Frances Zuill

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Zuill, 1890-1977

Director of Home Economics

If one word best characterizes Frances Zuill, that word is determined. As director of home economics at UW from 1939 to 1961, she was constantly frustrated by the discrimination against women that she saw around her. She fought fiercely for resources and respect for home economics, and expected those around her to share her determination.

Zuill was born on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin in 1890. When she was a high school student, the Federated Women’s Club decided to initiate an after-school home economics program in Whitewater for interested students. Zuill attended these classes, which were taught at the fire department headquarters and for which she received no credit. She later said that the teacher of these classes “convinced us there was a good deal of sense to home economics.”

Determined to attend Stout Institute (now UW-Stout) but unable to pay for it, she taught at a county school in Utters Corners for two years to save up money. She earned a two-year diploma from Stout in 1913–later she was named Stout’s first ever Distinguished Alumni–and then taught at the North Dakota School of Science in Wahpeton from 1913 to 1919. In 1920 she moved to New York where she earned a Bachelors (1920) and then Masters (1921) in Home Economics from Teachers College, Columbia University. She supervised home economics in the Baltimore public schools, was visiting lecturer at Johns Hopkins, and was visiting professor at Cornell and the University of Washington before accepting a position as Chair of the Department of Home Economics at the State University of Iowa. After serving in this position for fifteen years, she was offered the equivalent position at UW. The Dean at Iowa tried to persuade her to stay by reminding her of how much she had accomplished at Iowa, and arguing that she was too old to do the same thing at another institution. Zuill immediately accepted the challenge.

As one of a very small number of female administrators, and as the only woman associate dean within the College of Agriculture, Zuill needed all the strength she had. She was very successful in gaining much-needed resources for the school, and the department prospered during her years in office. In her twenty-two years at UW, the status of home economics was transformed from a Department to a School, and in 1951 she became the first Associate Dean of Home Economics within the College of Agriculture. She gained money for and then oversaw the construction of the new Home Management House, the west wing of the Home Economics Building, and the new Pre-School Laboratory. Enrollment grew dramatically during her years in office, and by the time she left the number of graduate students had tripled.

Zuill was a formidable presence, and both faculty members and students recall being intimidated by her. She demanded an enormous amount of her faculty, whose work weeks average 48 hours. She believed that faculty ought to be so dedicated to their profession that they would pay their own money to attend national and state meetings. Although she sometimes agreed to provide financial support, she never believed that faculty should make such requests of her.

Zuill also expected personal sacrifices from her faculty. Single for her entire life, she believed that women had to choose either career or family because it was not possible to dedicate oneself fully to both. She became outraged when her faculty members decided to get married. One faculty member later remembered how nervous she felt when she had to tell Zuill that she was planning to marry. Another faculty member recalls her amusement when Zuill interviewed a young woman for a position. Several months later when she arrived in Madison, the woman was not only married, but also pregnant. Zuill was livid.

She wanted the best for her students because she felt that they deserved it. She sometimes wrote to potential employers, informing them that the salaries they were offering weren’t high enough for her students. Although she was never generous with praise, faculty and students learned that she was proud of them and cared deeply about them. On numerous occasions she assisted students using her own money. After she announced her upcoming retirement, a group of students bought her a vase and filled it with flowers once per week for an entire year. Zuill’s personal warmth also showed through in her dedication to sports, particularly football. One faculty member remembers watching the snow accumulate on her black hat during a football game because she refused to stop watching and to go inside.

Zuill was very dedicated to home economics at a national and state level. New faculty members quickly learned that they ought to become members of the American Home Economics Association if they were not already. Zuill attended her first meeting of the AHEA in 1921 and missed only three meetings between then and her retirement. She served as secretary of AHEA from 1928 to 1931, then president from 1931 to 1933, in addition to other administrative positions. She was also very active in the Wisconsin Home Economics Association, and served a term as president.

Zuill’s service record also involved international work. In 1958, she spent six months in India for the State Department as an educational consultant. After she retired in 1961, she and May Reynolds traveled to Pakistan to advise three colleges of home economics in Karachi, Lahore, and Dacca.