John M. Connolly: Heart of Smith College’s first president in right place

Last modified: Sunday, October 06, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — I would like to thank Mary L. Wentworth, author of “Smith College founder’s dream long deferred” (Gazette, Tuesday) for her guest column on Sophia Smith. As a colleague of Quentin Quesnell, the author of “The Strange Disappearance of Sophia Smith,” and someone who worked closely with him on the book, this is a topic I am always happy to see discussed.

Sophia Smith was a quiet revolutionary. And, appearances to the contrary not withstanding, the college she founded had an ideal first president in Laurenus Clark Seelye.

Virtually everyone Sophia Smith consulted told her not to found a college for women. John M. Greene in particular advised her to give her money to Amherst College (his alma mater) — she refused. He then suggested Mount Holyoke Seminary (his wife’s alma mater).

Sophia again rejected the advice, persisting in her determination to establish a genuine degree-granting college of her own with the highest academic aspirations.

After Sophia Smith’s death, Laurenus Clark Seelye, then a young professor at Amherst College, had to be practically arm-wrestled into accepting the first presidency of Smith College — a job most people advised him against. There was much apprehension in the culture about higher education for women, with wild theories about how this would affect their health and their reproductive capacities.

Seelye was concerned to play down what he knew were unreasonable fears, and I think his comments in 1874 have to be understood in that context.

The curriculum Seelye established, following the instructions in Sophia’s will, was every bit as strenuous as that at Amherst and Harvard, and was in some respects more progressive. He was plainly proud to learn from early members of the faculty who taught at both colleges that the Smith students compared favorably to those at Amherst in their abilities and their achievements.

There is no record that I know of to suggest that he attempted to dissuade his graduates from pursuing careers in what was then an overwhelmingly male-dominated society.

So I think one has to see his 1874 remarks, first, as a tactic to soothe the fears of critics (and the parents of potential students) that some sort of Jacobin experiment was taking place in Northampton, and second, in the light of what actually went on at Smith during his presidency, both in terms of curriculum and of the actual careers of graduates.

Some of those early graduates literally changed the world — Dorothy Reed Mendenhall, who graduated in 1895, disproved the belief that Hodgkin’s disease was a form of tuberculosis. Her research and advocacy also helped set new standards for infant and maternal health in the United States.

Florence Sabin, Class of 1893, was the first woman president of the American Association of Anatomists, the first woman to achieve the rank of full professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School and the first woman member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Countless other graduates have gone on to change the world in their own ways.

As for the observations of my former colleague Fran Volkmann about the expectations for Smith graduates in 1965, it is certainly true that the college showed the effects of Eisenhower-era expectations for educated women, though many graduates of the 1950s and 60s had path-breaking careers (think of Gloria Steinem).

And big changes, powered by a second surge of the women’s movement, were just a few years away. Smith was never a “finishing school,” not in Sophia’s intent, nor in the reality that President Seelye helped create.

John M. Connolly is a faculty membger in the Philosophy Department at Smith College.


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