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date: 17 November 2019

Gulliver, Julia Henriettafree

(30 July 1856–26 July 1940)
  • Lucy Forsyth Townsend

Gulliver, Julia Henrietta (30 July 1856–26 July 1940), college president and philosopher, was born in Norwich, Connecticut, to the Reverend John Putnam Gulliver, college president and theological seminary professor, and Frances Woodbury Curtis. The family moved several times during her childhood because of changes in her father’s employment. In 1865 he left his Norwich pastorate for another in Chicago; in 1868 he moved to Galesburg, Illinois, to serve as president of Knox College for four years and then to Binghamton, New York, where he held a Presbyterian pastorate.

Julia Gulliver entered the first class of Smith College and graduated with an A.B. in 1879. Thereafter she studied philosophy at home under the tutelage of her father, who had joined the faculty of Andover Theological Seminary in 1878. The second woman to receive a doctorate in philosophy and one of only two women to be granted doctoral degrees by Smith College, she received a Ph.D. in 1888. Two years later she was appointed head of the Department of Philosophy and Biblical Literature at Rockford Female Seminary (renamed Rockford College in 1892) in Rockford, Illinois. She remained at Rockford for the next twenty-nine years except for a brief interval of study (1892–1893) under the leading European psychologist, Wilhelm Wundt, at the University of Leipzig. In 1902 she became president of Rockford College, a position she held until 1919.

Although critics argued that women lacked the independence of mind to make significant contributions in scholarship, Gulliver showed considerable promise with the publication of her senior thesis, “The Psychology of Dreams,” in the prestigious Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1880). Subsequently, she published six articles and two books, the first book in collaboration with Cornell psychologist E. B. Titchener on a translation of the first volume of Wundt’s three-volume Ethics (1897), and later her own small book, Studies in Democracy (1917). Like most other nineteenth-century women Ph.D.’s, Gulliver had little opportunity to pursue scholarly research given the constraints of a heavy teaching load and administrative responsibilities.

Gulliver’s philosophy included classical, realist, and pragmatist principles. From her classical education she drew such themes as order, harmony, the eternal; from the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey she drew notions of the useful, the workable, the changing. She believed that it was a mistake to separate the soul from the body, principle from fact, theory from practice. The most challenging intellectual task, she asserted, was to combine the universal with the particular, revealing how principles are applied in everyday life.

Gulliver’s religious philosophy resembled that of many other Protestant liberals of her day. She espoused the social gospel and the creation of God’s Kingdom on earth. She rejected the traditional view of God as static, incomprehensible, transcendent; for Gulliver, God was a “tremendous internal push of life and love and progress working in and through the organic whole of the universe and each of its organic parts.”

Gulliver’s philosophical contribution was minor, but her role as president of a leading midwestern women’s college was major. The college included among its graduates Jane Addams (class of 1882), founder of Hull-House, and Catharine Waugh McCulloch (class of 1882), vice president and legal adviser of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Women with advanced degrees were usually barred from professional and administrative positions except in women’s institutions. One of the few women college presidents, Julia Gulliver served both as a role model and spokesperson for women. She proved an able college president. When she took office, Rockford College was struggling to survive. The freshman class of 1905 had only seven students, and the endowment was small. She raised the academic standing of the institution by hiring faculty with better credentials, abolishing the preparatory department, and winning national accreditation.

To attract more students and to prepare them for vocations, Gulliver added to the liberal arts curriculum classes in pedagogy (1906–1907) and library science (1914–1915), and she inaugurated four-year degree programs in home economics and secretarial work (1914–1915). She attacked the notion that vocational courses were demeaning. Rather, she equated them with such male-dominated vocational disciplines as engineering and journalism that were gaining wide acceptance in the universities. She argued that a young woman with vocational training would be prepared to take an active role in the world rather than casting about for something to do with the general culture she had absorbed in college. She further predicted that all sciences taught at the college level would, in due course, become applied sciences because ignorance had resulted from the bifurcation of abstract principles and practical applications.

In 1918–1919 the enrollment of the college had increased to 216, a new hall had been constructed, and the endowment totaled $243,620. That year a rumor circulated that a male faculty member had solicited sexual favors from boys in the Rockford community. Gulliver’s decision to quiet the rumors and help the man find another position caused a major rift with her 36-member predominantly female faculty, 22 of whom openly defied her. The leader of the dissidents was apparently Edith Bramhall, the head of the history department. “I am not in the business of ruining people,” Gulliver wrote to her antagonist, whom she accused of “murdering” her career. The scandal forced Gulliver into retirement. Suggesting that only a male president could quiet the rebellious campus and elicit respect from the faculty, Gulliver urged the trustees to appoint a male to replace her. This they promptly did, and the next five presidents of the college were males. This gender arrangement, which was gaining acceptance in other women’s colleges as well, further diminished the leadership opportunities of women academics, particularly those with Ph.D.’s. Gulliver retired with her sister to Eustis, Florida, where she discontinued her academic research and writing and where she died.

Gulliver’s life story can be read as that of an extraordinary person. Fewer than two hundred women earned Ph.D.’s (or equivalent degrees) before 1900. Gulliver distinguished herself by being one of the only two of this group who served as presidents of colleges. Yet on other levels, her life reveals much about academic women’s career constraints. Like a majority of the early female Ph.D.’s, she never married. She had limited access to graduate programs, and like nearly half of the female Ph.D.’s, she found employment in a segregated setting. She received low pay throughout her career and had limited options for advancement. Despite these constraints, Gulliver was deeply committed to improving society and devoted much time and energy to advancing women’s education.


Letters, clippings, presidential reports, grant proposals, and published articles can be found in the Julia Gulliver Papers and the William A. Maddox Papers in the Rockford College Archives. Other material is in the Smith College Archives. Her views about women’s education are expressed in three brochures published by Rockford College, Why Should a Girl Have a College Education and What Will It Do for Her? (1913), New Tendencies in Education (n.d.), and The New Renaissance and Woman’s Place in It (1914). Her philosophical ideas are in “The Substitutes for Christianity Proposed by Comte and Spencer,” New Englander, Mar. 1884, pp. 246–260. A good biographical article is Jodi Billstrom’s “Julia Gulliver Faces Faculty Revolt,” in Rockford College: A Retrospective Look, ed. C. Hal Nelson (1980). On her father see Hermann R. Muelder, Missionaries and Muckrakers: The First Hundred Years of Knox College (1984). Obituaries are in Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Nov. 1940, and the New York Times, 28 July 1940.