Sanford, Maria Louise (1836–1920)

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Sanford, Maria Louise (1836–1920)

American educator. Born on December 19, 1836, in Saybrook (now Old Saybrook), Connecticut; died on April 21, 1920, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Henry Sanford and Mary (Clark) Sanford; attended Meriden Academy; graduated from New Britain Normal School, 1855.

Maria Louise Sanford was born in Saybrook, Connecticut, on December 19, 1836, the third of four children of Mary Clark Sanford and Henry Sanford. Following the failure of his shoe store, Henry had moved the family from Georgia to Saybrook prior to Maria's birth. Sanford's education began at age four with her attendance at a country school. In addition, her mother gave her Bible lessons, and told her of the lives of important historical figures; Maria took inspiration from such women as prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and the founder of Mt. Holyoke Seminary, Mary Lyon . The debt from Henry Sanford's earlier business failure forced the family's move to Meriden, where he got a job in his brother's factory. Maria supplemented her classes at the Meriden Academy with her own prolific reading and graduated with honors from the New Britain Normal School in 1855.

Sanford began her innovative teaching career in Connecticut towns, earning a reputation as an instructor who cultivated a love of learning in her students as a substitute for the harsh disciplinary tactics common at the time. She was adamant about emphasizing morals in the classroom in addition to secular pursuits, and later lectured on the topic of moral training at teachers' institutes. While devoting herself to her students, she did not neglect her own education, continuing to study history, logic, and the sciences on her own. In the midst of her professional success, Sanford suffered from depression stemming from her father's death in 1859 and the breaking-off of her engagement to a student of theology.

Positions in Parkersville and Unionville, Pennsylvania, in the latter half of the 1860s earned Sanford the love and respect of both communities. So great was her popularity that she narrowly lost an election for superintendent of the school district in Chester County in 1869, even though such a position was unheard of for a woman. Although she was denied the system's superintendency, Sanford still made her influence felt as the principal of a local academy. She introduced new teaching methods to instructors at the four area schools through the establishment of monthly meetings.

In 1869, Sanford accepted the job of English teacher at Swarthmore College; she was promoted to full professor the following year. Her affinity for poetry had its roots in her childhood studies, but during the mid-1870s she also developed an appreciation for art, which she eagerly incorporated into her curriculum. During her innovative art talks, she used slides to illustrate her points. Soon she was devoting three days a week to lecturing, which resulted in criticism from her fellow instructors and a large pay cut in 1878. Her unconsummated love for a married colleague deepened her unhappiness, and she decided to leave Swarthmore in 1879.

In 1880, a meeting with the president of the University of Minnesota resulted in Sanford's appointment there as an assistant professor. Eventually becoming a full professor of rhetoric and elocution, she made an indelible mark on the institution in her nearly 30-year career there. Deliberate and generous, she financed the education of several of her relatives and made herself available to students; she also assisted those in need and provided shelter for the homeless. She was understandably beloved because she refused to erect a barrier between herself and her students, as was then expected.

In the late 1880s, imprudent real-estate investments left Sanford $30,000 in arrears, but, like her father before her, she refused to file for bankruptcy. She was 80 years old before she successfully paid off her entire debt. Her sacrifice necessitated the implementation of a tight budget and unorthodox means of making extra money which sometimes met with the disapproval of her associates, such as her decision to rent art books to students. Her feminist stance also became an area of attack by critics. Despite criticism from the conservative administrators of the university and other members of the school faculty, Sanford garnered sufficient support from students and alumni to see her through the difficult financial times without loss of her position.

Retirement in 1909 did not spell the end of Sanford's public life. She continued to lecture on the topics of art, public affairs, and women's suffrage throughout the country. She also remained active in the Minneapolis Improvement League and the Woman's Welfare League, the former of which she founded in 1892. On the night of April 21, 1920, Sanford died in her sleep in Washington, D.C. She was buried in Mount Vernon Cemetery. Maria Louise Sanford's memory was honored in many ways. The first women's dormitory at the University of Minnesota was named for her, as was a public school in Minneapolis. As well, a statue was erected to her memory in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.


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

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California

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Sanford, Maria Louise (1836–1920)

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Sanford, Maria Louise (1836–1920)