Woolley, Mary E. (1863–1947)

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Woolley, Mary E. (1863–1947)

American educator, college president, and activist . Born Mary Emma Woolley on July 13, 1863, in South Norwalk, Connecticut; died on September 5, 1947, in Westport, New York; daughter of Joseph Judah Woolley (a Congregational cleric) and Mary Augusta (Ferris) Woolley (a schoolteacher); educated at Mrs. Fannie Augur's school in Meriden, Connecticut; attended schools of Miss Bliss, Mrs. Lord, and Mrs. Davis in Pawtucket, Rhode Island; Providence High School, Rhode Island; graduated from Wheaton Seminary (now College), 1884; one of the first seven women admitted to Brown University, A.B., 1894, M.A. in history, 1895, Ph.D., 1900; became first woman senator in Phi Beta Kappa, 1907; studied educational problems in Great Britain, 1900.

The first child of cleric Joseph Judah Woolley and schoolteacher Mary Ferris Woolley , Mary E. Woolley was born on July 13, 1863, in South Norwalk, Connecticut. When she was eight, the family moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where Woolley was educated at home and at small private girls' schools. Growing up, she was deeply influenced by her parents' religious devotion, pacifist beliefs, and dedication to serving God through social reform and improving the lives of the working class. She attended high school in Providence but finished her secondary education in 1884 at Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts. After teaching there for five years, Woolley traveled to Europe, where she observed the educational opportunities available to European women and decided to pursue a higher education. She was one of the first group of seven women admitted to Brown University in 1891. After spending the first few months as a "guest" in men's classes, Woolley joined the separate classes opened for women. An exceptional student and a natural leader, she earned her bachelor's degree in three years, graduating with one other woman student in 1894. After a further year of study, she earned a master's degree in history. She would publish three historical articles in the 1890s.

In 1895, Woolley accepted a position as instructor of Biblical history and literature at Wellesley College; by 1899 she was a full professor. A popular teacher, at Wellesley she introduced new elective courses in church history and headed her department, as well as serving as head of a large dormitory. In 1899, Woolley was offered two considerable appointments, as dean of the women's college at Brown University, and as president of Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, replacing Elizabeth Storrs Mead . She accepted Mt. Holyoke's offer, but delayed beginning work there until 1901, after studying a year in England. She would remain president of Mt. Holyoke for over three decades.

Woolley's long tenure is seen as crucial in the development of Mt. Holyoke, one of the most respected of American women's colleges. She continued the tradition of Mt. Holyoke's founder Mary Lyon , who emphasized scholarship as well as community and religious service. She doubled the size of the faculty and improved it by raising salaries and establishing sabbaticals for research, increasing academic freedom in teaching, and publicly recognizing her faculty's achievements. She also set up fellowships for needy students, and made Mt. Holyoke a member of the Carnegie Foundation's pension program.

The college's students benefited from Woolley's curriculum reforms. She extended the proportion of free electives in the program, and introduced honors courses and comprehensive exams in major fields of study. In addition, she loosened regulations which required students to belong to the Congregationalist Church, allowing students of any denomination to attend. She consistently refused efforts by the college's board to implement a home economics program, believing that would be detrimental to the college's mission. Woolley also replaced the YWCA with a "Fellowship of Faiths."

To inspire her students, Woolley frequently brought guest speakers to campus. To maintain an open collegiate environment, she decided to end secret societies and implemented an honor system for both social and academic responsibility. Woolley was also a tireless fund raiser, despite her personal distaste for it, and saw the college's endowment grow from less than $1 million to almost $5 million during her presidency.

A dedicated instructor and administrator, Woolley served on many educational boards and conducted research on ways to improve higher education throughout her career. She was the first woman senator of Phi Beta Kappa, served as chair of the College Entrance Examination Board (1924–27), and led the movement to improve funding and academic standards at American women's colleges. She was also active in federal conferences on education and childcare issues, and from 1921 to 1922 traveled across China for the Foreign Missions Conference, observing educational institutions. A member of the advisory board of the American Association of Labor Legislation, Woolley opposed sweatshops and urged consumers to boycott the products of sweatshop labor.

Always active in spiritual causes as well, Woolley was made chair of the Federal Council of Churches in 1936, served as honorary moderator for the General Council of the Congregational-Christian Churches, and was vicepresident of the American Peace Society from 1907 to 1913. A leader in the women's peace movement which preceded World War I, Woolley remained dedicated to fostering international understanding all of her life. She was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to represent the United States at the Geneva Conference on Reduction and Limitation of Armaments in 1932, the first woman to represent the nation at a major diplomatic event. As chair of the Peoples' Mandate to End War in 1936, she recommended economic sanctions as an alternative to military action. Besides the peace movement, Woolley was also closely associated with the woman suffrage movement, and among other achievements cofounded the College Women's Equal Suffrage League in 1908. Other offices Woolley held include vicechair of the American Civil Liberties Union, member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in Pawtucket, and president of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), from 1927 to 1933.

In 1937 Woolley resigned as president of Mt. Holyoke after facing increasing opposition from the board of directors, who disapproved of her extended absences from the school and accused her of mismanagement of college funds. Woolley was disappointed by the board's actions against her, and angered by their decision to replace her with a male candidate. She saw a male president of a women's college as an implication that no woman was qualified for the position, and as running counter to the institution's mission to prepare women for leadership. She never returned to the campus after the new president was installed.

Woolley moved to Westport, New York, where she continued to work on international issues. An organizer of the Committee on the Participation of Women in Post-War Policy during World War II, she was also a member of the feminist National Women's Party. She frequently published articles in the late 1930s and 1940s on education and international peace, as well as one book, Internationalism and Disarmament (1935).

In 1941, Woolley was honored for a lifetime of achievement for outstanding educational service by the American Federation of Women's Clubs. Recipient of 20 honorary doctorates, she also held honorary memberships in many organizations, including the New England Press Women's Association, the American Women's Club in Vienna, the Business and Professional Women's Club, the Cosmopolitan, and the Women's University Club of New York City. In 1944, Mary Woolley suffered a cerebral hemorrhage which left her partially paralyzed. She died in Westport in 1947, age 84, and was buried in Wilton, Connecticut.


Current Biography 1942. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

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.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Woolley, Mary E. (1863–1947)

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