during the frequent “fireside chats” she held at “the Irmatage”– a popular nickname for her Park Place home first coined by Edith Wray in 1935. Voigt reportedly knitted more than sixty sweaters for “her girls'” firstborn children and was, in the words of faculty member Dr. C. N. Mackinnon, always available to offer “some bit of solid common sense… or kindly advice.” Writing on the occasion of her death, Mackinnon reported in The Ohio Alumnus that
as long as any of Dean Voigt’s girls are still living the best monument will be certain memories that some of those girls will always cherish. What they are I don’t know. It may be that no one else will ever know… Whatever it was, it had an important beneficial influence on the life of some Ohio University coed.