Visionary Leader - June 2014

Agatha Tiegel Hanson

Agatha Tiegel, school photoThis June, Gallaudet continues its Visionary Leader Series celebrating 1893 graduate Agatha Tiegel Hanson. The first woman to graduate from Gallaudet with a four-year degree as well as the first woman to serve as class valedictorian; she is an important leader in both deaf and women’s history.

Agatha Tiegel Hanson
Agatha in Seattle in the 1920's.

Agatha was born in Pittsburgh, Penn., in 1873 and became deaf and lost her eyesight in one eye at the age of 7 due to spinal meningitis. When Agatha realized she could no longer appreciate music and singing the way she did in early childhood, she immersed herself in books and poetry. “I’ve been denied the sound of music since I was 7,” she wrote at the time. “Perhaps that’s why I wrote poetry.”

Agatha attended a Catholic academy and then a public school until she turned 13, when she transferred to Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. She entered Gallaudet in 1888, at 15 years of age after the then-University President, Edward Miner Gallaudet, provisionally lifted the ban on female admittance into the college in 1887.

Agatha and Emma Tiegel, April 1893, Chapel Hall steps
Agatha (left) with her sister Emma Tiegel in April 1893 at Chapel Hall. Click here to enlarge.

At the time, all female students were required to live at House One and were not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities unless by invitation and accompanied by a male chaperone. All women were required a male chaperone accompaniment to class as well.

Particularly frustrating for Agatha was that female students were not allowed to participate in debates with male students. To remedy this, she established a debate group for women. Members gathered in secret late at night at House One to discuss poetry and literature.

Agatha’s efforts did not go unnoticed, because in 1889, after seeing how well women were succeeding, Gallaudet permanently revoked the social ban on female students.

Tiegel seated in center with male students sitting and standing around her, near the steps of Chapel Hall
Agatha with her 1893 graduating class. Click here to enlarge.

During her time as a student, the school’s student newspaper The Buff and Blue was established and Agatha penned an article conveying her gratitude for her student experience at the University. “The contact with Dr. Gallaudet and the brilliant and kindly faculty of my time, the entrance to the homes of these men, where courtesy, culture, and hospitality held sway, were blessings indeed.”

One of her mentors was the noted faculty member, Dr. E. A. Fay, for which one of the houses on Faculty Row is named. “The one who helped me the most is the vice-president and head professor of languages, Dr. E. A. Fay,” wrote Agatha in 1911. “His kindly interest and encouragement supplied the direction I needed…I’ve striven to emulate his example.”

Agatha knew she was fortunate to receive an education and she used the knowledge acquired to propel women forward. In 1892 she helped to establish O.W.L.S., a secret women’s society now known as Phi Kappa Zeta Sorority. In 1893, she noted in her valedictorian address, entitled “The Intellect of Women,” that men and women were equally intelligent although stating it was considered heresy in the 1890s. “That such repression and restraint upon mental action are artificial has been demonstrated in all ages by women whose independence has burst ever fetter and won them recognition in the fields of science, theology, literature, politics and art,” said Agatha in her remarks.

Hanson family posed on steps with dog
Family photo: (clockwise) husband Olof Hanson, Agatha, and daughters Alice, Helen, and Marion in 1930 in Seattle.

After graduation, Agatha taught at the Minnesota School for the Deaf in Faribault, Minn., for 6 years until she met her husband, Olof Hanson, a noted deaf architect who graduated from Gallaudet in 1886 and was honored as April’s Visionary Leader. Agatha was a lifelong learner and wrote several well-known poems, “Inner Music” and “Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.” After they were married, Agatha and Olof relocated to Washington State.

Within the deaf community, Agatha was active at the local and national levels including holding officer level positions with Seattle’s Puget Sound Association of the Deaf, the Episcopal Church’s deaf mission, Gallaudet College Alumni Association, and the Washington State Association of the Deaf. Her home was a regular social spot for the deaf community and hearing guests with tea, coffee, cake, ice cream, and other foods. When Olof became a minister in the Episcopal Church, Agatha served as his “choir” signing songs and hymns in sign language much to the delight of parishioners.

Tiegel Hanson 1934 reading a book
Agatha enjoying a good book in her home in 1934.
Tiegel Hanson circa 1958
Agatha died at the age of 86 in 1959.

Last March, Agatha was recognized as one of 12 National Women’s History Month honorees for 2014, by the National Women’s History Project (NWHP). She is the first alumna to be honored by the NWHP and was nominated by retired Rochester Institute of Technology faculty member Karen Christie. Agatha’s legacy within deaf and women’s history continued in the mid-1990s with the establishment of Deaf Women’s Studies courses by Gallaudet First Lady Vicki Hurwitz, Dean Genie Gertz, ’92, and professor Dr. Arlene Blumenthal Kelly, ’77 & G-’92, at the National Technical Institute of the Deaf, California State University at Northridge and Gallaudet University, respectively.

At a gala event at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., alumnae and administrative research assistant in the Brain and Language Laboratory (BL2) at Gallaudet, Kristine Gauna, ’12, accepted the award naming Agatha as a woman of “Character, Courage and Commitment.” In Gauna’s acceptance speech she quoted Agatha from her writings, “Civilization is too far advanced not to acknowledge the justice of woman’s cause. She herself is too strongly impelled by a noble hunger for something than she has known, too highly inspired by the vista of the glorious future, not to rise with determination and might and move on till all barriers crumble and fall… I resented that there might be any question of the right, the God given right, of my sisters and myself to take our places in the sun.”

Agatha was clearly ahead of her time when she made these remarks as this was before the suffrage in 1920. Being a writer and poet, Agatha helped pave way for the future generations of deaf women and through her achievements deaf women were given more opportunities.

Agatha died at the age of 86 after a long illness. She was survived by her three daughters and 10 grandchildren. Gallaudet University’s Hanson Plaza and Dining Hall is named after her.

Her legacy lives on throughout all of the communities she served. Gallaudet is proud to have been home for Agatha, where she paid forward so much of what she gained on this unique campus.

Agatha's diploma is in the Gallaudet Archives and on display in the online Gallery of Diplomas as part of the 150th celebration.

*Photos courtesy Gallaudet Archives

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