Mary F. Haskin, Educational Pioneer

I’ve started out my internship with EWHP by getting a little bit more familiar with the collections here at the Evanston History Center, specifically the material related to women’s history. To do that, I researched and wrote a short biographical sketch of Mary F. Haskin, a pioneer in women’s education in Evanston, and added it to the research database for the Evanston Women’s History Project. Haskin was a fascinating person who had been largely missing from the EWHP’s published materials.

Mary F. Haskin was born Mary F. Geer in Oswego County, New York on April 13, 1826. She met Edwin Haskin after her family’s move to Syracuse, and the two married on January 13, 1849. Edwin’s work in the salt trade took the family to Buffalo in 1855 and on to Evanston in 1857. There they eventually opened a dry goods store, M.F. Haskin’s, at the southwest corner of Davis and Sherman Avenues. They raised six children together.

A dedicated churchwoman, Haskin became involved in the civic life of Evanston by helping to raise a large number of small donations for the construction of a dormitory building for students of religion at Northwestern University, Heck Hall. Her leadership in this project encouraged her peers, including women’s education and temperance activist Frances Willard, to willingly join her next initiative in 1869: the establishment of a college for women, led and administered by women. Willard wrote in her 1889 memoir Glimpses of Fifty Years that Haskin “believed that women should be a felt force in the higher education, not only as students, but as professors and trustees. She believed that to have men only in these positions, was to shut up one of humanity’s eyes, and that in the effort to see all around the mighty subject of education with the other, a squint had been contracted that was doing irreparable damage to the physiognomy of the body politic.”

By 1871, Haskin and her team had secured a charter for the institution, named the Evanston College for Ladies. As first president of the College’s Board of Trustees, Haskin herself broke ground on the building’s site at 711 Elgin Road. She oversaw the faculty and college president Frances Willard until 1873, when the college was absorbed into Northwestern University.

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Frances Willard’s program from commencement at the Evanston College for Ladies. (Northwestern University Library.)

One of the main difficulties of our research was trying to figure out exactly where Haskin and her husband and children lived while in Evanston. The city directories from the relevant years indicated the intersection where their dry goods store was located, but it was unclear whether or not they lived they as well, potentially in an apartment over the shop or next door. Another staff member here had found mention in an account from a former ECL student of the Haskin family living in a large Evanston mansion at some point, but we couldn’t find any photographs or confirmation in the directory; so we speculated that Edwin Haskin may have had some difficulties with his earlier business that forced the family to move into smaller accommodations and take up the dry goods business. In addition, the dry goods store was named after Mary–M.F. Haskin’s–not after her husband; could she have taken a large share in its management? The sources we have don’t say, so unfortunately it remains a mystery. Luckily her contributions to women’s education in Evanston have survived and can be corroborated, a testament to the unusually strong local collection here at the EHC.

My next project will be to delve into some research on suffrage activism in Evanston. Specifically, I’m going to focus on material from the Evanston Political Equality League, looking for documents that can be digitized and added to the Omeka archive of the “Evanston Women and the 19th” digital exhibition.

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