Mary Emma Woolley (1863-1947), was a noted educator, college president, feminist, and peace activist. She was born in South Norwalk, Connecticut and moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1871 at the age of eight. After attending Providence High School, Emma finished her secondary school training at Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts and then taught there from 1885 to 1891.
After Emma made a tour of Europe in 1890, the of Brown University, persuaded her to become the first female student at Brown. She received her A.B. in 1894 and earned her Masters Degree in History. In the Fall of 1895, Emma became an instructor in Biblical history and literature at Wellesley College attaining the rank of full professor by 1899. At that juncture, Woolley was planning a year of graduate study at Brown to earn her Ph.D., and Brown offered her an opportunity to head Pembroke, its newly-instituted women’s college. Instead, Woolley selected a third academic alternative, the presidency of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
On January 1, 1901, Miss Woolley began her long and productive thirty-six-year tenure, becoming, at age thirty-eight, one of America’s youngest college presidents. Her inaugural address set the tone for her administration: There was no limits to what a woman with a trained mind could do; “The ability to master certain lines of thought is a question of the individual and not of sex.”
At Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, Woolley raised academic standards, upgraded the faculty, supervised the college’s significant expansion, and abolished its traditional domestic work system whereby students had to perform cooking and cleaning duties in exchange for tuition reduction. She also firmly rejected trustees’ suggestions for the introduction of home economics into the curriculum.
As her tenure increased, so did Woolley’s national stature and influence. She advised two presidents–Herbert Hoover on women’s issues and Franklin D. Roosevelt on pacifism. In 1932, President Hoover appointed her as a delegate to the Geneva Conference on Reduction and Limitation of Armaments making her the first woman to represent this country at a major diplomatic conclave.
Miss Woolley retired from Mt. Holyoke in 1937 after overseeing the college’s centennial celebration (it was founded by Mary Lyon in 1837). To her great dismay, she was succeeded by a man. In protest Woolley never returned to the Mount Holyoke campus.
In her final years, Brown University bestowed further honors on its famous alumna. She had received an honorary doctorate (one of twenty such degrees from institutions around the country) to which Brown added its prestigious Rosenberger Medal.
Emma’s retirement years were active until she was crippled by a cerebral hemorrhage in September, 1944. From that point until her death three years later, she was cared for by her lifelong companion Jeanette Marks, a student whom Emma had met when she was a teacher at Wellesley.
Another student, Frances Perkins (Mount Holyoke, Class of 1902) became America’s first cabinet member when Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1933. Upon Woolley’s death in 1947, Perkins remarked that “She was undoubtedly one of the most influential women in the world in her period. That influence, I think, was based upon her personality rather than on her position and training.”