Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 1978

Miss Marks and Miss Woolley

Miss Marks and Miss Woolley, by Anna Mary Wells '26, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1978, 268 pp.

Anna Mary Wells commenced research for a biography of Mary Emma Woolley knowing that two points would require careful treatment - the close friendship with Jeannette Marks and the controversy over Miss Woolley's successor. When she examined the papers deposited at Mount Holyoke after Miss Marks died in 1964 she confronted problems that could not be glossed over by discreet phrases, for in the correspondence between the two friends she found "ardent love letters expressed in terms that both shocked and embarrassed" her.

"My immediate impulse," she explains in the foreword to Miss Marks and Miss Woolley, "was to abandon my plans for the book. It seemed to me impossible to ignore or suppress the content of the letters, impertinent to continue to read them, and quite unthinkable to publish them." After soul-searching and consultation she concluded that beneath Miss Woolley's facade of perfect control the friendship had at times so influenced her conduct as president that this relationship must be the subject of the book.

Few alumnae will open it without prejudice. My own view was that Miss Woolley deserved her own biography. I was aware of the strong tie that bound her to Miss Marks, though not curious about its exact nature or convinced it required a joint biography any more than does a close bond between husband and wife. By the time I finished this absorbing story I felt that the author was right in telling it now, persuaded less by her arguments than by my own experience as a historian of the uses of contemporary testimony.

If the revelations about this friendship had been left to some disinterested student twenty years hence much would have been lost. How could anyone dependent solely upon the written word reconstruct the author's splendid image of Mary Emma Woolley at the height of her powers, presiding at daily chapel, dark-haired and handsome in academic gown, speaking in her beautifully modulated voice of intellectual and moral values, of the dedicated life, impressing students not totally unaffected, even in sheltered South Hadley, by the 1920s' relaxation of manners and morals? Equally vivid is Jeannette Marks - temperamental, demanding, an inspiration those she taught to write and to love the theatre, disliked by many colleagues, mistress of the feud.

Having provided sufficient evidence to show the nature of the friendship, Anna Mary Wells thereafter exercises tactful restraint in direct quotation and tells the story with a compassionate understanding hardly conceivable in that scholar two or three generations younger who might have unearthed it in 1999.

Once I had accepted the author's parameters of the subject I found this an informative and moving book. Narrative and anecdote flow smoothly together. It is full of psychological insights; it is not psycho-biography. In the conventional sense it is not a scholarly book. It lacks footnotes or bibliography except for a list of Miss Marks's publications. It also lacks an index. Nevertheless, the approach is scholarly. One knows which statements are derived from letters, from Miss Woolley's unpublished autobiographical essay, from Miss Marks's 1955 biography of Miss Woolley, from interviews, from the author's recollections, or from hearsay. The credibility of sources is weighed: the autobiography is unrevealing; the biography omits or distorts many points.

An enviable ecomony [sic] of expression and skill in organizing material permits the author to include some college history and discussion of attitudes toward women's education and careers in Mary Woolley's formative years. The nineteenth-century stereotypes of the financially dependent spinster and the sexually unresponsive wife are perhaps insufficiently balanced by reference to thousands of unmarried teachers and nurses and to happy marriages in which mutual sexual pleasure must have been a factor. The voluminous literature on the threat of sustained intellectual effort to women's health, sanity, and ability to bear children receives more space than the story of how they ignored this advice and broke down barriers at coeducational and graduate institutions.

Mary Woolley's own attenuated education was less influenced by negative pressures than by her own lack of intellectual objective. She was thirty-one when she received the bachelor's degree in 1894, one of Brown's first two women graduates. She completed the M.A. in 1895 while teaching part time at Wheaton Seminary. Five years as a teacher of Biblical history at Wellesley brought out latent capacity for leadership, and on January 1, 1901, she became president of Mount Holyoke.

As a freshman at Wellesley Jeannette Marks made friends with the new instructor of Biblical history, twelve years her senior, but it was only after Mary Woolley accepted the Mount Holyoke offer and separation loomed that the depth of their mutual attachment was admitted. Anna Mary Wells believes that the physical aspect of the relationship never developed very far. Nevertheless, Jeannette's physical proximity remained vitally important to Mary Woolley. She offered Jeannette an instructorship in English literature on the doubtful basis of a few published articles and stories. Jeannette accepted more because she needed an income than from a desire to teach or from interest in a college which she considered in every way inferior to Wellesley.

Jeannette was often absent - to write, to recover from unexplained illnesses, to visit friends, none of whom were as important to her, not to say as tolerant of her as Mary Woolley. Yet it was Jeannette who pled for a home together, and in the President's House, completed in 1908, "Attic Peace" was her bedroom, study, classroom, and retreat from dinners for visiting preachers and guests who bored her. The personal story is interwoven with the complicated histories of the English and English literature departments.

Meanwhile Mary Woolley recruited the promising young women who became the distinguished scientists and scholars to whom today's senior alumnae owe so much. She raised money for higher faculty salaries and for buildings that completed transformation of the Seminary campus. She abolished sororities and domestic work as incompatible with the intellectual purpose of the College. Her flair for dignified ceremonial was demonstrated at the College's seventy-fifth anniversary in 1912 by an impressive academic procession and an elaborate student pageant. In this and other ways Mary Woolley established Mount Holyoke's claim to priority in introducing higher education for women. At this point in her presidency, we are told, "No one any longer ventured to criticize Miss Woolley; her public image and that of the college were inextricably intertwined, .... Moreover, although no one was close to her, most people liked her; except with the friends or enemies of Miss Marks, she was scrupulously fair; she was hard-working, devoted, gracious, impressive, a president to whom the world looked with respect and admiration."

Gently and without laboring the point, the anomalous situation in which the covert relationship placed Miss Woolley is made clear. It provided an emotional outlet and a sense that she was needed as a human being, but while Jeannette's affection sustained her, it could not give the open support of marriage. After 1914 the balance gradually shifted as Miss Marks's family house on Lake Champlain became their summer retreat and, as each in turn retired, their year-round home. For many years the change did not affect Miss Woolley's dominant position in the life of the College or as its distinguished representative. An ever increasing list of board memberships and speaking engagements was capped by appointment as the only woman member of the 1932 Geneva Conference on the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments.

But the latter portion of the book is sad. Miss Marks's influence is pictured as more destructively at work as Miss Woolley, still outwardly vigorous, ignored hints from a conservative masculine board of trustees and postponed retirement until Mount Holyoke's centennial year in 1937. It was like Miss Woolley to urge appointment of a woman successor, even to suggest that failure to do so reflected adversely upon her presidency. It was not in character to carry her opposition to the point of refusing to assist the transition or even to meet President Ham. There is evidence that Miss Marks not only encouraged this personal animosity but actively promoted an anti-Ham campaign among alumnae. Not once in the remaining ten years of her life did Mary Woolley return to South Hadley.

I have tried to avoid viewing the book the author decided not to write. Yet is [sic] seems legitimate to suggest topics for that still-to-be written biography of Mary Woolley. One could explore more fully her intellectual interests and her influence upon curriculum. She initiated the network that evolved into Seven Sisters' collaboration, but what was her relation with other leaders in women's education? She endorsed women's suffrage, but did her growing commitment to world peace prevent her seeing how much more women needed than the vote? Her inaugural address had recommended college preparation for a career or for homemaking. In the dozen years before she retired, with the marriage rate of college women rising steadily, did she ever wonder how well she and the splendid faculty she led would serve as examples for women trying to be both at once? Did she ever consider making Mount Holyoke a pioneer in the institutional changes needed to reconcile the ideal of dedicated scientist or scholar with that of wife and mother? In all fairness I should add that those of us caught in this dilemma did not fully recognize it either. It was, in fact, 1960 before the president of a sister college, Mary I. Bunting of Radcliffe, pointed up the problem of this transitional generation by asking why the United States had so many women with college and graduate degrees and virtually none in positions of authority. The full answer to that question will include the effects of depression, war, and prejudice, but it must also include a fuller study of the careers fo women like Mary Woolley.

Alice Kimball Smith '28

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