Celebrating 150 years of Yale women

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

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Aurelia Henry Reinhardt
College President

By Alex Beam ’75

In 1940, the toastmaster of the 99th Annual Unitarian Festival Dinner in Boston introduced his honored guest, the president of Mills College, Oakland. “There are two things one should see on a trip West,” he proclaimed: “the Grand Canyon and Dr. Reinhardt.”

As an ambitious woman facing the early twentieth century, Aurelia Henry Reinhardt ’05PhD had learned from an early age to navigate the world of men. For instance, as a teenager she attended San Francisco’s Boys’ High School. There was a Girls’ High School, but Boys’ High sent many more graduates to the University of California–Berkeley, where Reinhardt received her degree in 1898. After a brief spell of teaching, she enrolled in Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which had been accepting women since 1892.

Eleven years after receiving her Yale doctorate in English, Reinhardt was elected president of the small, struggling Mills College in Oakland. In the preceding decade, she had married and become a mother and then a widow. She took up her duties at Mills with two little boys in tow. “I was the first college president who arrived on the campus pushing a perambulator,” Reinhardt said.

According to her biographer George Hedley, Reinhardt tirelessly barnstormed the continent, promoting Mills and soliciting applicants for the first women’s college west of the Rockies. During Reinhardt’s 27 years as president, Mills’s enrollment tripled, and the campus expanded by 136 acres.

Described by University of Southern California professor Martha Boaz as “a big strong woman, five feet nine inches tall, 160 pounds in her middle years,” Reinhardt “never learned to drive a car. At one time the college chauffeur tried to give her lessons, but he soon saw that it was hopeless to expect her to pay attention to traffic when the world contained so much that was so much more interesting.”

Reinhardt’s interests included peace activism. She was a fervid supporter of Woodrow Wilson’s proposed League of Nations after World War I, which, perhaps inevitably, prompted sexist brickbats. After she collected 20,000 pro-League signatures that were presented to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the Oakland Free Press derided “those she-males headed by Auroria Boria Alice Reinhardt [sic]. . . . The non-producing club ladies do not represent the womanhood of California, or of any other.” A generation later, in 1945, Reinhardt was a delegate to the inaugural meeting of the newly formed United Nations.

A Republican, she opposed the New Deal and attended the 1928 Republican Convention as an elector for her friend, Herbert Hoover. She was also a devoted Unitarian Universalist, and according to a note published by the church, she “invariably took the side of those individuals who had no resources, who lacked adequate support, or who had in some other way been marginalized by society.” In California, she mobilized a campaign to pardon Charlotte Anita Whitney, a Communist Party activist convicted of “advocating the overthrow of government.” Whitney was pardoned in 1927, about seven years after her original conviction.

As one of the first US college presidents to admit French exchange students, Reinhardt was granted the Légion d’honneur. She also received honorary degrees from Berkeley, Williams, Mt. Holyoke, and others. Yale remained notable by its absence.