Margaret Antoinette Clapp

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Margaret Antoinette Clapp

The winner of the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for biography, Margaret Antoinette Clapp (1910-1974) was a distinguished American educator who served as president of Wellesley College from 1949 to 1966.

Margaret Clapp was born April 10, 1910, in East Orange, New Jersey, the daughter of Anna Roth and Alfred Chapin Clapp, an insurance agent. She graduated from East Orange High School in 1926 and from Wellesley College in 1930. She received an A.B. from the latter with a focus on history and economics. While in college she was named a Wellesley College Scholar, an award given for academic excellence.

Following graduation she taught English literature at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City. She stayed in this position for 12 years, during which time she also worked at Columbia University for her master's degree in history, which she received in 1937. During World War II and shortly thereafter she taught in the history departments of various universities in the New York City area, including the City College of New York (1942-1944), Douglass (1945-1946), and Columbia (1946-1947). At the same time Clapp continued her graduate studies at Columbia in American history.

Her doctoral dissertation was on John Bigelow (1817-1911), an intriguing 19th-century political figure who was an active supporter of the Free Soil movement in the pre-Civil War period (the attempt to ensure that all subsequent territories admitted to the union be free and not slave states). Known also for other progressive ideas such as prison reform, Bigelow served as editor of the New York Evening Post, as New York secretary of state, and as American ambassador to France. Philosophically, he was attracted to Swedenborgianism, a 19th-century mystical doctrine derived from the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).

In the biography which grew from her thesis Clapp stressed the influence of Swedenborg's theories upon Bigelow. She wrote the dissertation under the direction of Allan Nevins. Forgotten First Citizen: John Bigelow was published in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1948.

Following a brief term at Brooklyn College, Clapp assumed the presidency of Wellesley College in 1949. At the time there were only four other women in the country serving as presidents of major colleges. An effective administrator, Clapp expanded Wellesley's facilities and resources considerably. The endowment multiplied threefold during her tenure, and three new dormitories, a faculty club, and a new library wing were added to the campus. In addition, Clapp instituted a generous leave policy for junior faculty and increased faculty salaries by 150 percent. In 1950 Clapp edited a collection of articles, The Modern University, to which she contributed a chapter on the national postsecondary education scene following World War II.

A feminist during the 1950s when conventional notions of feminine identity were at a peak, Clapp maintained that women's sole purpose in life was neither motherhood nor wifedom. Against the then popular Freudian "mystique" (that women violated their natural destiny by becoming educated professionals), Clapp urged that women pursue careers and that social programs such as day care centers and domestic services be provided to allow women to combine work with domestic commitments.

In 1966 Clapp retired from Wellesley and the following year served briefly as chief administrator of a women's college (Lady Doak) in Mandurai, India. In 1968 she accepted a position as United States cultural attaché to India. Later she served as minister-councilor of public affairs in the United States Information Agency (USIA), an office she held from 1970 to 1971.

Clapp retired from public life in the early 1970s and returned to Tyringham, Massachusetts, where she died of cancer in 1974. The library at Wellesley is named in her honor, a fitting tribute to a woman who furthered the cause of women's education during a period when national interest in it was at a low ebb.

Further Reading

No biography of Clapp yet exists. Short summaries may be found in Notable American Women and American Women Writers. She was the subject of a cover story in Time on October 10, 1949. Clapp's papers are at Wellesley College. Several issues of the Wellesley Alumnae Magazine (notably those of March 1958, November 1961, and July 6, 1966) include articles by or about her. □

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Margaret Antoinette Clapp

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