They met at college and fell in love. One was a teacher and the other a student. And both were women.
The professor, Mary Emma Woolley, taught Bible history and literature at Wellesley College. The student, Jeannette Augustus Marks, was 12 years her junior. At first, each was afraid to tell the other how she felt. But in 1900, Mary was offered the presidency of Mount Holyoke College, and the prospect of separation forced them to speak, and to discover that they both felt the same way. After Jeannette’s graduation, they were together for more than 50 years.
It was not always easy. Upon her arrival at Mount Holyoke, Mary created a teaching position for Jeannette, who began as an English instructor. Although the women had separate quarters, students and faculty members talked. Jeannette, fortunately, was the real deal, a prolific writer who published 20 books in her lifetime and created a theater group on campus. And Mary was revered as a scholar and administrator. During her 36-year presidency, she led efforts with other women’s colleges to raise funds, academic standards and public support for women’s education. Mount Holyoke became one of the best colleges in the U.S. as she built a strong faculty, attracting scholars from prestigious schools.
The two women summered at Jeannette’s family home, Fleur De Lys, on Lake Champlain, probably the one place they could truly be themselves. And their mutual devotion did not dissuade the YWCA from inviting Mary to speak at Silver Bay summer conferences; she did so on at least three occasions, in 1903, 1919 and 1926.
Sadly, Mary Woolley’s time at Mount Holyoke ended badly. Male trustees felt the college had been “overfeminized” and insisted upon appointing a man as president after Woolley’s retirement. Woolley never visited the campus again. She moved to Fleur De Lys and lived there with Jeannette until her death in 1947. Marks died there in 1964 at the age of 88.
* * *
Mary Emma Woolley holds a special place in my heart because of her Brown University M.A. thesis, “The Early History of the Colonial Post Office.” And Jeannette must have been great fun; here are two quotes from one of her books, Vacation Camping for Girls (1913):
“In the autumn I camped alone for two weeks in a log cabin. I say alone. I was not alone, for I had three friends with me – a collie puppy, a blind fawn, and a year-old cat. There were the best of companions—for better I could not have asked. I never heard a word of faultfinding, and I was witness to a great deal of joy. It is a curious fact about camp life that if a girl has weak places in her character, if she is selfish or peevish or faultfinding or untidy, these weaknesses will come out. But my four-footed friends were good nature itself, young, growing, happy, contented.”
“Don’t cut your foot with an axe. It will not add to the pleasures of camp life.”