Rutherford, Mildred (1851–1928)

views updated

Rutherford, Mildred (1851–1928)

American educator and Confederate apologist . Name variations: Miss Millie. Born Mildred Lewis Rutherford in Athens, Georgia, on July 16, 1851; died in Athens on August 15, 1928; daughter of Williams R. Rutherford and Laura Battaille Rootes (Cobb) Rutherford (sister of Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb who established the Lucy Cobb Institute for Girls); graduated from the Lucy Cobb Institute for Girls; never married; no children.

Mildred Lewis Rutherford was born in 1851 into a prominent, large and wealthy family in Athens, Georgia, a decade before the Civil War would devastate her home state. Her parents had strong ties to the South; both were from well-known families who had settled in Virginia before the American Revolution, later moving to Georgia. Rutherford inherited her commitment to education from her father and an uncle, who were prominent figures in Georgia's schools. Her father Williams R. Rutherford, a professor of mathematics at the University of Georgia, also ran a boys' school in Athens, while her mother Laura Cobb Rutherford 's brother Thomas established the Lucy Cobb Institute for Girls (named after his daughter) in 1858.

The Southern Confederacy was another Rutherford family passion. During the Civil War, two of Rutherford's uncles served as generals in the Confederate Army. Rutherford worked with her mother and sisters on behalf of the Soldiers' Aid Society, providing food and bandages for Confederate soldiers. These strong ties to family, tradition, and the South shaped her childhood and adulthood. After the Confederacy lost the Civil War, she spent the rest of her life working to promote the values that she believed the Old South embodied.

Rutherford graduated from the Lucy Cobb Institute in 1868, ten years after its founding and three years after the end of the Civil War. She spent several years teaching in public schools in Atlanta before returning to the Institute as principal in 1880. She would remain there for the next 46 years, working to educate young women in the traditions and manners of the antebellum South. Known to her students as "Miss Millie," she wrote the textbooks for her literature classes, including English Authors (1890), American Authors (1984), French Authors (1906), and The South in Literature and History (1907), placing greater emphasis on the morality of writers than on the artistic merit of their work. Rutherford believed that some Southern writers had not received their proper place in the pantheon of American literature and advocated for their greater visibility at the national level (she felt that Joel Chandler Harris, author of the "Uncle Remus" stories, was the neglected equal of Walt Whitman and William Dean Howells). The lack of objective, critical content in her textbooks limited their usefulness to later generations, except in cases where she provided biographical data on more obscure writers.

Rutherford also worked on behalf of Southern and states' rights. She was very active in the Daughters of the Confederacy, serving as historian and honorary president, and helping to establish several new chapters. She was considered particularly effective as a lecturer, sometimes appearing in mid-19th-century costume to add atmosphere to her defense of the South in lecture halls throughout the country. In a series of pamphlets printed in the mid-1920s, she accused Northern historians of distorting the motives of the South during the Civil War, and insisted that the war was precipitated by the North more with the aim of destroying the economic base of the South by ending slavery than with the aim of ending slavery itself. She also took stands against women's suffrage, child labor laws, and national prohibition, arguing that they violated states' rights.

Mildred Rutherford was a member of the Young Women's Christian Association, serving for some 15 years on its national board; she also took charge of the Athens City Mission Board, and became head of an industrial home for girls which her sister Bessie had founded. However, her fight on behalf of the vanished South in which she had grown up was her life's work. She was ill with Bright's disease and arteriosclerosis in her later years, before contracting hypostatic pneumonia and dying on August 15, 1928, in Athens. Three years after her death, the Lucy Cobb Institute closed its doors as well.


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

Andrea Bewick , freelance writer, Santa Rosa, California

About this article

Rutherford, Mildred (1851–1928)

Updated About content Print Article