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Mary L. Wentworth: Smith College founder’s dream long deferred


Bob Vollinger, left, takes a picture of his cousin, Don Vollinger, and Joe LaPerle in front of Sophia Smith's grave in Hatfield Saturday during a scavenger hunt that was part of a 50th birthday party for Bernie Fitch.

JERREY ROBERTS

Bob Vollinger, left, takes a picture of his cousin, Don Vollinger, and Joe LaPerle in front of Sophia Smith's grave in Hatfield Saturday during a scavenger hunt that was part of a 50th birthday party for Bernie Fitch. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

In his 1999 book “The Strange Disappearance of Sophia Smith,” Quentin Quesnell, a former professor emeritus at the college, exposed the fraudulent claim by the Rev. John M. Greene that he should be credited with the founding of Smith College.

President L. Clark Seelye and the all-male Board of Trustees readily accepted his false assertion. After all, who would believe that an old woman, unmarried, nearly deaf and living alone, would have had the wherewithal to conceive of such an undertaking?

However, as disrespectful as this theft was to Sophia Smith’s dignity and generosity, there has been an even more insidious injustice visited upon her. Greene’s deception opened the way for her to be moved off-stage altogether.

From the outset, the first Board of Trustees, and those that followed, along with subsequent administrators and faculties, rejected Sophia Smith’s wish that her college encourage its young women to become reformers.

Well-versed on the issues of the day, it would not be unreasonable to assume that this 52-year-old Hatfield feminist would follow the progress of the women’s rights movement after the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. One of the grievances against “Man,” listed in the Declaration of Sentiments, undoubtedly left an impression: “He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed to her.”

Sophia puts it quite plainly in her 1871 will that she thought her college would provide young women with “the means to usefulness, happiness, and honor now withheld from them.”

“It is my opinion,” she explains, “that by the higher and more thorough Christian education of women, what are called their ‘wrongs’ will be redressed, their wages adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming the evils of society will be greatly increased, as teachers, as writers, as mothers, as members of society, their power for good will be incalculably enlarged.”

But Seelye, who headed the college until 1910, would have none of it. In July 1874, he laid out his objectives for Smith students in a speech to a convention of the American Institute of Instruction.

After arguing in favor of a women’s college education equal to men’s, Seelye began a blistering indictment of “professional women.” He let it be known that he did not want women advocating for higher wages or redressing wrongs because he feared that “the gentlewoman is lost in the strong-minded.” He asked his “fellow teachers” if they had not experienced women out working in a man’s world as excessively conceited, bigoted and offensive in their self-assertiveness.

What, then, did Seelye envision?

He conceded that since women already held more than half the teaching positions in the country, this “learned profession” was a way for women to have a beneficial influence on the young.

However, he believed that Smith graduates would most benefit the race by decorating their homes tastefully and artistically, guiding their children along a moral and religious path, serving as intelligent helpmates for their college-educated husbands and coming to be perfect — as the Father in Heaven is perfect.

In his abandonment of Sophia’s objectives, Seelye describes in an 1874 prospectus the atmosphere that would accomplish his goals: “It is the wish of the Trustees to realize as far as possible the idea of a literary family, in which young women may not only enjoy the best facilities for intellectual discipline, but may also receive a social refinement and culture, which will enable them to feel at home in the best society and to conduct themselves with grace and propriety in any sphere of life.”

Ninety years later, the philosophy of the college as a “finishing school” still prevailed. When Frances Volkmann, a professor of psychology, came to Smith College in 1965, she found “a widespread attitude among the faculty that we were not educating women for careers. The women — we called them girls — were not going to be needing careers,” she wrote in a Dec. 6, 1999, essay in the Gazette. “They were going to be supporting highly successful husbands, they were going to be mothers, they were going to be volunteer leaders, and they were going to make a difference, but not through careers.”

How many young women over a hundred-year period had their hopes and aspirations ignored, subtly closed off, by this environment?

The least we can do now is to make amends by erecting a statue of Sophia Smith in acknowledgement of her rightful place of honor as the founder of the college.

Mary L. Wentworth, a graduate of Smith College, lives in Amherst.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

To the editor: I was surprised by both the tone and conclusions of Mary L. Wentworth’s column, “Sophia Smith’s Dream Deferred.” While I share her concerns that Sophia Smith’s founding role be respected, I think the article wasn’t entirely accurate on several accounts. I am of L. Clark Seelye’s family, being his great-granddaughter, and I lived in the house he …

Legacy Comments4

It is also interesting to note, that until the finishing school concept was abandoned, male Smith (and Mt.Holyoke) professors were perfectly free to have sex with their students.

Given the narrow definition that the men set for students, it is likely that these women, who succeeded so clearly, did what they did in spite of the narrow focusing that their alma mater gave them. Their success is more a testament to what women can do when they have the chance. Their alma mater may have given them a space in which to develop their confidence, but its mission was way too narrow for what they wanted for themselves.

Thank you, Jane, for your comment. I think that the success in the opening up of many of the occupations and professions that you list can be attributed to the Women’s Liberation Movement that began in the late sixties rather than to actions of Smith faculty or administrators. For instance, during the fifties and sixties, a certain number of Smith graduates worked in the research departments at news magazines and newspapers in the Big Apple. After all, Smith students had quite a lot of experience in researching the topics for all those papers they wrote. But when the WLM came along there was more than one sit-in in these offices (Susan Brownmiller helped organize one in 1973 at the Ladies Home Journal) to protest the poor pay as well as the dead-end nature of these jobs as well as the lack of women in the top positions.

Mary--I am a '60s graduate of Smith. While it's true that there have always been some (mostly men) who have tried to take away Sophia Smith's vision or call it their own, in the end the young women Smith has educated over the years have had the last laugh. We are writers, artists, senators, scientists, engineers, composers, actors, governors, doctors, lawyers, architects, politicians, diplomats, world travelers--leaders in any field you care to name. In my class alone, I could point you to the first woman vice president of a major Bank, the first woman secretary of state for a state, the first woman head of a major hospital, heads of schools, writers of books, owners of their own architecture firms and travel agencies, teachers and principles, nuns and ministers, major painters, composers, and more. I cannot believe you have spent time (as I have) talking to Alums and reading what so many of the graduates say about their lives in the back of the Alumnae Quarterly. Or the articles wherein the Smith women of excellence are written about in the magazine's front pages. It's a roll call of excellence that only grows greater with each new graduation. I look forward to continuing this conversation, Jane Yolen

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