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 Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — The October inauguration of a new Smith College president offers us an opportunity to examine two wrongs perpetrated against the college’s founder by the men who oversaw the establishment of her college and guided its progress over many decades.
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.