by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, January 31, 2010)
In 1910, when Antoinette Bigelow first arrived at the University of Colorado in Boulder to accept the job of dean of women, she wasn’t sure what she had been hired to do. So, she asked CU President James Baker for some direction. He looked her over from head to toe, paused for a few moments, and finally told her that the job was whatever she made of it.
The position of dean of women had been created by the regents in 1901. Previous deans, however, had acted like chaperones—unlike Bigelow who developed a rapport with the coeds and, in return, earned their love and respect.
Bigelow had graduated from Wellesley College and taught in private schools in New York and Boston before earning a master’s degree in English Literature at Columbia University. Failing health, however, influenced her move to Colo.
The single middle-aged-mother-figure was in her early 40s when she began her tenure at CU. For the next few years, she lived with the women students in one of two cottages, at the time the only female dormitory facilities on campus. The rooms were few, and the students (and their dean) had to cook their own meals.
Like a friendly aunt, Bigelow encouraged off-campus women students to bring their lunches—and their joys and concerns—to the cottage, where she provided a blazing fire, a pot of tea, and rapt attention.
During the following years, Bigelow taught English literature, continued as dean of women, and lobbied hard for new student housing, particularly for freshmen women. In 1928, she retired as dean, but she stayed on as an associate professor.
In 1933, her wish for new housing for women finally was underway. The regents had accepted a loan of $550,000 from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The dormitory, named Sewall Hall, honored CU’s first president, Joseph Sewall, and was completed by the fall of 1934.
All incoming freshman women were required to live in Sewall Hall. The building was designed in the shape of an “H,” with four distinct residence units. Bigelow Hall was the southwestern portion of the complex.
Bigelow died in 1939, at the age of 71. The pastor of Boulder’s Congregational Church held a gravesite service in Gold Hill where the former dean had a summer home. Her ashes were buried under wild flowers in an aspen grove in the town’s small mountain cemetery. A flat engraved stone still marks the spot today.
Three more deans of women oversaw the university women’s needs in the years to come, ending with Pauline Parish who served in the 1960s. Afterwards, the former dean of women’s position was combined with that of the former dean of men into the dean of students. Reflecting changes in society, the university no longer parented its students, and both women and men were encouraged to learn to live on their own.
During her time, Bigelow filled a need in the lives of women students. Besides protecting them, she empowered them. Maybe that’s what President Baker had in mind all along.
(Silvia Pettem was a resident of Bigelow Hall during the 1965-1966 school year.)