Review: A Male President for Mount Holyoke College: The Failed Fight to Maintain Female Leadership, 1934-1937

By Maher, Frinde | Radical Teacher, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Review: A Male President for Mount Holyoke College: The Failed Fight to Maintain Female Leadership, 1934-1937


Maher, Frinde, Radical Teacher


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A Male President for Mount Holyoke College: The Failed Fight to Maintain Female Leadership, 1934-1937 by Ann Karus Meeropol (McFarland 2014)

For almost two hundred years the histories of women's colleges in the United States have offered both examples of and templates for women's wider struggle for equality. The story of the 1937 presidential succession at Mt. Holyoke College, one of the early centers of higher education for women, shows vividly that these battles must be fought and refought in every generation. This book is a detailed and complex account of the ultimately failed struggle by the leaders of Mt. Holyoke to maintain their commitments to female leadership. From 1901 until 1937 Mary Woolley, the President, not only built the college into a strong and influential voice and exemplar for women's education. She also showed how educated women leaders might perform on a larger world stage. She was the sole American woman delegate to the 1931 Conference on the Reduction and Limitations of Armaments in Geneva, capping a series of national and international roles: member of the American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations, acting President of the American Association of University Women, major speaker at the Sixth Conference on the Cause and Cure of War in 1931 in Washington, DC.

By the time of the Mount Holyoke Centennial in 1937, the new President of Mt. Holyoke had just been elected by the Board of Trustees. His name was Roswell Gray Ham and he came to Mt. Holyoke from Yale. In the Mt. Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly of November 1936 the President-elect was quoted as saying in part, "I see woman as the housekeeper of civilization, of the world's culture." (137) According to Meeropol, in subsequent months and years as President, Ham focused on the college rather than on any engagement with the wider world, with mixed results for the quality of the faculty and for student development. The highly qualified female-dominated faculty became one dominated by males, a number of them from Yale. Woolley's broader vision was lost.

Most of this book is a careful reconstruction of the process by which the Mount Holyoke Board of Trustees, dominated by powerful businessmen and their female allies, arranged for the successor to Mary Woolley to be a man. This upsetting of all expectations for Mt. Holyoke's future leadership prevailed in the face of the strong, eloquent but ultimately ineffectual voices of faculty, students, alumnae and, not least, Mary Woolley herself. Meeropol expertly guides the reader through a dense thicket of documentation--letters, press releases, newspaper articles--all that a compendious archive might offer the researcher.

The arguments she quotes for and against recruiting a man for the job are eloquent examples of the discourses surrounding single-sex education and the education of women generally, discourses that persist today. For example, one eager alumna wrote to Ham that "if there is anything that Mt. Holyoke needs, it is just what you can bring--a good healthy Western breeze, a normal family in the President's house, and a masculine point of view." (128) Woolley's closest relationship was with the woman she lived with, Jeannette Marks, and this example of overt lesbian-baiting was typical of many contemporary reactions across the world of women's colleges to the leadership of unmarried women.

But on the other hand, from another alum: "We have a tradition of the widening of opportunities for women ... We don't teach or preach feminism, we have never thought of it as something to be taught. All we want at Mt. Holyoke is the right to use what brains the Lord gave us.... So long as the men's colleges maintain a closed door against women on their faculties, so long as opportunities for women are limited, our [resistance] to your appointment is natural." (146)

The story as Meeropol tells it is fascinating on its own terms, and anyone who has wondered about the politics of university life, presidential searches above all, will get a vivid picture of the ups and downs of a process whose outcome was never by any means certain. …

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