Mary Emma Woolley (1863-1947), one of the first female graduates of Brown University and president of Mount Holyoke College, was born in South Norwalk, Connecticut, on July 13, 1863. Her father, a chaplain in the Union army during the Civil War, became minister of the Congregational Church in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and moved there with his family when Mary Emma was eight years old. She studied at three private schools, Miss Bliss’s, Mrs Lord’s, and Mrs. Davis’s, and attended Providence High School for her senior year only. After a trip abroad she was sent to Wheaton Seminary at her father’s insistence, and remained for two years as a student, after which she taught there for five more years. Years later she wrote an account of her coming to Brown as one of the first women students:
“The summer of 1890 I spent in Europe and returned with a desire to attend Oxford University. The following winter at a dinner in Providence my Father, sitting next to President Andrews of Brown, spoke of that ambition, a remark which President Andrews answered by the inquiry, ‘Why does she not come to Brown?’She taught in the Biblical Literature Department at Wellesley College, beginning as instructor in 1895 and advancing to professor in 1899. The next year she spent three months in England studying women’s education before assuming the presidency of Mount Holyoke College in January 1901. At Wellesley she had taken an interest in a student in her freshman Bible class, Jeanette Marks, who had no parents. Miss Marks was in her senior year when Miss Woolley was offered the presidency of Mount Holyoke College. A few weeks after Miss Woolley began the administration, Miss Marks became an instructor in English at Mount Holyoke, and the two began a lifelong relationship. Miss Woolley spent six months in China in 1921-22 as a member of the China Educational Commission. She was also a member of the Institute of Pacific Relations which met in Honolulu in 1925 and 1927. At the end of his presidency Herbert Hoover named her as the only woman member of the United States delegation to the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments in Geneva. As early as 1932 she decided to retire as president at the centennial of Mount Holyoke in 1937 when she would be 74 years old. When the time of retirement approached, she and many alumnae of the College were strongly opposed to the tradition-breaking appointment of a male president. After the centennial celebration, she left her office in June 1937 and never visited Mount Holyoke again. She moved to the family home, “Fleur de Lys,” which Jeanette Marks had inherited in 1914.
“As a result, I entered Brown in the autumn of 1891 as ‘guest’ in the classes of several professors: President Andrews’s course in Philosophy, Dr. J. Franklin Jameson’s in American History and in English History, and Dr. James Richard Jewett’s in Oriental History. About two weeks later Dr. Andrews stopped me one day after class and asked whether I would join a small group of girls in some of the freshman work to be taught by Brown professors in the afternoons. As a result, I began the freshman course in Latin with Dr. Walter G. Everett, and during the next three years met both with the group of women and in the regular classes with the men. In that way, I distributed the required work over the three years of my undergraduate course, majoring in History, to which I added Political Science with Dr. George Grafton Wilson, Political Economy with Dr. Henry B. Gardner, and several languages: Hebrew and German with Dr. Jewett, Greek with Mr. Green and Dr. Bennett, and Latin throughout my course with Dr. Everett and Dr. Harkness. The French I passed off by examination.
“As I was a graduate of Wheaton Seminary and had taught there before entering Brown, I covered the undergraduate course in three years, taking the Bachelor’s Degree with Annie Weeden in 1894, and spent the fourth year in graduate work with Dr. Jameson, receiving my Master’s Degree in 1895.”
Over the years she was awarded eighteen honorary doctorates, including one from Brown, and in 1937 received Brown’s highest award, the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal. Other honors included the Kossovo Medal of the Royal Red Cross of Yugoslavia, in 1931, the Monticello College Centenary Medal in 1938, and the Cristobol Colon Medal in 1940. In 1931 she was chosen as one of the twelve greatest women in the United States (from a list of 2,786 women nominated by readers of Good Housekeeping Magazine) by a jury composed of Henry Van Dyke, Bruce Barton, Newton D. Baker, Booth Tarkington, and Otto H. Kahn. She was the first woman to be chairman of the College Entrance Examination Board and the first women elected to the Senate of Phi Beta Kappa. In retirement she began to write her autobiography, but suffered a stroke in 1944 which left her partially paralyzed. She died on September 5, 1947 at Fleur de Lys in Westport, New York.