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Douglass Scholars - Mabel Smith Douglass: Champion or "Compromiser" of women's education? - Jacqueline Green, Douglass College '03

Mabel Smith Douglass
First Commencement
June 10, 1922

Today, Douglass College of Rutgers University, formerly known as New Jersey College for Women (NJC), stands as the largest women's college in the country. Indeed, as the college's namesake implies, the formation of the school would not have been possible if it were not for the hard work of its founder and first dean, Mabel Smith Douglass. She succeeded in founding a women's college in 1918, a time in history when education for the "fragile" female faced opposition. Douglass knew with whom she must speak, and how to approach them in order to achieve her goals. She always made certain she was in control when it came to matters of NJC's success. It is not surprising that a woman like Douglass, who had received a degree from Barnard College and who had successfully managed her husband's company for a year, would take on the challenge of establishing a women's college. She was confident in her capabilities as a woman and wanted to give girls in New Jersey the opportunity to use their knowledge and capabilities to their fullest potential.

Not all view Douglass as this idealistic champion of women's rights, however. For example, in Marie Marmo Mullaney's article, "The New Jersey College for Women: Middle Class Respectability and Proto- Feminism, 1911-1918," the author strongly criticizes Mabel Smith Douglass' strategies in founding NJC as being of a class of "social feminism" that led to the death of the women's rights movement after 1920.1 As defined by Mullaney, "social feminism" was a strategy which "pose[d] the least challenge to a male dominated authority structure." It is intriguing to examine why Mullaney came to these conclusions and to present evidence from archival records and other sources that show that Douglass really was a smart leader and deserves more credit than Mullaney gives her.

Mullaney's main criticism is that the founders of NJC, led by Mabel Smith Douglass, represented a "narrowing of vision that came to plague the American women's movements as a whole in the period immediately preceding the achievement of suffrage." The "narrowing of vision" refers to the growing support for a separate women's institution as opposed to an equal co-educational college. In a letter to William Henry Steele Demarest, Rutgers College president, dated April 14, 1913, Douglass wrote, "it has been my experience that no one wants it [coeducation] here in the East!"2 In a follow-up letter dated July 14, 1913, she asserted, "I know that I would lose some of my best backers were I to propose co-education. Anything you might see apropos co-education will not have emanated from anything I have said nor from those working with me."3 Though upon first consideration these statements seem to support Mullaney's assumption, a different interpretation can also be gleaned. If Douglass did not appease men in the patriarchal society of the time, NJC would have never even gotten on its feet. Mullaney accuses Douglass of compromising reformers' original goal of "the speedy admission of women into Rutgers College," but Douglass had good reason to change her tactics and was probably being more realistic.4 In addition, these letters show Douglass' very important ability to stay on amiable terms with the president of Rutgers.

Mrs. Douglass' cautiousness in her speech was most certainly well-founded. This reality was shown by the reaction of a gentleman named Mr. See to women going to college, as documented in an article from November 23, 1922. In the article, "Douglass Has Absolute Faith in her Girls; Answers New Yorkers Caustic Criticism," Mr. See is documented as speaking out against "ultra-modern" ideas of college which teaches women to smoke, use slang, and develop other undesirable habits. Mabel Smith Douglass was quoted as responding to Mr. See's ideas as absurd but also said "I have absolute faith in the fundamental goodness of my girls although I believe Mr. See's criticism is in a measure justified."5 The statements by Mr. See and Douglass in this article reveal two important points. First, they shows some of the attitudes with which Douglass had to contend in trying to establish a women's college. Though this example may be extreme, there were many in society who were opposed to NJC, thus perhaps validating Douglass' choice of strategy. This statement also serves as evidence that the views against coeducation expressed by Douglass were simply a way to appease the men. It seems outlandish that a woman who was the dean of a women's college would see Mr. See's criticism as at all justified. If she really believed that what he said was true, then all justified than it is doubtful that she would have taken on the role and responsibilities of Dean of NJC. This exchange can be viewed as just another instance in which she covered herself to ensure the survival of the college.6

Another way in which Douglass stayed on the "good side" of the men with whom she worked was by maintaining her femininity. As George Schmidt explains, "she wore her clothes well" and maintained her "personal appeal."7

It is far from the truth, however, to believe that the success of Douglass' leadership was all a result of her ability to appease men, whether it be those in the general public, outspoken critics like Mr. See, or President Demarest. Douglass also maintained good relations with and received support from many key parties, including benefactors and donors, the New Jersey Federation of Women's Clubs, "Mothers' Congress, the D.R.'s, the D.A.R.'s, the Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage, the Colonial Dames, the W.C.T.U.'s and the women members of boards of education."8

Moreover, NJC experienced growth and success due to her many other capabilities, outside of her public relations skills. As the college's first dean, Mrs.. Douglass devoted all her time and energy to ensure the survival of NJC. In fact, for her entire first year as Dean, she slept in her office at College Hall.9 Her personal notebooks contained reminders to herself to perform duties related to almost every area of college life including curriculum, faculty, automobiles, building repairs, registrar, budgets, and floor plans. Douglass seemed to know everything that happened in the school.

Douglass also displayed incredible foresight and creativity. The often-cited example of these qualities is the fact that a gymnasium was constructed from World War I surplus packing materials during a time of low funds. Another example is that under Douglass' direction, the Gibbons' houses were purchased as dormitories, so that in case of financial difficulties they could be sold back.10

Another quality of Douglass that undoubtedly led to NJC's success was her thoroughness; as shown by her approach in hiring teachers. In archival files of Douglass' personal correspondence (May-Sept 1927), there are several papers relating to the appointment process. For instance, before hiring Emily Hickman, Douglass investigated her credentials in depth, by asking for at least ten, if not more, recommendations on Ms. Hickman's character and qualifications.11 This is just one way in which Douglass ensured that students at NJC could get the best education possible as women of the time.

There is a plethora of evidence that suggests that Douglass did not want to compromise women's education at all unless the survival of NJC was threatened. Perhaps, this area of discussion most strongly rebukes Mullaney and others' criticisms of Douglass. When opponents of NJC proposed simply expanding the program available at the Trenton Normal School, Douglass strongly resisted. She realized that this plan would only offer girls the vocational curriculum necessary for teaching and would not provide them with a "real" liberal college education.12

While Mullaney considers NJC's coordinate college status as settling for less, remarking, "affiliated colleges were actually born in compromise with Trustees who refused to be moved on the subject of co- education,"13 Douglass also realized the opportunities that came with being a sister school of Rutgers. As she said in her 1929 recollections, "The freshman of those days had the privilege, rare for underclassmen, of being instructed for the most part by heads of departments, Rutgers men of superior training and long experience."14 Later, when the commute for professors from Rutgers College to NJC became an obstacle, Douglass insisted on NJC having its own faculty, who could get there easily and who were totally committed to the college. This was one way in which Douglass managed to ensure NJC's autonomy and maintain its identity as a separate entity.15

Also noteworthy was the establishment of a music department that was not present elsewhere in the University,16 as well as a library school that was the first of its kind.17

Finally, though it may have seemed that Douglass was not working for the advancement of women in her "social feminist" strategies, the speech she delivered at NJC's ten-year anniversary suggests the opposite. She expressed to the students of the time that, "the age has created almost unlimited opportunities for women. It is our duty to bring about an intellectual quickening, a cultural broadening in connection with specific training so that women may go out into the world fitted not only for positions on the lower rung of the ladder of opportunity but for leadership as well in the economical, political, and intellectual life of this nation."18 Certainly these words would not have come from a woman who was trying to stifle the opportunities for women or restrain them in any way. Mullaney's accusation that "a far-reaching conviction of what women could and should become" was lacking in Douglass' goal is incorrect. Perhaps, at this point, when NJC was more firmly established, Douglass could reveal her true aspirations for women in founding the college.

If one takes Douglass' early statements solely at face value, and examines them only superficially, it may seem as though she promoted ideas that opposed the principle of granting women equal rights. Marie Mullaney takes this view when one criticizes Douglass' strategies as stifling feminism. However, it is important to remember that Mullaney is speaking from a 1980's perspective, and that the advances Douglass achieved held great significance for that time. Had she not been so smart and cautious, many women may not have been provided with the opportunities that NJC gave them. Douglass was extraordinary in her achievements and her efforts have led to generations of successful female college graduates.

Jacqueline Green
Douglass College '03

1 Marie Marmo Mullaney, "The New Jersey College for Women: Middle Class Respectability and Proto Feminism, 1911-1918" The Journal of Rutgers University Libraries

2 Letter, Mabel Smith Douglass to President Demarest, (April 14, 1913.) Office of the President. William Henry Steele Demarest Records. Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University.

3 Ibid, (July 14, 1913.)

4 Mullaney, p. 29.

5 "Douglass Has Absolute Faith in Her Girls, Answers New Yorkers Caustic Criticism" Nov 23, 1922. Mabel Smith Douglass Papers, Misc. 1921-1922. box 3. Mabel Smith Douglass Library, Rutgers University

6 Ibid

7 George P. Schmidt. Douglass College: A History (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1968), p. 31.

8 Ibid, p. 61.

9 Ibid, p.30.

10 Ibid, p. 47-49.

11 Letters in reference to Emily Hickman (May 1927-Sept 1927) Papers of Mabel Smith Douglass (1925-1932) Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University

12 Schmidt, p. 26

13 Mullaney, p. 27

14 Mabel Smith Douglass, The Early History of New Jersey College for Women: Personal Recollections by Dean Douglass. New Brunswick, NJ: New Jersey College for Women, 1929. Reprinted in 1929 Quair, p. 37.

15 Schmidt, 75

16 Schmidt, 33

17 Letter, State Board of Education to Edith Douglass.( Nov 23, 1933.) Mabel Smith Douglas Papers. Condolences received on the death of Dean Douglass, 1933. Box 4. Mabel Smith Douglass Library.

18 Address for 10th anniversary of NJC given by Dean Douglass. 1928 Mabel Smith Douglass Papers, Box 3.

18 Mullaney, p. 39

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