Scudder, Vida (1861–1954)

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Scudder, Vida (1861–1954)

American educator and social reformer. Name variations: Vida Dutton Scudder. Born Julia Davida Scudder on December 15, 1861, in Madura, India; died on October 9, 1954, in Wellesley, Massachusetts; only child of David Coit Scudder (a Congregationalist missionary) and Harriet Louisa (Dutton) Scudder; Smith College, A.B., 1884; graduate work, Oxford University, 1884–85; Smith College, A.M., 1889; lived with Florence Converse (1871–1967, a writer), from 1919 to 1954; no children.

Was an instructor (1887–92), assistant professor (1892–1910), full professor (1910–28), all at Wellesley College; founded the College Settlements Association (1889); became a member for life of the Society for the Companions of the Holy Cross (1889); founded Denison House (1892); was active in the Boston Women's Trade Union (1903–12); was a founding member, Episcopal Church Socialist League (1911); founded the Church League for Industrial Democracy (1919); involved with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (1920s–30s).

Selected writings:

The Life of the Spirit in the Modern English Poets (1895); Social Ideals in English Letters (1898); A Listener in Babel (1903); The Disciple of a Saint (1907); Socialism and Character (1912); The Franciscan Adventure (1931); On Journey (1937). Also contributed to the Atlantic Monthly and several religious periodicals.

Vida Dutton Scudder was many things: novelist, scholar, teacher, settlement-house pioneer, friend of labor, pacifist, and Christian Socialist. She was passionate and intelligent, and as varied as her interests seem now, her guiding principle was that of bringing joy and wisdom to those around her. This she did during her almost 93 years.

Vida was born in 1861 in India where her father David Coit Scudder, a young Congregationalist minister, was engaged in missionary work. A few months after her birth, he drowned, and Vida and her mother Harriet Dutton Scudder came home to America, settling in the home of Harriet's parents in Auburndale, Massachusetts. Descended from old New England families on both sides, Vida enjoyed an indulged childhood among well-to-do and well-accomplished relatives. She and her mother spent much of her youth in Europe where Harriet instilled in her daughter a lifelong appreciation for art and natural beauty. Settling in Boston, Harriet enrolled Vida in Miss Sanger's school. Vida did well there and went on to be part of the first class to graduate from the recently opened Girls' Latin School in 1880. She then attended Smith College where her intellectual life was as stimulating as the company there. Upon graduation, Scudder, her close friend Clara French , and their mothers traveled to England where the young women attended Oxford College. There, Scudder was introduced to the work of John Ruskin and became increasingly aware that with her privileged status came an obligation to help those not so privileged.

Not yet sure of her life's direction, Scudder took a position in the English department at Wellesley College in 1887. At the same time, she

began working on a master's degree at Smith which she completed in 1889. By then, Scudder and several other graduates from women's colleges had formed the College Settlements Association (CSA). The first CSA house opened in New York City in 1889. Three years later, Scudder took a leave of absence from teaching to oversee the opening of Denison House in Boston. Along with her good friend Helena Stuart Dudley , who would follow fellow Wellesley professor Emily Greene Balch as head resident, Scudder was joined in those early years at Denison House by Florence Converse (1871–1967). Converse, ten years younger than Scudder, had first met her as a Wellesley undergraduate. Upon her graduation in 1893, Converse entered into a passionate, fulfilling relationship with her former teacher. Their partnership would last more than 60 years, ending only with Scudder's death in 1954.

During the 1890s, Denison House became a center of labor activities in Boston with John and Mary Kenney O'Sullivan , local labor leaders, as frequent guests. Scudder became interested in labor issues and even served briefly as a delegate to the Boston Central Labor Union. At the same time, she continued her religious quest. By 1889, she had joined the Episcopal Church and was also active in the Christian Socialist movement, worshipping at the Church of the Carpenter in Boston. However, Scudder paid a personal price for her growing radicalism. Both her mother and her superiors at Wellesley disapproved, and in 1901 she had a breakdown. She spent two years in Europe, resting, traveling, and writing a semi-fictional account of settlement-house life, A Listener in Babel (1903). Scudder returned to Boston in 1903 with a renewed sense of purpose. She participated in the formation of the Boston Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and started Italian literature courses at Denison House, responding to the changing demographics of that previously Irish working-class neighborhood. She also continued her association with the Christian Socialist movement. She officially joined the Socialist Party in 1911, the same year that she founded the Episcopal Church Socialist League. In 1912, Scudder published Socialism and Character, her attempt to make clear the link between Marxism and Christianity.

Also in 1912, Scudder was an outspoken supporter of the striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. This strike of radical, immigrant women was not sanctioned by the WTUL and its membership was divided over the issue. Scudder joined fellow WTUL members Mary Kenney O'Sullivan and Elizabeth Glendower Evans in support of the strike, contrary to WTUL policy. Chastised by the Wellesley administration for her actions in Lawrence and dismayed by the political divisions within the WTUL and even within her beloved Denison House, Scudder withdrew into academic life. She built a house in Wellesley, where she and her mother moved in 1912. In 1919, they were joined by Florence Converse and her mother, and, two years later, Helena Dudley moved in as well.

Following World War I, Scudder became a pacifist. Retiring from Wellesley in 1928 after 40 years of teaching, she was able to concentrate on the work which established her as a Franciscan scholar, The Franciscan Adventure (1931). A fervent Christian Socialist, the 85-year-old Scudder spoke before the annual conference on Christian Social Thinking in 1945 on "Anglican Thought on Property." She died suddenly in her Wellesley home in 1954, from choking on a piece of food. Florence Converse, her beloved companion of 60 years, was by her side.


Corcoran, Sister Catherine Theresa. Vida Dutton Scudder: The Progressive Years. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI, 1974.

Scudder, Vida Dutton. On Journey. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1937.


Vida Scudder Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, and Wellesley College Archives, Wellesley College.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , Manuscripts Processor at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts