The founding of Georgia Normal & Industrial College — a college dedicated to the goal of educating women and supporting women in their quest for knowledge — is marked in the timeline on Georgia College’s website by a simple statement:
1889. Due to the lobbying efforts of Julia Flisch, a journalist in Augusta, support builds to establish a publicly funded college for women that would prepare them for the demands of the new industrial age. In 1889, the Georgia Normal & Industrial College is chartered as a two-year college emphasizing teacher training and business skills.
For the purposes of a timeline friendly history of the college, this statement serves well. But I’m never one to take summarized history laying down. Histories of the foundation of the college intimately describe the process of the college’s charter at the legislative level, but what of the women campaigning for the establishment of the teaching and industrial college behind the legislature? Digging deeper into the history of our Georgia College reveals the relentless efforts of the women’s suffrage movement in the South, and particularly the efforts of Julia Flisch, as well as Susie Cobb Milton Atkinson, Rebecca Latimer Felton, and Martha Moss Neel Northen (Hair). Specifically, without the push of author, activist, and professor Julia Flisch, Georgia College would not exist today. Special Collections houses an extensive collection of Flisch’s papers and publications, as well as a dissertation and thesis on Flisch from Georgia College alumna and professor Dr. Robin O. Harris. Because of this, I decided to dive into Flisch’s collection to highlight the push from her and the suffrage movement in Georgia for the foundation and continuation of Georgia Normal & Industrial College.
Education in Georgia became tied with the exponentially growing women’s rights movement that began in the early 1800s. Women’s activists demanded education reform that included education for women at the college level. Schools for women already existed in the state, but their curricula were based on forming a more “socially oriented [woman]” and would not be considered true collegiate-level scholarship (Hair). The most prominent educational opportunity for Georgia women was the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens, founded in 1859. Students generally came from wealthy families in the area, and subjects emphasized art, music, and French (Case). Under the later leadership of sisters Mildred Lewis Rutherford and Mary Ann Lipscomb, the curriculum expanded to include a collegiate track offering sciences, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, languages, history, and literature (Case).
Specifically on the collegiate front, Representatives Duncan G. Campbell and Tomlinson Fort attempted to appropriate funds from the Georgia Legislature to “endow a college for female education in Georgia” in 1822 (Hair). They petitioned again in 1825, joined by Representatives John Singleton and Wilson Lumpkin, for a women’s college in Milledgeville. The House approved the bill, but it failed to pass the Senate. It seemed at the time that Milledgeville had lost its chance in establishing a degree-granting university. The Legislature approved a charter in 1836 for an institution in Macon to be called the Georgia Female College, which later became Wesleyan College. Georgia also chartered 35 women’s “schools” between 1836 and the start of the Civil War; while many of these then subsequently failed, three remain open and functional today, and Wesleyan remains the only all-female institution.
After the Civil War, higher education became increasingly male-oriented with the establishment of agricultural colleges and technical schools closed to women, while women in the suffrage movement became increasingly vocal in demanding training for jobs in business and teaching that were opening to them. One such woman was then twenty-one year old Julia Anna Flisch of Augusta, Georgia. On November 20, 1882, the Augusta Chronicle published an anonymous letter to the editor, signed as “A Young Woman,” entitled “Give the Girls a Chance” (Flisch papers, Box 6). The letter writer, who was later identified as Flisch, strongly condemned the lives of financial dependency that were forced on women because of their lack of educational opportunities.
After her first publication in the Augusta Chronicle in 1882, Flisch became a “special correspondent” for the paper by permission of Patrick Walsh, editor and co-owner of the Chronicle. Walsh saw his own causes in Flisch and gave Flisch the platform to expound her own cause of women’s education. She took this up resoundingly, using the rallying cry of “Give the girls a chance!” (Harris 63). Notably, Flisch sought education reform not out of some abstract theory, but because she herself was denied admittance to the then all-male University of Georgia after graduating from the Lucy Cobb Institute in 1877 with honors. Ten years later when sent to cover the commencement exercises of UGA, Flisch penned multiple pieces criticizing the students apparent lack of scholarly pursuits, and a final, emotional piece detailing her own rejection from UGA:
Our hearts might thrill at the music and the applause; our minds might hunger for the crumbs that fell from that table, but the feast was not for us. These provisions were for the sons of Georgia, in them her daughters could not share…Oh! Georgia, little as thou hast done for thy sons, it is yet something, but what has thou done for thy daughters? (Flisch papers, Box 6, 15 July 1887)
It is clear to historians that her rejection from UGA placed Flisch on a path towards agency for herself and for her gender. Furthermore, Flisch could not rely upon family wealth or influence to mediate her outspoken nature. However, Flisch continued to publish throughout the 1880s in the Augusta Chronicle and Athens Banner, as well as speak for women’s organizations on the need for industrial education for women (Harris 83).
It was Flisch’s persistence in pointing out the inadequacy of opening up a myriad of institutions for men, but denying this knowledge to women, that persuaded more prominent women like Rebecca Latimer Felton, famous for being the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, and Mrs. Susan Cobb Milton Atkinson, wife to then Representative and future Governor of Georgia William Y. Atkinson, to push for the opening of a woman’s institution. The original proposal came in 1887, which the legislature rejected because of the construction of the new School of Technology (GA Tech) and of a new capitol building (Sheehee 41). Flisch did not accept this answer, continuing to campaign for the opening of a state-funded school for women. In her 1889 piece “Give the Girls a Chance” for the Augusta Chronicle, Flisch lays out an argument for transitioning the role of women in Georgia from a passive role to a more active role (1889, as seen in Harris) Harris states: “While our more modern sensibilities may not readily recognize the radical implications of her carefully-crafted argument, neither did those in a position to block her proposed advances for women” (Harris 93).
This hard work paid off in having Representative Atkinson introduce legislation to fund a state-supported women’s college in Georgia. While Atkinson was technically convinced by his wife Susan, the vocal hard work of Flisch is what influenced Susan and prepped the state for the success of this piece of legislation. As residents of Milledgeville and students alike know, this bid was ultimately successful. On the date of November 27, 1890, the city welcomed dignitaries from across the state to celebrate the opening of Georgia Normal & Industrial College. As the festivities went on, Governor Northen regaled Susan Atkinson with praise for inspiring her husband’s role as originator of the legislation (Harris 98). However, twenty-eight year old Flisch was the only woman to have her own part of the program; speaking to a mixed crowd of men and women, a rarity in the South at this time, Flisch challenged women to take hold of their education — “It has come to pass that the question now is not ‘What can woman do?’ but ‘What can’t she do?’” (Flisch papers, Box 5, “Girls Industrial School: Paper Read by Miss Julia A. Flisch at the Lying[sic] of the Corner Stone,” Union Recorder 9 December 1890).
Flisch taught stenography, typewriting, and telegraphy at G.N.& I.C. in 1891, but was most popular for teaching ancient and medieval history. In 1899, UGA awarded her an honorary degree, and she left her post in 1905 to pursue true bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She continued to teach after returning to Georgia, even becoming dean of women and professor of history at the Junior College of Augusta (now Augusta University). Upon her death in 1941, obituaries stated that Flisch had “done more than any other person to advance the cause of women’s [higher] education in the state of Georgia” (NGAE).
On this International Women’s Day in 2017, over 125 years after the founding of Georgia College, it is crucial to remember the contributions from Julia Flisch. Twelve years after her rejection from UGA, Flisch was finally able to see Georgia “give the girls a chance.” And the next time you think about your education at Georgia College, be sure to give a little thanks to Julia for her hard work and dedication to crusading for the public to ask women “What can’t she do?”
And, in the spirit of Flisch’s first published editorial, this is signed: A Young Woman
Case, Sarah H. “Lucy Cobb Institute.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 21 August 2013. Web. 12 January 2017.
Hair, William Ivy, James C. Bonner, Edward B. Dawson, and Robert J. Wilson III. A Centennial History of Georgia College, University of Georgia Printing Department, 1979, Print.
Harris, Robin O. A New Representative of Southern Intellect: Julia Anna Flisch, a New Woman of the New South. Ph.D. diss., Georgia Institute of Technology, 1996.
Holliman, Irene V. “Julia Flisch (1861-1941).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 20 March 2013. Web. 10 January 2017.
Julia A. Flisch papers, Special Collections, Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College. 12 January 2017.
Shehee, Blanche Alvenia. The Movement for and Establishment of a State College for Women in Georgia. 1953. Print.