Article abstract: A leading authority on women’s higher education, an author, the first dean of women in a coeducational institution, a cofounder of the American Association of University Women, and a charter faculty member at the University of Chicago, Talbot was also a significant leader of women in sociology and home economics.
Marion Talbot was born on July 31, 1858, while her American parents were visiting Thun, Switzerland. Her father, Israel Tisdale Talbot, practiced homeopathic medicine and served as the first dean of the medical school of Boston University. Her mother, Emily Fairbanks Talbot, was a leader in the struggle for women’s higher education and women’s work in the social sciences. She was active in establishing the Girls’ Latin School in Boston, an endeavor she began partly to secure a forum for her daughter’s training. The Talbots of Boston were located at the center of the city’s intellectual and cultural life. Marion, the eldest of their six children, was always encouraged by her parents in her advocacy of women’s rights in higher education.
After Marion’s education at the Girls’ Latin School, she was admitted conditionally to Boston University, where she earned a B.A. degree in 1880. After several years of social life and travel, she wanted more than the traditional life that was open to women at that time. Probably at the urging of a family acquaintance and one of the founders of human ecology, Ellen H. Richards, Marion was encouraged to study “domestic science.” After several years of sporadic study, she completed a B.S. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1888.
In 1881-1882, Marion, her mother, Richards, and Alice Freeman Palmer, an early president of Wellesley College, cofounded the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (later renamed the American Association of University Women, AAUW). This organization spearheaded opportunities for educated women in the academy and in society. Marion was its first secretary and was its president from 1895 to 1897.
In 1890, Talbot was appointed an instructor in domestic science at Wellesley College (when Palmer was president).
In March, 1892, Alice Freeman Palmer met with W. R. Harper, president of the University of Chicago, who offered her the position of dean of the women’s colleges. Palmer wanted to keep her presidency at Wellesley and work part-time at Chicago, so she recommended Marion Talbot as her full-time assistant. With considerable anticipation mixed with fear, Talbot joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1892 as an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Shortly thereafter, she became the first full-time women’s dean in a coeducational institution.
Talbot was included within the structure, teaching, and practice of sociology at the University of Chicago as the head of “women’s work” throughout the institution. In 1895, she became an associate editor of The American Journal of Sociology, a position she held until her retirement from Chicago in 1925. Talbot critiqued “women’s work” in sociology and provided a “woman’s perspective” for the most important journal in this discipline.
Talbot wrote in two major areas: the sociology of the home and the sociology of education. Talbot’s study of the home was tied to its material reality, from its basic sanitary functioning to its aesthetic creation as an environment in which one lived. Thus, Talbot’s pioneering work in women’s education was complemented by her scholarly study of the application of science to the home.
Her study of the home was sparked by her association with Ellen H. Richards. Together, they edited Home Sanitation: A Manual for Housekeepers (1887) and wrote Food as a Factor in Student Life (1884), books that are now difficult to find and are outdated as sources of factual information. They were, however, crucial beginning steps in the study of nutrition and home economics. The Modern Household (1912), written with Talbot’s former student Sophonisba Breckinridge, is an introductory text intended to help housewives and college students adapt to modern social changes affecting the home. The book covers a variety of topics, ranging from the mundane care of the house to ethics in consumerism and the community.
Anyone interested in the turbulent, innovative founding days of the University of Chicago will find Talbot’s autobiography, More than Lore (1936), a delight to read. Talbot is forthright in her statements about discrimination against women professionals at the university. Unfortunately, this book is very hard to find and is out of...
(The entire section is 1957 words.)