At a time where women were only 24 percent of the undergraduate student body at the University of Illinois, becoming the first woman to graduate from the College of Engineering, as well as the first woman in North America to earn a bachelor’s degree in architecture is astounding. The honor of both these firsts belongs to Mary Louisa Page. Page began her studies in 1874 at the University of Illinois which was then called Illinois Industrial University.
Page was born in 1849 in Metamora, Illinois. After attending Tremont Academy and Metamora High School, she joined the field of architecture in the College of Engineering. She was the only woman in her classes.
During her college years she was active in several student groups including the students’ government where she was the senator, and a member of the Alethanai Literary Society, also known as “Mystery of the Seven Sisters”. The society was the women’s literary organization and provided Page with the opportunity to improve her speaking, composition, and debating skills.
After graduating in 1879, Page established the company Whitman & Page in 1887, which was a drafting, blueprint, and abstracting service company. Her company partner was a fellow classmate, Robert Farwell Whitman. Whitman was the surveyor and civil engineer while Page handled the drafting. Choosing a male partner probably helped put customers at ease when they were dealing with a female architect. At the time, it was a strategic business practice for a woman entrepreneur.
Page also obtained a B.S. Life Diploma for Teaching in Washington and held an assortment of positions there. She was a teacher in Washington State, the President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and an instructor at Blue Printing and Abstracting.
She was also a writer. Her articles “A Country School Teacher,” “Relations of Cruelty to Food Supply,” and “A Sketch from Life” appeared in the Northwest Journal of Education. In her later years, Page moved to Kansas City to provide education to her adopted daughter Davida. She died of heart failure in 1921.
Hahn, L.D. & Wolters, A.S. (2018). Women and ideas in engineering: twelve stories from Illinois. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.