History & Tourism

Richland Roots: From Lexington To The University Of Michigan – The Life Of Olive Anderson

26 Feb , 2019  

Her name was Olive San Louie Anderson.

Not only was her name a bit unusual, her life was a pacesetting one in the area of higher education for women. Unfortunately, it was also one which ended in tragedy.

1812Blockhouse shares posts in our “Richland Roots” series to talk about the less-commonly known stories of people born here or who lived here and went on to make significant contributions to state, regional, or national history. Other posts in the series are available here.

When Olive was born in Lexington on September 30, 1852, she was part of a family for whom education was extremely important. After her father’s death and a few years spent in pioneer Iowa, the Andersons returned to live in Mansfield. It was here where Olive graduated from high school in 1869.

After a short time teaching school, Olive made a bold decision. Since its founding, the University of Michigan had been a male-only institution. Its first female student was admitted in 1870, which caused young Olive to consider whether or not she might qualify for admittance. She studied, took her entrance exams, and was admitted in the first official class with female members.

Anderson excelled at the U of M, where she was given the nickname, “Joe.” In fact, she became the very first woman to student be invited to speak at a University of Michigan commencement.

After graduation, Anderson moved to California where she taught while preparing to return for a medical degree. As happens often in life, plans changed and she remained on the West Coast for many years, teaching and writing.

It was in part her writing, in fact, for which she is remembered. Not only was she a part of Michigan’s first group of women graduates, she wrote about it. Her largely autobiographical novel entitled, “An American Girl, and Her Four Years in a Boys’ College” was published in 1878 under the pseudonym of “SOLA” (an anagram of her name). The main character was based on Anderson and her experience. In the work, topics such as women’s rights, higher education, and courtship – with a bit of romance in the mix.

In the book Alice Freeman Palmer: The Evolution of a New Woman by Ruth Birgitta Anderson Bordin, Anderson’s description of the university as featured in her novel was one of “…harassment, discrimination, and a large degree of unwelcome.” In 2009, Michigan Today published a piece looking back at Anderson’s work in a piece called, “An American Girl.” The book was re-published by the University of Michigan in 2006.

In 1886, the life of Olive San Louie Anderson ended in a very tragic way. She was with friends while preparing to write a book about California. As a part of that preparation, she went on a yacht trip up the Sacramento River. She went swimming with friends, was seized with cramps, and died.

Anderson’s body was returned to Mansfield to be buried next to that of her father in Mansfield Cemetery.

You can the opportunity to read “An American Girl” in its entirety online. It can be found at this location.

Sources: Wikipedia, Find-a-Grave, Ancestry.com

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