Flashback • Johanna Timmer, pioneer for women's opportunities
Calvin's first dean for women served in many roles
by Dick Harms, Archivist

Johanna TimmerAs enrollment grew at Calvin College during the 1920s, the administration and all-male faculty concluded that the college’s first dean for women students was needed. In 1926, just three years after graduating from Calvin, Johanna Timmer was hired to fill the position — and to teach English and German. She had planned to be a teacher and missionary but accepted the appointment, the first in a career that saw her hold positions previously not open to women.

She came to Calvin eminently qualified both to serve as dean and to teach, having graduated from Holland High School as class valedictorian at the age of 17 (she might have graduated at 16, but her parents delayed her attending for a year since they thought a 12-year-old was too young to walk the three miles to school every day), earned an A.B. from Calvin and an A.M. from the University of Michigan.

As dean of women, she drew up the college’s first code of conduct for female students, which was patterned after similar codes at Hope College, the University of Michigan, and Radcliff College. She dealt with any academic problems the female students had and consulted with them on personal problems. Further, since all women lived off campus at the time, she was required every month to contact each non-parental home in which women were boarding. Lastly, she was held responsible for any misbehavior by women; particularly difficult was enforcing the Christian Reformed Church’s 1926 ban on card playing, dancing and theater attendance. The ban on theater attendance was the most nettlesome and time consuming, since students and some faculty openly ignored it.

Beyond the campus she maintained her professional interest by writing articles; presenting speeches; organizing Reformed young women’s societies, leagues and a federation, just as was already being done for young men; and taking graduate classes at two seminaries and a divinity school. All of this activity took a physical toll. By 1932 she began suffering from fatigue and stress, and in 1939 she was granted a one-year medical leave.

While on leave, she joined the effort to open the Reformed Bible Institute (now Reformed Bible College) in Grand Rapids. The position was particularly appealing to her since missions and outreach work had always been her passion. She resigned from Calvin to become the recruiter, dean, acting president and faculty. Later she became principal of Ripon (California) Christian School, and still later she organized Montgomery High School, the first Christian high school in Philadelphia. This pioneer of opportunities for women retired in 1963 and died in 1978.