Mary Emma Woolley, noted educator, women’s suffrage supporter, college president, feminist, and peace activist, was the first graduate of the Women’s College at Brown University (later called Pembroke) in 1894. E. Benjamin Andrews, innovative president of Brown University, had persuaded Woolley to become the first woman student at Brown. She earned her degree under the tutelage of the famed American historian J. Franklin, a professor at Brown from 1888 to 1901. She received her A.B. in 1894 and earned her master’s degree in history a year later.
Woolley was born in South Norwalk, Connecticut on July 13, 1863. the daughter of Rev. Joseph Woolley and his second wife, Mary A. Ferris. She was given the nickname May and enjoyed a comfortable, nurturing childhood in New England, moving to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the age of eight. Her father, a reform-oriented Congregational minister, assumed a new pastorate there. His efforts to incorporate social work into religion heavily influenced his daughter.
Woolley attended Providence High School and a few smaller schools run by women before finishing her secondary schooling in 1884 at the Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts. She taught there from 1885 to 1891. After traveling through Europe for two months during the summer of 1890, she planned to attend Oxford University in England. Her plans changed after Andrews convinced Woolley to become the first female student at Brown. She began attending Brown in the Fall of 1890 while still teaching at Wheaton. In 1894, she received her B.A., and in 1895, her M.A. for her thesis titled, The Early History of the Colonial Post Office.”
In 1895, Woolley began teaching biblical history and literature at Wellesley Collee. She was popular with her students and peers, and in 1896, she was made an associate professor. During her time at Wellesley, she made significant changes in the curriculum while gaining administrative experience as her department chair. She also met Professor Jeannette Augustus Marks at Wellesley, and the two women lived in a lesbian relationship for fifty-five years.
In December 1899, Brown University offered her a job as the head of the newly founded Women’s College, Pembroke. Simultaneously, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, offered her its presidency. Woolley took Mount Holyoke’s offer and, on January 1, 1901, at the age of 38, became one of the youngest college presidents in the United States. Her inaugural remarks set the tone for her administration: “There is no limit to what a woman with a trained mind could do. The ability to master certain lines of thought is a question of the individual, not sex.”
Immediately upon arrival at Mount Holyoke, Woolley outlined her views on female education. While in the past, the college had emphasized women’s education in service to society, Woolley stressed that in the future, a woman’s education would not need to be justified by anything but intellectual grounds. She believed education was a preparation for life and that an educated woman could achieve anything. She argued that if women had not succeeded in the past, it was because their education had held them back. During her 36-year presidency, Woolley led cooperative efforts with other women’s colleges to raise funds, academic standards, and public consciousness for women’s education. Mount Holyoke became one of the best colleges in the United States. She built a strong faculty, attracting scholars from the most prestigious graduate schools by offering increased salaries, fellowships, and sabbaticals.
Woolley also improved the quality of students admitted to Mount Holyoke by raising admission standards, introducing honors programs, and instituting general examinations for seniors. During Woolley’s presidency, the college endowment grew from $500,000 to $5 million, and the campus added sixteen new buildings. One of her most significant changes came when she abolished the domestic work system instituted by the college’s founder, Mary Lyon. When Lyon founded Mount Holyoke in 1837, students were required to cook and clean for economic reasons. Woolley thought the system was old-fashioned and blocked her goal of making Mt. Holyoke intellectually equal to male colleges.
Woolley also managed to devote her time to a number of organizations during her presidency, advocating for social reforms of all kinds, including suffrage, pacifism, and church matters. She served as the vice-president of the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) and worked on U.S. entry into the League of Nations. She worked with President Herbert Hoover on women’s rights and with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on pacifism. She was an early member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, which later became the American Association of University Women (AAUW). From 1927-1933, she served as President of the AAUW, and the number of women attending colleges and universities grew by the thousands. The seeds planted by Woolley at that time propelled countless new laws, including the Equal Pay Act, Title IX, which protects individuals from discrimination based on sex in education programs receiving federal funds, and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
Woolley gained international recognition after President Hoover appointed her as a delegate to the conference on Reduction and Limitation of Armaments, which met in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1932. She was on the Y.M.C.A. board, the American School Peace League executive committee, the Council of the National Institute for Moral Instruction, and the Commission on Peace and Arbitration. She was a United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa senator and National Consumers’ League Vice President.
When Woolley retired at the age of 74, trustees at Mount Holyoke were displeased with her outside activities. A male successor, Roswell Gray Ham, was appointed. This greatly displeased Woolley, who argued that if a man was president of a women’s college, it implied that no qualified female candidate existed. “A male selection also diminished the roles of women preparing for positions of responsibility and leadership,” Woolley said. In protest, Woolley never returned to the Mt. Holyoke campus again.
In her final years, Brown University bestowed further honors on its famous alumna. She had received an honorary doctorate to which Brown added its prestigious Rosenberger Medal. Woolley’s retirement years were active until a cerebral hemorrhage crippled her in September 1944. She spent the final three years of her life in a wheelchair.
Mt. Holyoke graduate, Frances Perkins (Class of 1902), became America’s first female cabinet member when President Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1932. Perkins attributed her success to the strong influence of Mary Woolley. “She taught me that a woman could do anything a man can do. Upon learning of Woolley’s death, Perkins said, “She was undoubtedly one of the most influential women in the world in her period.”
Mary Woolley died on September 5, 1947. She was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2007.
For additional information:
Miss Marks and Miss Woolley by Anna Mary Wells, Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Education, by Mary Emma Woolley, Palala Press, 2015.