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Within the history of Gallaudet University, some names are nearly impossible to forget. The name appears here on a plaque or there on a building, and you are reminded again and again of the impact of a single life. One such life is that of Agatha Tiegel Hanson, 1893, whose great-grandchild, Cameron Brown, visited campus last week to discover just how deeply her great-grandmother’s roots on campus really went. Berit Enge, a former Norwegian diplomat, accompanied Brown on her visit.

Agatha Tiegel was admitted to the National Deaf-Mute College in 1888 at the age of 15, and was the first female student to complete a full course of study after the institution began enrolling women in 1887. Not only was she the sole female member of the class of 1893; she was also the class valedictorian. A poet, a teacher, and a staunch feminist long before “feminist” became a word, Tiegel’s time at Gallaudet was marked by a refusal to accept the conventional wisdom of the time, at least when it came to gender roles.

During Tiegel’s time on campus, women were effectively barred from full participation in the intellectual life of the College. They lived in House One, ensuring that they did not mingle with men outside the classroom. House One to this day contains photographs and other images associated with Tiegel. Brown was able to imagine herself in her great-grandmother’s shoes as she sat at the dining room table in House One. 

In response to this constraint on the participation of women in life outside the classroom, Tiegel helped establish a secret literary society that not only led to greater freedoms for women on campus, but which became O.W.L.S., and later Phi Kappa Zeta Sorority. Gallaudet University President Roberta J. Cordano showed Brown and Enge a photograph of her mother, Jean Kelsch Cordano, ’51, with Tiegel Hanson at a Phi Kappa Zeta meeting.

Tiegel’s success—and that of the other women then matriculated at the National Deaf-Mute College—led the College to revoke its policy on the social separation of the sexes in 1889. Tiegel eventually married Olof Hanson, 1886, G-1889, & H-1914, the first known deaf architect, who is notable for his work at multiple schools for the deaf and for Building 103 here on campus. She took his last name and became Agatha Tiegel Hanson. She worked her entire life, as a teacher, a writer, and an advocate, to avoid being known as “Mrs. Olof Hanson.” The results of that effort are visible around campus; Hanson Plaza and the Dining Hall, which are named after her. Other results include a mural in the Maguire Welcome Center on campus which depicts the Hansons among other important people in the university’s history. Seeing this mural inspired Brown to share stories about life with her great-grandparents as told by her mother, who lived with Tiegel Hanson for some time.

It is often easy to forget what a hold the past can have on us; a familiar face in an old photograph, a family name on a sign—half-remembered stories and distant memories bubble to the surface and remind us of the legacies to which we are the heirs. For Tiegel Hanson’s great-grandchildren, that moment may have come when the tour paused in front of the Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell statue in front of Chapel Hall. As Brown looked up at the teacher and student, she laughed and said, “If these two had not met, I might not be here today.”

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