Saginaw-born Dr. Agnes E. Wells not only was one of the nation’s leading educators, she also was a vigorous standard bearer in the women’s equal rights movement.
She was born January 4, 1876, to Edgar S. and Julia H. Comstock Wells. After graduation from the former west side Saginaw High School, she spent one year at the Saginaw County Training School for Teachers. Then she studied in Dresden, Germany, and at Bryn Mawr College before obtaining a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Michigan in 1903. In 1916 she earned her master of arts degree from Carleton College, Minnesota.
Her teaching career began as high school principal in the Upper Peninsula town of Crystal Falls in 1904. After teaching mathematics at Duluth High School and at Carleton College, Miss Wells went to the University of Michigan as a faculty member in 1917. There she was acting dean of women for two years and social director of the Helen Newberry Residence.
From Ann Arbor, she went to Indiana University as dean of women, a post she held from 1919-38. Dr. Wells was nationally known as an authority on women’s guidance and housing. She taught mathematics and astronomy after retiring as dean of women. Indiana University’s first women’s dormitory is known as Agnes Wells Hall. She retired from the Indiana faculty in 1944.
A woman of vision and great resolve, she was an active leader in many professional and women’s organizations. She founded a $1 million fellowship fund for the American Association of University Women and also campaigned for world government.
She belonged to Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Society of the Daughters of 1812, Business and Professional Women, the American Association of Deans of Women and the American Association of University Professors. She held life memberships in the Michigan Alumni and Alumnae Association. Other organizations to which she belonged included Phi Beta Kappa, national scholastic honorary; Gamma Phi Beta, social sorority; Sigma Xi, national scientific organization; the National Education Association, Indiana University Alumnae Association, Indiana Academy of Science and the YWCA.
In 1949, she became chairman of the National Women’s Party. She always stated her objectives and hopes for women’s equality in a clear, straightforward manner. Dr. Wells lamented at the legal restrictions and discrimination once operative against women. Dr. Wells used to point out that it not only was tasks that women couldn’t do well which were made inaccessible to them through legislation but also positions for which they had the capacity and skill. She felt this kept many women from administrative positions. She used to say that those who argue about the woman’s place being in the home often overlook the unmarried woman, who unless she has wealth, must go out and earn her own living.
The National Women’s Party has a militant past: connected with the passage of the woman’s suffrage constitutional amendment, picketing the White House when Woodrow Wilson was President, imprisonment for disturbing the peace, hunger strikes, and forced feeding. As president of the National Women’s party, Dr. Wells carried on an effective but less militant spirit for the “equal rights for women” amendment.
Dr. Wells once commented on a newspaper editorial which advised women to look at the 14th amendment to the constitution which doesn’t mention sex but which does say that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens, that their privileges cannot be denied or abridged and that they shall be equal before the law. Dr. Wells asked the question: “Women are persons, aren’t they?”
“World government is the only key to world peace,” she once said. “Until we achieve that we should not stop worrying. World union may look like an immense task, but so did national union appear to the 13 American colonies who put as much stock in their states’ rights as we do by national sovereignty.”
She was the national first vice president of the American Association of University Women and was the second state president of the AAUW Indiana Chapter. Dr. Wells’ prominence as an educator and women’s leader was at least partly a matter of heritage. She was descended from Nicholas Wadham, who with his wife, Dorothy, founded Wadham College at Oxford, England, in 1610.
Dr. Wells, who later returned to Saginaw, died in 1959 at the age of 80.