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Douglass Scholars - Applying Ingenuity and Passion to Create Change: The Career of Mabel Smith Douglass - Suzanne Boyle, Douglass College '03

Much controversy surrounds the legacy of Anna "Mabel" Smith Douglass, the founding mother and dean of Douglass College. She had a very complex persona -- one that still enchants and eludes students and alumnae today. However, despite the massive degree of mystery and speculation regarding her fascinating life and haunting death, one thing can be admitted: the college that now bears her name (formerly the New Jersey College for Women) is a direct product of her political shrewdness, passion for education, and lofty ambitions for the power of the female intellect.

Born in Jersey City in 1877, Douglass was raised in a financially well-to-do family, which held education in high esteem.1 As a result, it seemed fitting that Douglass became a graduate of Barnard College, the women's institution affiliated with all-male Columbia University, and a staunch advocate for women's higher education during her adult life. She was heavily involved in women's clubs, organizations which, among other issues, focused on providing exceptional female high school students with the opportunity to enrich their education at the college level. Since, with the exception of the College of St. Elizabeth, a small, Roman Catholic institution, none of New Jersey's three collegiate institutions of the time - Rutgers College, Princeton, and Stevens Institute of Technology - admitted females. New Jersey's aspiring collegiate women were forced to cross the state's borders in order to realize their goals. Unfortunately, the education of these women came at the high cost of private women's colleges like Pennsylvania's Bryn Mawr or New York's Vassar, and so, in order to alleviate these burgeoning costs, the women's clubs made it their duty to fund scholarships for these select, bright young women.2

The defining moment of Douglass' tenure as president of the College Club of Jersey City, as well as the advent of a campaign that would transform the face of higher education in the state of New Jersey, came in 1911 at a district meeting of the State Federation of Women's Clubs. At this meeting, Mrs. John V. Cowling, chairperson of the Federation's education committee, announced the desire to push women onto the scene of collegiate education within the confines of New Jersey's own borders.3 Overcome with inspiration, Douglass took up Cowling's proposal whole-heartedly and through her own actions, spearheaded the pursuit of a college for women in New Jersey.4

Douglass was extremely effective as a leader for the college campaign because she was endowed with the qualities of a comprehensive researcher and communicator. She knew where to build alliances, how to exploit her own human resources, and how to balance appeasement and coercion as a strategy for gaining personal advantage. As a start to the campaign, Douglass worked to strengthen its philosophy, so as to have a solid foundation from which to build support and survive opposition. Her main point of contention for the college campaign centered on New Jersey's legislative actions with respect to the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, a piece of legislature that parceled out public lands to the states for the development of agricultural and scientific colleges. Since its passage, Rutgers College had received a substantial amount of federal and state funds for its educational programs. However, since Rutgers was an exclusively male institution, these funds were only serving the men of New Jersey and not the equally able women. She saw this disparity as an abomination; Rutgers should share these federal and state funds with the women who made up two-thirds of the high school student population.5 In an address to the New Jersey Teacher's Association at their sixtieth annual meeting in December of 1914, Douglass illustrated her pride in the potential of feminine minds and her distress that this potential was not being fully realized due to what she deemed as the misuse of the land grant funds:

Women have not been allowed to compete for the State Scholarships and the State has never done anything to assist the young women in the high schools towards gaining a collegiate education. Yet we know that there are just as many, possibly twice as many girls as boys in the high schools who want to go to college, girls would be good students could they go, and yet they get no assistance whatever from the state.6

The issue of the allocation of land grant funding became even more significant when coupled with the fact that New Jersey was the only state in the Union to lack "at least one college supported in whole or in part by public funds" to educate women.7 Douglass stood firmly by these points as she looked for sources of support for her cause. She sought the advice of deans of women's colleges all over the nation, distributed informative brochures to high schools regarding the issue of inadequate education for women, and most importantly, took full advantage of the networking possibilities she had available in Jersey City, such as her friendship with New Jersey Governor James R. Fielder.8 Ultimately, Douglass' tactful strategies were paramount in her dealings with the Rutgers Board of Trustees. Aware that a proposal to make Rutgers College coeducational would be too radical an idea for a college with such a strong colonial heritage in a state already lagging so far on the educational front, she instead proposed the opening of a coordinate women's college - a college with a relationship to Rutgers much like the relationship of her own alma mater Barnard to Columbia. If she had opted to press for coeducation, Douglass knew that she would have lost her "best backers." Thus, being able to appease the trustees and discover and exploit their own personal vested interests became a strategy for Douglass to make headway with her campaign.9 For example, knowing that trustee Drury Cooper had an educated wife and daughter, and that Rutgers dean Walter T. Marvin had an educated wife, Douglass made these two men prime targets from whom to solicit support; if their family members were favorable towards the idea of a women's college affiliated with Rutgers, certainly they too would be more sympathetic to the cause. In fact, in January of 1915, when Douglass' failing health forced her to resign from the campaign, it was the spouses of these Rutgers associates who picked up the torch and, under her direction, led the way to the doors of the women's college.10 Finally, in 1918, the New Jersey College for Women completed its final metamorphosis from vision to reality. In light of this success, it was necessary to select a dean of the college - someone who could lead the young institution from its fledgling state to one of strength and stability. As one article in the Newark Evening News expressed, the pressures of World War I would be difficult, and the financial situation, arduous, for the new college to combat: Rutgers does not merely need money to support a women's college. In a sense, it needs a women's college to help support itself, for its income from the state is conditional upon the size of its student body, and from the manner in which the American student everywhere has been responding to the military call of the nation it is difficult to see how this can be kept up.11

The thing that Rutgers needed other than "merely money to support a women's college" was Mabel Smith Douglass herself. Rutgers President William Demarest asked Douglass to take the position as the first dean of the New Jersey College for Women. Although still mourning the recent death of both her husband and mother, Douglass accepted the call, and once again, used her discerning intuition, fervent dedication, and political shrewdness to guide her college along. Under the agreement establishing New Jersey College for Women, or N.J.C. , as it fondly became known, the college was allotted a three-year lease on the estate of the wealthy landowner John Carpender. In addition, it was granted approximately sixty thousand dollars in state, federal, and agricultural funds. However, these funds were certainly not enough for the college to secure a promising future. Therefore, once again, Douglass used her networking skills to lobby for additional support. Not only did Douglass' talents cultivate the college in a financial sense, they also cultivated the lives of the students of NJC. To Douglass, this was her college and she did whatever necessary to foster the best possible education for her students. She took an intensely personal role in their education and felt an emotional connection with the survival of the college and all of its students. To illustrate this personal role, take the flu epidemic that rocked the entire Rutgers community during N.J.C.'s inaugural year. Because of the low availability of doctors, Douglass nursed all the sick students single-handedly with only the help of one student's mother.12 She further reflected in the 1929 Quair on her deep emotional connection with NJC: I dreamed dreams and thought deep thoughts of the future. But times came only too quickly as when I did not know from day to day whether the little College was to continue or to cease to be. The ever present need of funds, the endless visits to women's clubs, to high schools, to legislators, to private citizens carrying a personal word of the establishment of the College, its possibilities, its needs, these made me me often seek refuge in the tower of College Hall and looking up to the vastness of the skies above, pray for strength to go on - strength too, to combat a rising doubt as to whether or not it was all worth while this colossal effort, this striving to create something out of nothing.13

Douglass did create something out of nothing. Her college sprouted from a mere fifty-four students in 1918 to one thousand and twenty-three by 1928.14 Each step of the way, she continued to give a piece of herself to her students, creating a curriculum and residence style that fostered a close-knit atmosphere. "Until the numbers grew too large, she knew them all (the students) by name, attended their social functions, danced with their escorts, interested herself in their lives, provided personal guidance and, when necessary, meted out discipline."15 Douglass felt the educational environment was one where "the professors and students were friends in and out of the classroom."16 She often found her "head bowed over an algebra problem or deep in a Greek dictionary." 17 She commented about those long nights in College Hall, which, in the first year, served as the lone college building: "When half-past ten came, it was so easy just to slip downstairs to my own room - that room which was both home and business."18 The college seemed a personal project to Douglass. The students were her students and the growing funds, faculty, and grounds were, in a very large portion, her work. The New Jersey College for Women was a piece of Douglass herself.


College Hall, undated. c. Van Derveer Photo

After years of dedicated service to NJC, health reasons, once again, forced Douglass to take a leave of absence in 1932. A year later, in May of 1933, she announced her resignation as dean of the college. As one might conclude, there was a great outpouring of lament, from both students and faculty, over the retirement of NJC's greatest matriarch. The words of one N.J.C. student speak for many voices in reference to Douglass's tremendous pride in her college, and the spirit that flourished in both her presence and absence: You probably don't know even who I am, or what I look like, but I remember you and will for just as long as I live. So, I wanted to write to you personally and tell you what I know is in the hearts of other N.J.C. students. There has been something missing this year . . . We couldn't have you and still can't, but we thank God for having had you - for your spirit and your life which was poured into N.J.C. and which has had influence on us. We will cherish that spirit and idealism, always and carry it within us forever.19

Lament and tribute to Douglass's work came from many other sources too. Several stated that the least that could be done to honor Douglass's triumphs for NJC would be to recognize the college under her name. "The College is your (Douglass's) monument and some of us not only hope but have enough to believe that one day it will bear your name. And not until New Jersey College for Women becomes 'Douglass College in Rutgers University' will we consider that work has been adequately recognized," wrote Albert Meder, Jr., acting dean of NJC in Douglass's absence.20

After her retirement, Douglass retreated to her cottage in Lake Placid, New York. Mysteriously, in October of 1933, she was reported missing. No trace of Mabel Smith Douglass was ever found until thirty years later, when two scuba divers made a serendipitous discovery on a diving expedition in the lake: Douglass' body.21 It appeared that the dean had committed suicide, the rope of an anchor tied around her neck. To this day, the shock, mystery, and horror that surround her tragic disappearance continue to keep minds wondering as to why a woman with such poignant achievements - a woman who touched the lives of so many other women and opened unprecedented opportunities for them - could take her life in such a gruesome manner. However, no speculation can ever give this mystery justice. In 1955, New Jersey College for Women was renamed Douglass College, giving Mabel Smith Douglass the flagship that so many felt she greatly deserved. She was responsible for a great amount of development at New Jersey College for Women, and at Rutgers University as a whole. As President Demarest stated in his tribute to Douglass, she was a major force in Rutgers taking up the title of "university," and she was also the reason why, today, eighty-two years after her college's inception, women in New Jersey have the opportunity to attend one of the few remaining public women's colleges in the United States: Douglass College.22

Suzanne Boyle
Douglass College '03


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

2 Marie Marmo Mullaney, "The New Jersey College for Women: Middle Class Respectability and Proto-Feminism, 1911-1918," Journal of Rutgers University Libraries XLII No 1 (1980), p. 28.

3 Mabel Smith Douglass, "The Early History of N.J.C.: Personal Recollections by Dean Douglass," pamphlet reprinted from the 1929 Quair, the Student Annual, p. 5.

4 Ibid., p. 5.

5 Mabel Smith Douglass, Free College Course for your Girl?, Mabel Smith Douglass Papers, Box 2, Correspondence Clippings, 1918. Mabel Smith Douglass Library, Rutgers University Libraries (hereafter cited as MSD Papers, Douglass Library).

6 Speech, Mabel Smith Douglass to 60th Annual Meeting of New Jersey Teacher's Association in Atlantic City, NJ, December 28, 1914 , Box 2, MSD Papers, Douglass Library.

7 Ibid.

8 Douglass, "The Early History of N.J.C," p. 6.

9 Schmidt, p. 12.

10 Ibid., p. 14-15.

11 "State Women's College to have Humble Start: Rutgers Adjunct will open in September with all Students on Freshman Basis. Site acquired Mile from Campus," Newark Evening News (May 17, 1918), Box 2, MSD Papers, Douglass Library.

12 Douglass, "The Early History of N.J.C.," p. 24.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., p. 44.

15 Schmidt, p. 32.

16 Douglass, "The Early History of N.J.C.", p. 38.

17 Ibid., p. 38.

18 Ibid.

19 Letter, Miriam Schutt to Mabel Smith Douglass, June 2, 1933, Box 4 , MSD Papers, Douglass Library.

20 Letter, Albert Meder, Jr. to Mabel Smith Douglass, May 24, 1933, Box 4, MSD Papers, Douglass Library.

21 George Ortloff, A Lady in the Lake: The True Account of Death and Discovery in Lake Placid. (Lake Placid, NY: With Pipe and Book, 1985.)

22 Beryl Williams, "William Demarest's Tribute to Mabel Smith Douglass," The Daily Home News: The Sunday Times, New Brunswick, NJ (May 23, 1933), Box 4, MSD Papers, Douglass Library.


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