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Mabel Smith Douglass: Conservative Feminist - Amanda Winter, Douglass College '03

Personality can be crucial in determining the success or failure of a goal. Influenced by past experiences and the surrounding society, personality controls the way in which one approaches challenges and affects how well one relates to other people. The personality of Mabel Smith Douglass was one of the contributing factors to the success of the New Jersey College for Women, now known as Douglass College. The three personality traits of Mabel Smith Douglass that had the greatest influence in the college's establishment and development were her conservative views, persistence, and control.

In order to understand Douglass' conservative views, one must first examine how they were formed. Douglass' family was of Dutch colonial ancestry and she was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. Since her father's death did not prevent Douglass from traveling and attending Barnard College, she clearly belonged to the upper-middle class.1 As a member of the upper-middle class, Douglass most likely wanted to maintain the status quo, while expanding women's ability to obtain jobs that were appropriately feminine, such as secretarial work, court stenography, social work, teaching, and housekeeping.2 If women chose jobs that were slightly less traditional, Douglass felt that they would approach these jobs from a female perspective.3

Douglass' conservative views were important because they influenced her idea of what type of college should be established. Her conservative approach also affected how public officials reacted to her idea. As Chairwoman of a State Federation of Women's Clubs committee working to establish a women's college in New Jersey, Douglass wanted to create an institution that had a relationship with Rutgers College similar to the relationship between Barnard College and Columbia College. Douglass believed that a coeducational college was something that none of the parents of the students wanted.4 According to the State Federation of Women's Clubs, coeducation would cause "unpleasant social relations" and "unnatural competition between the sexes."5 Despite the publication of the Scoon Report in 1916, which stated that three-fourths of state superintendents and high school principals felt that a women's state college was needed, no nondenominational college for women in New Jersey existed.6 The fact that Douglass' vision of a college for women did not threaten the status quo helped gain the support of public officials.7

In addition to Douglass' conservative views, her persistence was a key factor in establishing the college and helping it to survive. When Douglass became chairwoman of the college committee, she worked as a volunteer with no guarantee that her work would be successful.8 In order to raise funds to construct the first college building, Douglass began a one-dollar subscription to raise one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. According to Douglass, some people thought that she was crazy to think that such a large amount of money could be raised from one-dollar subscriptions.9 Because of her persistence, Douglass did not allow herself to be prevented from reaching her goal simply because success seemed unlikely. Instead she found a different way to obtain the result she desired.

Another example that demonstrates how her persistence helped the college are the visits she made to a house owned by Drury Cooper and used by bachelor professors from the College of Agriculture. Cooper had told her that if she could convince the professors to move out, he would sell her the building at a reduced price. Douglass frequently visited the professors and talked to them about the students at her college and their need for more space. Eventually, she was successful in convincing them to move out and was able to purchase the building.10 Her use of discarded wartime airplane cases to build a gym is another example of her refusal to admit defeat simply because the usual method of reaching her goal was not feasible.11

Her continued work despite personal tragedy and poor health is another example of how Douglass' persistence assisted the college. In 1915, her poor health forced her to temporarily suspend her work toward establishing a college. During this hiatus, her husband and mother both passed away. Despite the problems in her personal life, she still accepted the position of dean of the New Jersey College for Women when it was offered to her in 1918. Although her son died in 1923, it appears that Douglass continued working.12 It was not until the end of her career as dean that her health problems overcame her. In 1930, Douglass was ill and unable to work at her office for a number of months. She returned to work for two years and then took a leave of absence. Her poor health forced her to resign in 1933.13

Douglass' desire to have control over anything involving the college is reflected in her relationship with the students and faculty, as well as in her administrative style. Her wish to control both her professional life and the college possibly resulted from her lack of control over her personal life. Her mother's death, the death of her husband in 1917, and the death of her son in 1923 were all events that were beyond her control. The fact that she slept in her office the first year that the college opened seems to show that she was attempting to immerse herself in work to avoid dealing with her personal life.

As dean of the college, Douglass was personally involved with the students. She treated them as though they were adults and would ask their opinions regarding different things.14 During the Spanish influenza epidemic, she helped to care for students who had become ill and as a result became ill herself.15 At times, she assisted students with their assignments in algebra and Greek.16 When the size of the college was still small, she held meetings with faculty members who also worked as residential directors, living in the homes with the students and getting to know them personally.17 Douglass seemed to have enjoyed talking to the students. If a student walked past her office without stopping to say hello, Douglass would call the student back to talk with her.18 When the college was still small, Douglass knew the name of each student and attended student social events.19

Douglass' relationship with the faculty was another example of how maintaining control over the college was important to her. Her relationships with faculty members Anna Campbell, Emily G. Hickman, Professor Irving S. Kull, and Trustee Leonor Loree are all examples of how Douglass reacted when she felt that people were threatening or supporting her vision of what the college should be. Even in cases in which she disagreed with people about the way something should be done, her reaction varied from person to person.

Anna Campbell was hired in 1927 as an assistant professor in the History and Political Science department. Douglass approved of Campbell because she did the work that Douglass asked of her and did it in the way that Douglass asked it to be done. Campbell's revival of the History Club upon Douglass' request is one example.20

Unlike Campbell, Emily G. Hickman, another history professor, challenged Douglass' method of doing things. Since Douglass historian George Schmidt described Hickman as "one of the most dynamic individuals on the NJC faculty," her disagreements with Douglass are most likely the reason why she did not receive a promotion after serving as an administrator.21 When asked to revive the History Club, Hickman instead started a new club and held meetings in the faculty clubhouse. Douglass felt it was inappropriate to have students meet in a place intended for adults.22 Hickman's teaching style and lectures away from the college set her apart from the other faculty members.23 Another example of Hickman's challenging of Douglass' wishes occurred when she ordered invitations to be made for the Faculty Club, despite the fact that Douglass had told her that the organization was not to be called the Faculty Club in accordance with Leonor Loree's wishes. Douglass eventually submitted a report to the Board of Managers describing the conflict between Hickman and herself.24

It appears from a letter that Professor Kull sent to Douglass in 1930 that she generally had a good relationship with the head of the History and Political Science Department.25 However, the same letter describes their different views regarding Emily Hickman.26 Kull had also had problems with Hickman's work, but not to the extent of wanting her to resign. Douglass wanted Kull to support her in asking for Hickman's resignation.27 In a letter that Kull wrote to Douglass on May 8, 1930, in response to a previous telephone conversation, he described Douglass' attempt to persuade him to support a request for Hickman's resignation. In the letter, Kull described Douglass as saying that 'though my reputation was that of a man of character though you had known me as such for twelve years and I had always had your respect, if I did not stand up now like a man…. I would lose your respect."28 (Kull letter) Douglass' statement to Kull demonstrates how seriously she reacted to what she considered a threat to her control over the college.

Douglass' method of dealing with some of Leonor Loree's gifts to the college demonstrate her ability to exert this control in a subtler manner. In 1928, Loree provided the college with equipment and uniforms to form a drum and bugle corps. Despite her dislike of it, Douglass had the drum and bugle corps perform once and then convinced students to write letters to Campus News politely explaining that they felt that the corps was not appropriate for college students. Loree also gave stone lions from the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel to the college. Douglass did not care for them and they "mysteriously" disappeared.29


Drum and Bugle Corps, 1928

In a letter written to Douglass on January 7, 1915, J. Preston Searle, a professor from the theological seminary, wrote "…my renewed tribute to the spirit, the skill, and the persistence, with which you are, I personally believe, shaping the movement into proportions and form which nothing can stop."30 It appears that even at that early stage, Douglass was recognized as an important contributor to the college. Her conservative views allowed her to describe the idea of establishing a college for women as something that was not a new idea but rather an issue which society had not had an opportunity to address. Her control of the college and her persistence in obtaining her goal both had a great impact on the establishment and success of the college.

Amanda Winter
Douglass College '03


1 George P. Schmidt, Douglass College: A History. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1968,) p. 29.

2 Marie Marmo Mullaney, "The New Jersey College for Women: Middle Class Respectability and Proto-Feminism, 1911-1918." Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries. (June 1980,) p. 35.

3 Ibid.

4 Schmidt, p. 6-12.

5 Mullaney, p. 32.

6 Ibid, p. 28

27 Ibid, p. 35-38.

8 Mabel Smith Douglass, "The Early History of New Jersey College for Women: Personal recollections by Dean Douglass." Quair (1929), p. 50.

9 Ibid, p. 53.

10 Ibid, p. 64-65.

11 George Christian Ortloff. A Lady in the Lake: the True Account of Death and Discovery in Lake Placid (With Pipe and Book, 1985), p. 43.

12 Ibid, p. 43.

13 Schmidt, p. 76.

14 Ibid. p. 33.

15 Douglass, p. 65-66.

16 Ibid, p. 82.

17 Ibid, p. 84.

18 Ortloff, p. 43.

2 Schmidt, p. 32.

20 Report to the Board of Managers from Mabel Smith Douglass, (May 1930.) Papers of Mabel Smith Douglass, 1935-1932. Folder 3. Special Collections and University Archives.

21 Schmidt, p. 98.

22 Report.

23 Schmidt, p. 99.

24 Report.

25 Letter, Professor Irving S. Kull to Mabel Smith Douglass, (May 8, 1930.) Papers of Mabel Smith Douglass, 1925-1932. Folder 3. Special Collections and University Archives.

26 Ibid

27 Ibid

28 Ibid

29 Schmidt, p. 39-40.

30 Letter, Professor J. Preston Searle to Mabel Smith Douglass, (January 7, 1915.) Mabel Smith Douglass Papers, Box 2, Folder 7. Mabel Smith Douglass Library.


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