Mary Emma Woolley, a Champion of Unlimited PossibilitiesMarch 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 (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.
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.
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.
Why would a group of such brave, trailblazing, educated women oppose women’s suffrage?