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The life and career of Mary Emma Woolley, one of Brown’s first female graduates

Peace advocate, president of Mount Holyoke College transformed higher education in America

“I must be effective, but not aggressive; womanly but not womanish; equal to social obligations but always on hand for the business ones,” Mary Emma Woolley 1895 wrote to her life partner Jeanette Marks on April 22, 1932, describing the difficulties of being the only woman delegate from the United States to the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva.

This was an unusual tone for Woolley, who rarely talked about “being a woman as something difficult to navigate,” Mount Holyoke College archivist Leslie Fields said. But the conference was not the first time she had been the only woman in a room full of men.

As one of Brown’s first female students and one of its first two female graduates, Woolley was used to standing out on College Hill, University Archivist and Assistant Director of the John Hay Library Jennifer Betts said. “It seems like she very much took (being one of few women on campus) in stride,” she added.

Childhood and education at Brown

The daughter of a Congregational Church minister in Pawtucket who had been a chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War, Woolley grew up in Rhode Island after moving to the Ocean State at the age of eight. She attended private schools until her senior year of high school, when she went to Providence High School.

After high school, Woolley attended Wheaton Seminary, now Wheaton College, where she spent two years as a student and five more as a teacher. Following her time at Wheaton, she went on a trip to Europe in 1890. During the trip she visited Oxford and took a liking to the university, deciding it was her wish to attend as a student.

Her father mentioned her ambition to go to Oxford in conversation with then-University President Elisha Benjamin Andrews over dinner the following winter, when Andrews asked, “Why does she not come to Brown?”

It was from this conversation that plans for Pembroke College at Brown were born, with arrangements made for five other female students to join Woolley in her studies at the University in 1891 — 16 years after Annie Smith Peck, the first female applicant, was rejected from the University because of her gender.

Woolley majored in history, taking additional classes in political science, political economy, Hebrew, Latin and Greek while completing her undergraduate degree in three years. Originally, she was taught separately and with the other female students by professors who agreed to teach the courses to female students for 75 cents an hour, Betts said. But not long into her three years, Woolley was taking classes with the male students as well.

After graduating with Anne Tillinghast Weeden in 1894, Woolley spent her fourth year at the University receiving a Masters in History after conducting graduate work with Professor J. Franklin Jameson, who studied American and English history.

Wellesley, Mount Holyoke and Jeannette Marks

After graduating with a masters in 1895, Woolley was offered a position at Wellesley College to teach biblical history. There, she met Jeanette Marks with whom she would begin a 48-year-long life partnership. When two job offers came to Woolley in 1899, one as dean of Pembroke College where she had graduated and the other as president of Mount Holyoke College, she decided on the latter and Marks came with.

It is in the Mount Holyoke archives that the two women’s relationship is detailed in hundreds of letters and correspondences donated by Marks after Woolley’s death. 

It's very clear that their relationship was loving and intimate,” Fields said, referring to the content of the letters. Woolley and Marks talked frequently about their Collie dogs which they raised together and which would frequently roam the Mount Holyoke campus, she added. The success of the college and its students was also a common topic of conversation in the letters, which convey how Woolley “truly cares for (the students) and wants … them to succeed and to go out into the world,” Fields said.

As president and a public figure, Woolley was always on the move, but her letters with Marks were a constant even despite her frequent traveling, Fields said. She was a “woman in a hurry,” Fields said, noting the “scrawl” that was Woolley's handwriting. Woolley wrote “from trains to hotels,” but they are “kind” and thoughtful letters nonetheless, Fields added.

When not traveling around the country, Woolley lived on the Mount Holyoke campus with Marks, and for a time her mother. First they lived in a dorm alongside students, until Woolley advocated for a President’s House where she and Marks later stayed. In the President’s House, Marks taught English classes in the attic while helping to organize student plays that were very popular among the students, Fields said.

The partnership between Woolley and Marks was a “known relationship right on campus,” Fields said. While there was no direct opposition to the relationship at Mount Holyoke, Fields said that as Woolley planned to retire, the Board of Trustees went against Woolley’s wish for a female successor, saying that they wanted “the next president (to be) a family man, they wanted a husband and wife and they wanted that wife to be a good role model for the students.” Fields suspects that this was coded language that referred to Woolley and Marks’ relationship.

This marked a “very difficult time in Mount Holyoke history,” Fields said. Woolley was “pushed out” in her 36th year at the college, a male president was appointed and she never again returned to the campus, staying at a summer home owned by Marks’ family in New York for the rest of her life.

Woolley began writing an autobiography in her retirement, but suffered a stroke that left her unwell for several years. Confined to a wheelchair and suffering from loss of eyesight, Marks took care of Woolley in her sickness, Fields said. 

Woolley passed away on Sept. 5, 1947 at the age of 84. Following her passing, Marks received condolence letters from Mount Holyoke alumnae, university professors throughout the country and one from Frances Perkins whom Woolley had known as a student and who had gone on to become the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Lasting legacy

Despite Woolley’s unceremonious death, her influence on Mount Holyoke and all of higher education was unmistakable, Fields said. “She transformed Mount Holyoke to a true collegiate environment,” instituting more rigorous academic programs, inviting students from around the world to study at the college and promoting doctoral study among the faculty.

Her role at Mount Holyoke, turning it from a religious seminary into a rigorous and competitive academic institution, made her a well-known figure. “She’s not a common household name today,” Fields said, “but the people in the 1930s, and earlier, in the United States, they would have recognized her name.”

Woolley was active in Women’s Suffrage and worked with Jane Addams, among other reformers of the day. She served on the Red Cross Commission with Calvin Coolidge and was the only woman member on the Commission to investigate educational conditions in China in 1921. It was toward the end of her tenure as president of Mount Holyoke that Herbert Hoover appointed her as the only woman in the U.S. delegation to the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments in Geneva.

Woolley’s national prominence made her a role model for women at Brown. “She was definitely someone that other students looked up to in later years,” Betts said. Woolley “felt that women should create their own opportunities,” and she spent her life helping women achieve success in their careers.

The desire to open the doors of education and career opportunities to other women was a difficult process at the time, Pembroke Center Archivist Mary Murphy said. “Even for very wealthy, very privileged women,” she noted, “they still faced enormous barriers to education.”

But in spite of these obstacles, Woolley’s success at Mount Holyoke made her “well-respected” among the Pembroke alumnae who advocated for her appointment as the first female trustee of the University in 1927, Betts said. The Corporation replied to the request for a female trustee later that year, writing, “the time had not arrived for the election of a woman to membership.”

Although she never sat on the board of trustees, Woolley’s impact on the University remains memorialized today in Woolley Hall — an undergraduate dorm built in 1963 on the part of campus that used to house Pembroke College.



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