MARIA SANFORDMaria Sanford, Professor, Orator, Civic Leader

Inscribed on her statue inside the US. Capitol in Washington, D.C. is:
“Maria L. Sanford: sturdy and resilient Puritan, whose perceptive mind and reverence for classic truth and beauty quickened Minnesota and beyond its frontiers. Educator, orator, civic leader, the best-known and best-loved woman in Minnesota.”
Maria (pronounced Mariah) Louise Sanford was born December 18th or 19th, 1836, in Connecticut. You might say she was born “a house afire” because literally, wood beams near the fireplace caught fire as she was being born close to or after midnight.

Her teaching career spanned 54 years - from the 1 room country school to becoming the first woman university professor in the United States! She was an outstanding orator and and activist in many sectors of society, captivating audiences from New York to California. She never married. She was recruited by various schools and colleges and was beloved by her students. Her reputation as teacher and public speaker spread nationwide even though means of communication were limited and women were largely forbidden from public roles. She walked countless miles in her service. She lived meagerly and hard work was her passion.

In 1880 she was recruited by the president of the University of Minnesota. She taught public speaking and composition to freshmen through seniors. She became so popular, her classes were overflowing and students asked to meet at sunrise and she did. She spoke to all sorts of community groups. Once she gave a speech to help farmers and it was so packed, she had to use a ladder to get into the building through the 2nd story window. Women were greatly suppressed in that day and she had critics. But always her students and admirers came to her defense. She preached in Minneapolis churches on Sundays and single handedly decided to “beautify” the city. She founded the Minneapolis Improvement League, which gave flower and vegetable seeds to over 40,000 kids to plant. She personally went around picking up litter and patching holes in the streets. She created a city plan sought after by other cities. She addressed pollution and water safety long before anyone else.

Maria worked on an Indian Reservation, administering medicine and hygiene to Indian children who had a blinding eye disease and saved many from blindness. In addition, she was an advocate for Blacks in the South, war veterans’ groups, and was constantly working for woman’s rights. She lectured into her 80’s. The University of Minnesota named a building, The Maria Sanford Hall”. She was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Swarthmore College in Connecticut. She had tried to get into Yale, but was denied admission because she was a female. There are 2 Minnesota schools that bear her name.

On April 20, 1920, at the age of 83, she gave a speech to thousands of attendees of the D.A.R. convention in Washington D.C. As a guest at a senator’s home, she said “Goodnight on the happiest day of my 83 years”. She died peacefully in her sleep that night. She was buried in Mount Vernon Cemetery. In 1958 her bronze statue was placed in the U.S. Capitol and Minnesota’s governor declared November 12, 1958 as Maria Sanford Day.

University of Minnesota information

A search was completed within the U of M system.  This link will provide results for references to Maria Sanford in the U of M digitized collections, to include the Gopher Yearbook, audio recording from KUOM radio and more.

Book about Maria Sanford

Helen Whitney authored a book about Maria Sanford which was digitized at the HathiTrust Digital Library:

Maria Sonford Hall at University of Minnesota
Summer of 2018

Sandy and Ron Hendrikson, Jan Oltman, Sheri Nase, Laura Dawson and Steve Coalwell visited the University of Minnesota Campus to learn about Maria Sanford.   This picture is in front of the building named after Maria Sanford.

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