Williams, Mary Wilhelmine (1878–1944)

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Williams, Mary Wilhelmine (1878–1944)

American historian . Born on May 14, 1878, in Stanislaus County, California; died following a stroke on March 10, 1944, in Palo Alto, California; daughter of Charles Williams and Caroline (Madsen) Williams; graduated from San Jose State Normal School, 1901; Stanford University, A.B., 1907, A.M., 1908, Ph.D., 1914; studied at the University of Chicago.

Appointed associate professor of history at Goucher College (1916); promoted to associate professor (1919), and professor (1920–40); organized first course in Canadian history to be offered in the United States (1916); was retained as a consultant by Honduran government (1918–19); co-founded Baltimore branch of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (1923), serving as state chair (1934–36); toured 15 Latin American countries for the American Association of University Women (1926–27); wrote several texts and travel books, the most widely read being The People and Politics of Latin America (1930).

Mary Wilhemine Williams was born in 1878, one of six children of Scandinavian immigrants, and raised on a farm in rural California, with few luxuries due to her father's concern over the family's finances. Attending school only through grade eight, she eventually resumed her formal education at age 18, enrolling at the San Jose State Normal School and graduating in 1901. After teaching for three years, she enrolled at Stanford University and adopted an accelerated schedule that allowed her to graduate in only three years with a bachelor's degree, thus saving the fourth year to complete her master's. While money concerns forced Williams to return to teaching from 1908 to 1911, she resolved to pursue her love of history and spent her summers away from her own classroom studying at the University of Chicago. In 1911, she traveled to Europe, accumulating research toward her Ph.D. dissertation, "Anglo-American Isthmian Diplomacy, 1815–1915," which would win the American Historical Society's Justin Winsor Prize.

Upon her return home to the United States, Williams taught courses at Welleseley College during the 1914–15 school year, then moved to Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she began as an assistant professor and moved on to associate and then to full professor of history in 1920. During her long career at Goucher, she was instrumental in expanding the school's history program to include more Latin-American history classes and a history of the struggle for women's rights, and also organized and taught the first Canadian history course ever to appear at the college level in the United States. With her strong character, striking Scandinavian looks, and deeply held feminist beliefs, Williams served as an imposing role model for all her students. She was also respected within her field, working as a pioneer in developing new areas of Latin-American study as well as curricula, and served on several committees focusing in this region.

In 1918 Williams was asked to serve as a cartographer for the government of Honduras, which was attempting to resolve a border dispute with neighboring Guatemala and Nicaragua. Eight years later, under the auspices of the American Association of University Women, she toured 15 Latin American nations as part of a survey of educational opportunities available to women internationally. Considered an authority on the region by the 1930s, Williams counseled aviator Charles Lindbergh on his proposed flight over South America, and was appointed by the U.S. State Department to a series of committees attempting to deal with problems related to U.S.-Latin American relations. In addition to her position on the board of editors of Hispanic American Historical Review, Williams also authored several books, among them The People and Politics of Latin America (1930), which remained a standard text on the subject for many years. A trip to the Scandinavian regions where her parents had been born and raised in 1916 resulted in Cousin-Hunting in Scandinavia (1916), a travel book.

For her dedication as both an educator and a promoter of an expanded world view, Williams was justly honored by her colleagues. The Dominican Republic also decorated Williams in 1940 for her efforts on behalf of increased international understanding. In addition to her career accomplishments, she also furthered the causes of both world peace and women's rights, publishing articles in magazines and actively lobbying her legislators. Active in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, she was also an energetic volunteer in activities of the National Woman's Party. Williams retired from her position at Goucher in 1940, and relocated to Palo Alto, California, where she died four years later at the age of 65. She left instructions that on her gravestone be carved the words "Teacher, Historian, Pacifist, Feminist."


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

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

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Williams, Mary Wilhelmine (1878–1944)

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