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A noteworthy advocate for the educational equality of women and an influential pacifist, Mary Emma Woolley (13 July 1863–5 September 1947) was one of the greatest women in American educational history. Her passion for education not only led to great successes in her personal life, but also allowed her to make significant contributions to society in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Wooley’s father, Joseph J. Woolley, was influential in her educational decisions. Her formal education began in the basement of her father’s church and continued under the tutelage of various women throughout her elementary years. At her father’s insistence, her high school education was split between Providence High School and Wheaton Female Seminary, from which she graduated in 1884. Women of this era normally were expected to marry following graduation. Woolley, however, had no suitors and returned to the seminary to teach from 1885 to 1890. While teaching, she decided to continue her education and, with the help of her father, became one of the first six women to enter Brown University.

During her collegiate years, Woolley was a natural leader of her sister students and set an example of dignity and conscientious study, stressing their responsibility for the future of women’s education at Brown. In 1894, she and Anne Tillinghast Weeden were the first women to graduate from Brown University. Woolley received a bachelor’s degree with honors in History and Latin.

After graduation, Woolley taught history at Wheaton two days a week while working on her master’s degree in History at Brown. Upon receiving her degree, she taught Biblical History and Literature at Wellesley College from 1895 through 1900. At Wellesley, Woolley was recognized as an effective teacher and talented public speaker. She also exhibited administrative talents as Chairperson of the Department of Biblical History and Literature. Because of her outstanding record at Wellesley, trustees of Mount Holyoke College invited her to become the president of their college.

Mount Holyoke College, originally Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, was one of the first institutions dedicated to the higher education of women. The creation of other women’s colleges such as Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, and Bryn Mawr, however, caused Mount Holyoke College to lose its unique status. When Woolley took over the presidency in 1901, she began to implement reforms to transform an indifferent institution into one that equaled the very best of the early 20th-century colleges.

Woolley’s first step was to increase and strengthen the Mount Holyoke faculty. To accomplish this, she worked to increase the endowment of the college, enabling her to pay higher salaries to faculty members and to finance sabbaticals for faculty so they could pursue advanced degrees. As a result, Woolley was able to attract some of the most prominent graduates from Yale, Cornell, Bryn Mawr, and the University of Chicago as instructors. She also convinced university trustees to support faculty development and allow professors to conduct research on topics of their choice. By 1911, the college faculty had doubled to 90 members, 34 of whom had doctoral degrees.

Woolley also made significant contributions to the academic programs of Mount Holyoke. She raised admission standards and increased the number of academic programs offered in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. She also increased the number of electives offered and increased the physical education requirement. An honors system for both academic and social matters was created along with general examinations for seniors in their majors. During the 1920s, Woolly expanded the college’s graduate programs and, by 1931, Mount Holyoke had enrolled 37 graduate students.

Throughout her presidency, women’s higher education was attacked with claims that college made females “unfit for domesticity.” Woolley, however, believed that women must “do their share of the world’s thinking and working” and she was determined that women have the education that would enable them to “develop the power of controlling circumstances rather than being controlled by them.”

To help her students succeed, Woolley concentrated on their academic and social successes. She believed they should have a heightened awareness of the contemporary world. She invited guest speakers to campus and encouraged the formation of new organizations, including a student government. She also steadily resisted trustees’ wishes to create a home economics program and abolished the several hours of housekeeping chores that had been required of the students since Mount Holyoke was established.

Woolley was not only a powerful force for women at the university level, but she also was very prominent in off-campus organizations that campaigned for the equality of women. She was the first woman senator of Phi Beta Kappa in 1907 and chaired the College Entrance Examination Board. She was a leading organizer and officer in the National College Women’s Equal Suffrage League and served as president of the American Association of University Women. Woolley was on the advisory council for the American Association for Labor Legislation and the Vice Chair of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1931, Good Housekeeping magazine selected her as one of the twelve greatest living women in America.

Woolley’s passion for equality influenced her desire for peace throughout the world. The most publicized office of her pacifist career was her appointment as the only female delegate at the 1932 Conference on Reduction and Limitation of Armaments in Geneva. Appointed by President Herbert Hoover, Woolley became the first American woman to represent her country at a major international diplomacy convention. She also displayed her passion for peace as the Chair of the Peoples Mandate to Governments to End War, Vice President of the American Peace Society, Delegate to the Institute of Pacific Relations, and member of the American Delegation.

Woolley clearly was a woman of power and perseverance for the interests of Mount Holyoke College, for equality for women, and for a sense of peace in the world. Woolley also was known to concentrate on each special problem brought to her desk, which made all those involved with her—student or faculty—feel like they were an important part of the campus community. Cheek stated (1947, 107), “She loved people, and all types of them responded to her genuine interest and friendliness.” She was a natural leader and gave her undivided attention to all.

After 37 years as president, Woolley retired from Mount Holyoke College, never returning to campus because she replaced by a man.

Contributed by Kristi Preiman, University of Texas at Austin

References

Brown University Public Affairs and University Relations. 2003. About Brown: Mary Emma Wooley, Class of 1891. Providence, R.I.: Brown University.

Cheek, M. A. 1947. Mount Holyoke’s Miss Woolley. Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly XXXI. November:105–107.

Coffin, H. S. 1947. Miss Woolley—Her intangible heritage. Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly XXXI November: 108–109.

Faderman, L. 1999. To believe in women: What lesbians have done for America—A history. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hawkins, H. 1971. Mary Emma Woolley. In Notable American women, 1607–1950: A biographical dictionary, ed. E. T. James, J. W. James, and P. S. Boyer Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

McLean, S. R. 1947. The Second Founder. Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly XXXI November: 110–112.

Wells, A. M. 1978. Miss Marks and Miss Woolley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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