Mary Emma Woolley, a Champion of Unlimited Possibilities

March 31, 2014

Editor’s note: As part of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating AAUW women of character, courage, and commitment.

Mary Emma Woolley in a cap and gown

Mary Emma Woolley

Mary Emma Woolley (1863–1947) embodied what it means to be an AAUW member. She blazed trails in education, stepped up to lead, and spoke passionately about issues such as suffrage and women in STEM.

The daughter of a Congregational minister, Woolley broke through barriers early in life. In fall 1890, she attended Brown University, but because the university did not yet admit women, she took classes as a visitor. Woolley was officially admitted to Brown in 1891 and was the university’s first woman student. After graduating in 1894, she taught biblical history and literature at Wellesley College.

In 1900 Woolley was offered two remarkable opportunities — the presidency of the new women’s college at Brown University and the presidency of Mount Holyoke College. In a move that would forever change her life, she chose the latter and became one of the youngest college presidents ever at age 38. She served as president of Mount Holyoke for 37 years. In this role, she worked to improve the reputation of the college by increasing its endowment and recruiting better faculty members.

A member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (the predecessor to AAUW), Woolley was also a frequent contributor to its meetings and publications. She addressed the membership on subjects related to women in education and on the suffrage and pacifist movements, in which she was active.

Woolley cared deeply about women’s education, and she was especially interested in advancing women in the sciences. In a 1929 AAUW Journal article requesting donations to the fellowship fund, she wrote, “We seem to have pitifully few prize scientists, including both men and women. When we limit ourselves to our own sex, the situation is even less encouraging.”

She was also one of the earliest members to focus on the issue of women’s suffrage. Woolley believed that education and suffrage were inextricably linked and that without the right to vote women could not carry out their responsibilities to improve society. She felt that college educated women, who were privileged in many ways, had a responsibility to improve things for women who were less fortunate.

“It is impossible to consider the question of civic responsibility without reference to the question of woman suffrage,” she said during a speech at an AAUW annual meeting. “For those of us who have come slowly, perhaps, but convincingly to the affirmative side, converted by the irresistible logic of the situation, the emphasis is no longer upon ‘rights’ but ‘duty.’”

Woolley became AAUW’s 20th president in 1927. She received 100 percent of the vote and served as president for six years.

In her acceptance remarks, she marveled over AAUW’s membership of “graduates of colleges and universities; women trained in the liberal arts and in vocations; lawyers, doctors, nurses, ministers, businesswomen, social workers, editors, poets, novelists, scholars, scientists, investigators … What an army of potential force is there! Nothing is impossible to such a power.”

A statement spoken 87 years ago that still rings true today.



A black-and-white photo of Brunauer at a writing desk

On McCarthy’s Blacklist

AAUW members Esther Brunauer and Dorothy Kenyon vigorously refuted the accusations that they were tied to communist front organizations or that AAUW operated in such a manner.

A black and white photo of a woman standing on the stoops of a building that is covered in ivy cut around a plackard that says American Association of University Women

A One-Woman Crusade for Justice

Althea Kratz Hottel’s career reads like a true success story in academia. Spending most of her career in some way affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, she became the university’s first dean of women, not to mention the first woman to hold the position of dean on the campus.

A suffragist being arrested by a policeman in a carriage in 1917

AAUW’s Long Road to Women’s Suffrage

Why would a group of such brave, trailblazing, educated women oppose women’s suffrage?

Suzanne Gould By:   |   March 31, 2014


  1. Avatar Ann Karus Meeropol says:

    It is a great pleasure to see an article about Mary Emma Woolley. In my doctoral dissertation, (A Practical Visionary, Mary Emma Woolley and the Education of Women — U. Mass-Amherst, 1992) I wrote a professional biography of Dr. Woolley — utilizing, among other sources, AAUW archives.

    Just this winter, I completed a book about Dr. Woolley’s last struggle — her effort to make sure that 100 years of women’s leadership at Mount Holyoke College would continue after her retirement in 1937. In my book, A MALE PRESIDENT FOR MOUNT HOLYOKE COLLEGE: The Failed Fight to Maintain Female Leadership, 1934-1937 (McFarland, 2014), I was able to use material that had been unavailable to scholars until 1999 — material from the Search Committee that ultimately recommended that Dr. Woolley be succeeded by Roswell Gray Ham, an Associate Professor of English from Yale University. I was able to chart the strong resistance to this decision by members of the AAUW (including General Director Kathryn McHale, Dr. Esther Richards, Dr, Esther Caukin Brunauer and Attorney Dorothy Kenyon) as well as the spirited struggle waged at two (executive session) Board of Trustees meetings at Mount Holyoke College by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, a friend of Woolley’s and a Mount Holyoke alumna herself.

    The sequestered material that finally saw the light of day in 1999 permitted me to detail how an initially small number of determined men on the Mount Holyoke Board of Trustees were able to defeat female leadership during the search process and then stonewall all resistance at two Board Meetings and among the alumnae of Mount Holyoke College many of whom, despite Woolley and her allies’ best efforts, could not see the value of solidarity but only the shame of public controversy.

    Despite the loss of the presidency of Mount Holyoke, the women who fought to maintain female leadership were able to have a rousing, articulate “last word” at the college’s centennial celebration in May of 1937, just before Woolley stepped down as president. The women may have been beaten but they were unbowed in defeat.

    I am grateful to the AAUW for giving me access to their archives.

    The positive reactions to my book in the two months since it was published have been very rewarding and fun as well.

    Ann Karus Meeropol

    It would be 41 years before a woman again became President of Mount Holyoke College

  2. […] Mary Emma Woolley was the first woman to graduate from Brown University and, in her 30s, became one of the youngest presidents ever of Mount Holyoke College — not bad for a woman living in an era where going to college was still considered highly…  […]

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