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Phoebe Hearst: A Trailblazer For Educating Women and Children

Phoebe Hearst: A Trailblazer For Educating Women and Children

Ever been to kindergarten or studied at U.C. Berkeley? Thank philanthropist Phoebe Hearst for trailblazing education for children and women.


4 min read

August 27, 2021

If you’ve ever been to a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting, studied at the University of California at Berkeley, or even went to kindergarten, you have Phoebe Hearst to thank for that. Phoebe Apperson Hearst was an influential philanthropist, suffragist, and Baha’i, who made so many contributions to California and the rest of the nation.

Take your beaux on a date to the U.C. Berkeley campus and admire the beautiful Hearst building together.

Phoebe Hearst’s Family and Upbringing

Phoebe Apperson Hearst was born on December 3, 1842, in Franklin County, Missouri to farmers Randolph Walker Apperson and Drucilla Whitmire Apperson. Although it wasn’t as common for women to be educated at the time and it took until 1840 for a woman to be able to earn a bachelor’s degree in the United States, Hearst was able to go to school six months a year and earned a certificate to become a teacher in the Missouri school system.

Soon after she began teaching, she met George Hearst, and they got married on June 15, 1862. After their honeymoon, Hearst and her husband moved to San Francisco, and she gave birth to their son, William Randolph Hearst the following year. In 1887, her husband was elected to the U.S. Senate and they moved to Washington, D.C., so he could fulfill his political responsibilities. Their political life was cut short, however, when George Hearst unexpectedly died in 1891. 

The Baha’i Faith: Phoebe Hearst’s Greatest Inspiration

After her husband's death, Hearst moved back to California to be near her son who had already begun building his newspaper empire. She later met a Baha’i named Lua Getsinger, who taught her about the Bahá’í Faith—a world religion that believes in the truth of all religions and the oneness of humanity. The principles of the Baha’i Faith include the equality of women and men, the abolition of all forms of prejudice, the independent investigation of truth, and the agreement of science and religion. In 1898, she became a Baha’i and traveled to ‘Akká, Palestine (now present-day Israel) on pilgrimage to meet Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah—the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith. 

Hearst spent three days on pilgrimage and said that her “greatest blessing in this world” was to be in Abdu’l-Baha’s presence. She shared that those three days were the “most memorable days'' of her life. When Abdu’l-Baha traveled to North America in 1912, Hearst invited him to stay at her estate in Pleasanton during his visit to California. Abdu’l-Baha accepted her kind invitation. Throughout his travels in the Golden State, he spoke at numerous gatherings with thousands of attendees at places such as Stanford University, the Hotel Sacramento, and the Temple Emanu-El.

When meandering through the U.C. Berkeley campus, make sure to check out the historic Hearst building.

Building the University of California at Berkeley

As a Baha’i, Phoebe Hearst was passionate about uplifting women and making education more accessible. In 1891, she gave scholarship money to help women attend the University of California at Berkeley. Also, because women were not allowed to be involved in the social and extracurricular activities that were available to men at universities, Hearst created a Women's Student Center in her mansion, providing a place for the college women to bond and socialize. Whenever a new female student enrolled in the university, Hearst would add them to the roster of women that she would invite to her events.

She also never wanted a lack of finances to prevent women from earning their degrees, so she helped women obtain the funds they needed to continue their education. When she learned that many women at the university were working for families in the area, she created Hearst Domestic Industries. Her company provided female students with job opportunities, while simultaneously imposing restrictions on how many hours they could work a week, ensuring that they could allow more time for studying and participating in campus life. She also hired a part-time doctor to teach them how to use gym equipment and help them with their health.

At the time, UC Berkeley was small, so Hearst helped build thirty buildings and six campuses, including Hearst Memorial Mining Building and Hearst Hall. She helped fund archeological expeditions, donated artifacts from the South Pacific, Alaska, the Etruscan region of Italy, and the Philippines, and founded the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology in 1901. She was the first woman to serve on the board of regents for the University of California and was grateful to champion female voices in a male dominated school.

Stroll through the beautiful campus of U.C. Berkeley to discover the majestic Hearst pool and gymnasium.

The Origin of Kindergarten and the PTA

Phoebe Hearst was dedicated to making education more accessible to children of all backgrounds as well. For those of you who may be wondering how kindergarten originated, Hearst instituted the first free kindergarten for poor American children, which was open to both white and African American children during segregation. She established a training school for teachers who taught kindergarteners, created the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association, and supported kindergartens across the country. She also cofounded and funded the National Congress of Mothers, which is now known as the Parent Teacher Association.

In addition to her philanthropic efforts, Phoebe Hearst also spent much of her time spreading the unifying message of the Baha’i Faith. She died at age 76 on April 13, 1919 and is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California. After she died, Abdu’l-Baha wrote that “in the future her name shall be uplifted” and “her fame shall spread abroad.” I think he was right.

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