The Center’s History

sarahisomThe Sarah Isom Center for Women was established at The University of Mississippi in 1981 to address the changing roles and expectations of women students, faculty, and staff. The University has provided educational opportunities for women longer than any other state university in the South. When UM opened its doors to women in 1882, eleven women registered for classes. Today, women constitute half the student body.

Sarah McGehee Isom

Sarah Isom was the first female faculty member at the University of Mississippi and the first female faculty member at a coeducational institution of higher learning in the Southeast. She was born in Oxford, Mississippi, in the early 1850’s. Her parents were Dr. Thomas Dudley Isom, a physician and one of the town’s leading citizens, and Sarah McGehee Isom, formerly of South Carolina.

After receiving her early education in her hometown, “Miss Sallie” attended Augusta Seminary in Staunton, Virginia, where her special talent in drama and public speaking was recognized. She later studied with James Murdock at the Philadelphia School of Expression and George Riddle and Madame Janauschek in Boston. Highly praised by her professors and others who heard her perform, she appeared destined for a career on the stage. However, she returned home instead.

In 1885, the Board of Trustees elected her to fill the Chair of Elocution at the University of Mississippi. Since no woman had previously been included in the faculty, her selection was preceded by interesting correspondence between the Board’s Secretary and former Chancellor F.A.P. Barnard.

For the next twenty years, until her death, Miss Isom taught oratory to aspiring young politicians and other public figures, gaining appreciation and respect for her ability to train them to be effective readers and speakers. A striking redhead with a forceful personality, she became the subject of many tantalizing legends, some of which may actually have been true.


As part of the University’s mission, the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies is responsible for integrating scholarly research on women’s and gender issues with advocacy for women in the classroom, on the campus, and in the larger community. The Center undertakes to:

  1. Provide an inclusive place where women and groups concerned with gender-related issues can gather.
  2. Educate community and campus on women’s and gender issues. This includes recognition of how gender intersects with other social categories like race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, nationality, and ability.
  3. Aid interdisciplinary faculty research and teaching in Gender Studies.
  4. Continue to offer an interdisciplinary minor and a Graduate Certificate in Gender Studies, to support student research on Gender Studies, and to develop an undergraduate major in Gender Studies.