Pendleton, Ellen Fitz (1864–1936)

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Pendleton, Ellen Fitz (1864–1936)

American educator who was president of Wellesley College (1911–36). Born Ellen Fitz Pendleton in Westerly, Rhode Island, on August 7, 1864; died in Newton, Massachusetts, on July 26, 1936; youngest of nine children of Enoch Burrows Pendleton (a merchant and postmaster) and Mary Ette (Chapman) Pendleton; graduated from Westerly High School; Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, B.A., 1886, M.A., 1891; attended Newnham College, Cambridge, England, in 1889–90; never married; no children.

The youngest of nine children of progressive, well-to-do parents, Ellen Pendleton was valedictorian of her high school graduating class in Westerly, Rhode Island, and graduated from Wellesley College in 1886. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she remained at the college as a temporary tutor, and in 1888 was appointed an instructor in mathematics. She spent the next year pursuing graduate study at Newnham College, in Cambridge, England, then returned to Wellesley where she was awarded an M.A. in 1891. Pendleton served variously as secretary of the college, head of College Hall, dean, and associate professor of mathematics before becoming acting president in 1910, during the illness of President Caroline Hazard . After Hazard's resignation in 1911, Pendleton was elected president of the college, becoming the first alumna ever appointed to the post.

During her 25-year tenure at Wellesley, Pendleton oversaw a remarkable increase in the college's endowment, to nearly $10 million, as well as a complete rebuilding of the physical plant, most of which was destroyed by a fire in March 1914. Within three weeks of the blaze, Pendleton had temporary structures constructed to accommodate classes, and embarked on a $3 million capital campaign to rebuild. Within a decade, seven new brick structures had been constructed, and another eight were added before her retirement in 1936, in all comprising six dormitories, four apartment buildings for faculty, three academic buildings, an alumnae building, and an administration building.

In addressing academic issues, Pendleton called for the relaxation of the college's entrance requirements and instituted a broader curriculum, offering students honors courses, independent research, and a wider choice of electives, but she rejected vocational training or narrowly specialized courses. Although not an academic theorist, Pendleton was praised by colleagues for her practical approach. "No one knew better than she how things really worked," said Smith College President William Allan Neilson, "and this practical experience in the actual operation of the curriculum must have saved the College many mistakes and much futile experiment." Pendleton was also a strong believer in academic freedom; she unsuccessfully appealed the dismissal by the trustees of pacifist Emily Greene Balch in 1918, and took an active role in opposing the 1935 Massachusetts legislation requiring all teachers to sign a loyalty oath.

Pendleton's educational interests reached far beyond her own institution. In 1917, she was elected president of the New England Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. She also served as president of the College Entrance Examination Board, vice-president of Phi Beta Kappa, and vice-president of the Associated Boards for Christian Colleges in China. When the American Peace Prize was founded by Edward Bok in 1923, Pendleton was the single woman named as a juror.

Ellen Pendleton, or "Pres. Pen," as she was respectfully dubbed by students, retired in 1936, and died just a month later of a cerebral hemorrhage. She left her entire estate to Wellesley, the institution which had dominated her life for over 50 years.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts