Writing the night before classes began at the University of Chicago in October 1892, newly minted Assistant Prof. Marion Talbot joked: “Tomorrow I begin my part as dear-professor instead of dear-scrubwoman!”
Talbot wore many hats at the University: instructor and administrator, dorm mother and housekeeper, leader and mentor. She first taught in the Department of Social Science and Anthropology and was tapped in 1895 to become the first Dean of Women for the entire University, a position she held until her retirement in 1925.
During her three decades at the University, she used her position to passionately advocate for women’s equality in education. Inspired by their role model, many of Talbot’s early students went on to take similar positions directing the education of women.
She had an important responsibility at a time when women scholars were heavily scrutinized. Talbot encouraged her undergraduate charges to pursue their studies with the same rigor as their male classmates. She counseled female students at the University to take full advantage of their academic opportunities and also insisted that “the presence of women should never mean the lowering of any standards, intellectual or social.”
Talbot, a graduate of Boston University and M.I.T., supervised nearly every aspect of the lives of the women undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Chicago. She lived among the students, first at temporary quarters just east of campus, and then on the Main Quadrangles as head of Kelly Hall. Administrators, parents and Hyde Park neighbors wrote regularly to Talbot, asking her to supervise the behavior of women students and, at times, even suggesting she discipline them.
Her teaching career at the University began in the 1892-93 academic year and her elevation to full professor occurred a decade later with the establishment of the Department of Household Administration, which she became head of. She served as a director of the American Association of University Women and wrote The Education of Women (1911), The Modern Household (1912), co-authored with Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, PhD1901, JD1904, and More Than Lore (1936), a memoir of her long career at the University.
As Ida Noyes Hall marked its 100th anniversary in June 2016, its foyer was dedicated to honor Talbot, who played a role in shaping the building. Talbot’s lasting imprint on the University was heralded by Dean of the College John W. Boyer and Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University, during a dedication ceremony.
In her remarks, Gray said that Talbot, who died in 1948, considered the building one of her greatest contributions to the University and noted that “she would feel gratified too that it became a place commemorative of her achievements at a time when progress that she had hoped for was continuing to evolve.”
Talbot grew up valuing education. Her father was the first dean of the medical school at Boston University, and her mother was instrumental in establishing the Girls’ Latin School in Boston. While attending Boston University, Talbot co-founded the American Association of University Women, which was dedicated to promoting equity and education for women.
As one of only a handful of women in university administration in the U.S., Talbot urged presidents to honor the commitments of UChicago’s founders to offer equal educational opportunities for men and women at the institution. She also pointed out the inequity of the overwhelmingly male faculty appointments and the heavy focus on men in University events.
Outside the classroom, Talbot worked to form a strong, well-connected community of women. Talbot wanted to provide structure and guidance to help women succeed academically and have a place for them to expand their social spheres.