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When the Principle Is Right: Lizzie Agassiz at Radcliffe

Elizabeth Agassiz became the first President of Radcliffe College in 1894, after what was previously called "the Annex" had been incorporated by the state of Massachusetts. On the surface, the Annex was not much more than the college version of the School for Girls she had run, in the 1850s, in the attic of her husband's home on Quincy Street. She had been associated with the Annex since 1879, when a group of women got together at the house of Mr. Arthur Gilman at 5 Philips Place in Cambridge and nominated her to be a member of a committee to sponsor a school for young women, to be taught by Harvard faculty. Little did Elizabeth know then that a later incarnation of this group, now called "Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women," would vote her into the presidency of a college.

Indeed, much of the founders’ efforts in the early history of Radcliffe College went into denying that they ever had anything serious in mind. As one former student, Mary de Quedville Briggs, ’84 (who got her official Radcliffe degree in ‘01), declared when sending back a questionnaire she had received from Radcliffe’s fledgling alumnae association: “The Annex was not founded; like Topsy, it ‘Just growed.’” Was the comparison with Harriet Beecher Stowe's unruly slave child, so resistant to efforts of paternalistic schemes of pedagogical improvement, purely accidental? Another alumna from Scarsdale, NY, Anna Weld Carret, now Mrs. Charles B. Dunlap, class of ’88, remembered a speech President Eliot had given to the assembled students of Radcliffe. “Women’s minds were different from men’s minds,” he had said. While women were perfectly capable of understanding what they were taught, they had not shown the ability to go ahead into an unknown field and make discoveries of their own. In essence, they were like Elizabeth Agassiz, though of course Eliot didn’t use that comparison. Instead, he likened them to the biblical Mary, “who kept these things in her heart and pondered them.” Mrs. Dunlap also remembered a not very presidential Mrs. Agassiz dropping and scattering all the diplomas at graduation but remaining “composed and gracious” despite the lapse. "Someone said at the time that this trait of Mrs. Agassiz" (her informality) “was an advantage” to the Annex, where everyone went out of their way, during those early years, not to alienate anyone important at Harvard. Another graduate, Helen Stuart, who ended up chairing the foreign languages department at the Girls’ Latin School in Boston, recalled that “it was always impressed upon us that we must be inconspicuous and must never cross the Harvard Yard……[Harvard] students thought of us as unattractive blue-stockings and compared us unfavorably to the Wellesley girls.” Mrs. Agassiz, who had learned to assert herself without being assertive, was ideally suited to represent an institution that, instead of being “founded” in the traditional way, merely “grew.” As Mrs. Dunlap observed, “The older business men [sic] saw that a woman could care for ‘higher education’ without being a blue stocking.” Elizabeth Agassiz’s main contribution, then, to the history of Radcliffe was that she stayed largely out of the limelight, successfully avoiding what the original founders had dreaded, namely attracting too much attention.

Skepticism about what the students at Radcliffe could in fact accomplish was shared by some of the instructors, too. Briggs remembers one comment made by A. S. Hill, their English professor, “You young ladies express yourselves very well, but you seem to have nothing to say.” Which was, said Briggs, unfortunately true. “There was no latent Marie Curie among us as far as I know,” agreed Katherine Gilbert Francke. Several correspondents said they went to the Annex because it was close. It seems significant, but not too surprising, then, that instructor Josiah Royce felt bold enough to voice his opposition to suffrage surrounded by women seeking a college education: “women were likely to carry out a principle,” he said, “without regard to the facts which influence its application.” This time, though, Mrs. Dunlap remembered snapping back, “How can you go wrong when your principle is right?”

For many of the early Radcliffe staff and students the solution to the problem was either to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible or to flaunt their femininity. Either way, they would be perceived as intellectually non-threatening. When some of the students founded a club, they called it the “Hedonians,” a bow to classical tradition, no doubt, which the students lived to regret when one of the instructors pointed out that they might as well have named themselves “The Voluptuaries.” The name was quickly changed to a more appropriate, non-threatening one, “The Idler.” When the girls went out, they never mentioned they attended the Annex, because nobody would have danced with them. And Sallie Howe, the first librarian of Radcliffe, was apparently afraid to let students see her volumes of Van Dyke, because the engravings were “shocking to her virgin soul,” as Mabel Cook remembered. Motivated students did not have the opportunity of inspecting the volume at the Harvard College Library, because Radcliffe’s library privileges were quickly revoked after an incautious Harvard student said how pleased he was to be able to look at pretty Miss French while he was studying.

Academically, things had been less easily containable. Mary de Quedville Briggs, who attended the Annex from 1880-1882, brought up the rather astonishing array of subjects required of the freshmen: “Greek, Latin, Mathematics, (trigonometry, solid geometry advanced algebra), Physics, German if one entered on French, French if one entered on German—(I had entered on French).” The Freshman English requirement came later, followed by rhetoric and nine themes during the sophomore year, six themes and four “forensics” the junior year, and a likely an even greater number of these during the senior year. There were plenty of opportunities for brilliant students to branch out. For the benefit of Kate Runkle, ’86, for example, a new course in Sanskrit was created (enrollment: Kate Runkle). And Leslie W. Hopkinson describes Gertrude Stein’s presence at a meeting of the Philosophy Club at Sarah Folsom’s home: “I can see Gertrude Stein sitting monumentally in one corner, her eyes fixed on a spot in the floor in the opposite corner, to which she talked, exclusively—but very ably—quite the cleverest person there.” And then there were the instructors who just couldn’t fit their subject matter into the frameworks society had agreed to be acceptable for female students in college: Kate Runkle, the Sanskrit student, had fond memories especially of Professor James B. Greenough, who would easily turn a Roosevelt speech into Ciceronian Latin “and did us the honor of allowing us to read it.” Runkle also recalled how Greenough once interrupted himself in class and said, “with reference to the text” he was teaching, that "for the life of him he couldn’t construe it so as to help us to become better wives and mothers.” The classicist Louis Dwyer ran into similar trouble when reading the Greek tragedies with his students. The year before, a student’s mother had complained that he was introducing his students to “unsuitable reading matter.” Dwyer apparently did not revise his syllabus. “On arriving at the same passage a year later he carefully told us that we might omit three lines. In class, the lines were inadvertently translated without comment, but a little further on Professor Dwyer stopped the reader, remarking that he believed we were to skip the next three lines. They were entirely innocuous but necessary to the sense of the passage, and we maintained our gravity with difficulty.”

All of this happened in quaint late nineteenth-century Cambridge, with its muddy sidewalks and streets dimly lit by flickering gas lamps, where the street cars, their floors covered with damp straw, were still drawn by horses, puddles of water collected in the streets after each rain or thaw, and the President of Harvard College came to church in rubber boots. Lizzie Agassiz of Temple Place, Boston, with the same kind of brilliance she had brought to reinterpreting her husband’s science for the masses, gave this “fortunate and happy set of girls,” in the words of Frances A. Lord (class of ’88), a glimpse of the future, though what they saw was—as their bodies were, too—still firmly wrapped in the garments of the past. When Anna Carret, now Mrs. Dunlap and a grandmother of eleven, passed by her old college grounds sometime in the late 1930s she saw that future transformed into the present. As she strolled along, she noticed “a girl, with her legs crossed, smoking a cigarette, and with an instructor at a table also smoking a cigarette.” But Mrs. Dunlap did not launch into an “o tempora o mores” lament. Instead, she wrote, “it seemed very funny.” And she went on to observe, wistfully: “There is so much more work for a graduate after graduation now than there was when I graduated.”

Bibliographical Note: All quotations are from the Papers of Annie Winsor Allen, 1884-1890, Schlesinger Library, SC 35. Kind assistance in identifying Radcliffe alumnae was provided by Lynda Leahy, Archivist of the Radcliffe Institute, Diana Carey of the Schlesinger Library, and John Bethell; contributing editor to Harvard Magazine.

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