On the day it reopened after the Civil War, in 1867, the University of Minnesota became the third state college to admit women. The sexes shared classrooms and college experiences, but they also maintained separate spheres dictated by gender and the Victorian mores of the time. Men at the university could play football, join the debate club, and enjoy the liberties of youth; women were given “a room of their own,” in the form of a ladies’ lounge in Old Main, that was strictly off-limits to men.

Most at the university were proud of its coeducation and felt it signified a progressive, “Western” view of higher education. One of the eleven women in the 1888 class of thirty-five graduates was Ima Winchell. In an essay in the Ariel, she wrote: “What a revolution! The opening of the higher institutions of learning to women has marked an era in history. Young women began to desire a college education and to appreciate the powers that they possessed, only needing development in order to place them where they could do their part in the world’s work. This higher education spread before women many fields of work, and opened to her pursuits hitherto unknown.”

Of course, not all fields were open to her in the Victorian era. In fact, just a few months after Ima Winchell’s graduation, the women of the university would band together and knock firmly on a door that had been closed to them since the school’s  inception. What followed brought no earth-shattering change to the University of Minnesota, but it was probably the first collective action by female students of the U and turned out to be the crucial link in a chain that would lead all the way to the present.

A brief note tucked in with some other campus announcements in the back pages of the October 31, 1888, Ariel signaled the coming turn of events: “Lieutenant Edwin Glenn has a battalion of about one hundred and seventy-five volunteers, whom he instructs in military science and tactics every day in the Coliseum,” it read. “The ladies of the University have also petitioned for military drill, which will be granted them as soon as the necessary arrangements can be made.”

It may seem odd that the Victorian-era women of the University of Minnesota would be eager to tote rifles and promenade, but this request for equal opportunity made perfect sense to the women of the class of ’89. Military drill was a popular form of exercise in the post–Civil War era, and judged drill competitions between rival college battalions was a familiar entertainment. It wasn’t the chance to play with guns that inspired the coeds as much as to move their feet and stretch their muscles.

Gratia Countryman, who would later become a guiding force in the Minneapolis Public Library system, was one of Lieutenant Glenn’s petitioners. Years after the events, she would recall the genesis of the women’s drill squad: “As I remember, the girls of my day had no provision for physical development or exercise. The boys had football and baseball. They had bicycles long before there were any provided for women. I cannot recall that there were tennis courts or any provision for anything in which women could participate. So when Lieutenant Glenn was engaged to give military drill to the boys, the girls felt that we deserved some attention, too.”

A lot of “girls” felt they deserved the attention. Countryman hints that because the faculty, which received the petition, and Glenn, who would be instructing, were doubtful about the seriousness of the women on campus, they were quick to grant permission.

But the coeds came out in droves, and before the university knew what had hit it, there was a company of women doing military drill on campus. They quickly designed a uniform and gave themselves a name: Company Q. The Q, according to some, stood for “queens,” though company members never revealed its precise meaning to the public.

Meanwhile, campus “kings” were left a little open-mouthed by all of this. The all-male staff of the Ariel gave a tongue-in-cheek description of Company Q’s first meeting: “One morning near the close of the fall term the young ladies were made happy by the announcement that Lieutenant Glenn would be in the parlor after chapel to meet those of them who wished to receive military instruction. The girls flew down stairs, increasing the cadence to two hundred and forty steps a minute, and before the Lieutenant could enunciate a preparatory command he was surrounded by about a hundred raw recruits, all doing their best to throw him into confusion.”

Actually, the number of women who signed up for the company was closer to fifty, including elected officers: Captain Ada Smith, First Lieutenant Gratia Countryman, Second Lieutenant Louise Montgomery, and First Sergeant Clara Baldwin. Their uniforms were made of the same gray-blue broadcloth as the men’s uniforms. Black stripes lined the floor-length skirts and crisscrossed the blouses. Wooden guns were issued instead of the real things, but, according to Countryman, they “served perfectly well.”

Two squads were formed, and the women drilled daily through the winter months of 1888–89 behind closed doors in the Coliseum. They used their wooden guns to practice the manual of arms and learned a standard set of drills and marches that included step, double step, common time, quick time, back and side steps, and marching in line and column and by the flank and to the rear. They learned to oblique, turn, and wheel, on both fixed and moveable points. They also did “sundry calisthenics and other gymnastics,” according to Countryman.
Maybe it was the closed doors of the Coliseum; maybe it was the mystery of the company’s name or the general secretiveness of its operations; maybe it was the “sub-bass war-whoops” passersby heard coming from inside; but a certain mystique gathered around the women who were drilling, evident in a march-step poem that eventually appeared in the pages of the Ariel:
Q? Q? Q? Q?
What is Company “Q”?
A troop of girls,
A troop well known as the pride of the U,
A troop deserving of homage, too
Maids who dress in black and blue,
Maids whose cheeks are ruddy in hue,
Maids who are blithe and bonny and true—
Such a troop is Company “Q.”

Word of these happenings spread beyond the campus, but not everyone who heard the legend of Company Q was as charmed as the poet. A Minneapolis Tribune editorial of December 4, 1888, was brutal in its assessment: The girls should be taught to dust, scrub, sew, build kitchen fires, and perform other domestic feats, instead of being initiated into the mysteries of military tactics: “Instead of guns, take brooms; teach girls to give a light, quick, short stroke, that sends dust ahead, and not to flirt it into the air and over the furniture with long, heavy swathes, as most women do.” Back on campus, the editors at the Ariel took a more sophisticated stance on the matter—and dipped it in sarcasm:

In spite of all statements to the contrary, and in spite of the fact that the women of our day practice law and medicine, edit newspapers, engage in politics and even teach school, we assert that the equality of the sexes is far from established, even in the advanced civilization which is supposed to permeate the University. If it were, we should not have to record the unjust discrimination which was exercised against the ladies in the matter of military instruction. Of course the ladies are entitled to the advantages of military drill and we are glad that they have made known their wishes to the faculty. A “broom brigade” will doubtless add materially to the value of the University as an educational center.

The “broom brigade” made its first public appearance in March 1889 for a photo-taking session for the Gopher yearbook. The Ariel, which kept up the snickering, was quick to note the wooden guns and the fact that the officers of Company Q had to borrow swords for the occasion. It also described a crowd that was disappointed with the fact that Q did not perform an exhibition drill after its photo session.

Those clamoring to see the women in action had to wait until commencement week for the opportunity, but they would not be disappointed. Before a large Saturday night crowd had gathered for a pregraduation ceremony and ball at the coliseum, the women of Company Q took the floor. They proceeded to go through their setting-up exercises, the manual of arms, and their numerous marching movements “with scarcely a break.” By the time they had finished, the audience was on its feet, whooping.

“We were never accused of complimenting the ladies, or repeating to them those of others, but the truth must be told,” wrote the editors of the Ariel, “Company Q has been a brilliant success.” So brilliant, in fact, that by the start of the next school year the university had decided to make drill a requirement for freshmen coeds. There were now so many young women under Glenn’s command that he was forced to create a second company, which was dubbed “Q-Prime.”

Gratia Countryman remained a loyal soldier through the next year, her last at the university. She recalled the growing expertise of Q in her reminiscence of the company: “The second year, Miss Baldwin was Captain and a splendid one. We were giving an exhibition with the galleries packed. The Company was marching in fours and seemed to be marching straight into a wall, from which we saw no escape, when she suddenly gave an order to wheel, and we made a beautiful turn with less than a yard to spare. We were greeted with explosions of applause.”

Company Q remained a campus institution for just three more years. In the summer of 1892, the University of Minnesota hired Louise Kiehle to head a newly created Department of Physical Culture for women on campus, obviating the need for the exercise that came with military drill. A more conventional regimen of physical fitness was established for coeds, including a tennis program, calisthenics, and, by 1897, basketball.

Today the wooden guns and the blue-and-black broadcloth uniforms are ancient history. Long gone is Q. But echoes of the 1889 whoops can still be heard after every display of women’s athleticism, from a free throw in the humblest of intramural games to a driving layup by a Golden Gopher star at Williams Arena.

From Gopher Gold: Legendary Figures, Brillian Blunders, and Amazing Feats at the University of Minnesota by Tim Brady. Copyright MHS Press. All rights reserved.