The subject of women's education was discussed with great enthusiasm throughout the 19th century, but no matter how spirited the discussion, the facilities for women's higher education remained sparse and inadequate. Emma Willard, Mary Lyon and others had opened their seminaries in the 1820s and 1830s, but not until after the Civil War were the great women's colleges founded. These institutions, staffed and administered by women, educated a new sisterhood for independence and vocations, in contrast to the Middle Western coeducational colleges which were training young women to become wives of missionaries and ministers.
Mount Holyoke claimed to be the women's colleges (1837), but when Mary Emma Woolley became its president in 1901, Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Vassar and Radcliffe also were in existence, and by 1937, when she retired, it was a different world. A teacher of biblical history, Wooley had been trained at Wheaton Female Seminary and at the Young Ladies' Class at Brown, and had taught at Wheaton and Wellesley. When she came to Mount Holyoke, it was still a female seminary; when she left, it was an institution of learning and scholarship. A cluster of buildings in the Connecticut Valley, under Mary Woolley it grew in resources, endowment, and renown to become a major American college, distinguished for its alumnae and faculty. Woolley's administrative skills, intelligence, warmth, tact, charm fund-raising ability and her participation in public life outside the college - in short, her "gracious womanhood" - made her a college president on the grand scale. She was a bit unreal and lofty, but someone the trustees could be proud of and the alumnae admire.
She stood for peace and disarmament, for progress and prudence, for women's suffrage and women's education as a preparation for life. A trustee of many institutions and a member of worthy civic organizations, she visited China in 1921, served as the only woman delegate to the 1932 Disarmament Conference in Geneva, and supported the League of Nations. Yet this same Mary Wooley, after delaying her retirement for five years, reluctantly and under great pressure left office in 1937, and had no voice in the determination of her successor. Although she lived another 10 years, she never returned to the college where she had spent nearly four decades.
Anna Mary Wells' desire to write a biography of this remarkable woman was at first stalled by the disturbing denouement of Wooley's career at Mt. Holyoke. However, an even greater problem arose when she began to investigate the personal relationship suggested in the title. For Wolley's great friend, Miss Marks, a professor of English literature, was as much a part of the denouement as she had been of the illustrious career. More than 50 years of close friendship linked Marks to the capable executive 12 years her senior who had once been her teacher.
However, so disliked was Marks during her time at Mount Holyoke, so mercurial, difficult, demanding, jealous and intemperate, that Woolley's favoritism towards her was always regarded as that noble woman's one failing.
Wells, a Mount Holyoke alumnus and former professor of English at Douglass College, Rutgers, is able to offer a new view of Mary Wooley because of the discovery of revealing letters between the two women, enterpreting the known events in a new light. Unfortunately the author concentrates on this relationship and does not explore the social and psychological resonance of sublimated sexuality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She foregoes discussion, for example, of the close friendship among men, or the Victorian sentimentalism that both sexes shared. Of course the sexuality was not all sublimated: The more we learn about the "other Victorians," the more tentative and provisional must be our various generalizations about their sexuality.
Far more important in this story is its economic and social dimensions. After the depression, Mt. Holyoke's financial condition was perilous; Woolley could no longer raise the money she had found available in earlier days. She and the college's distinguished faculty were in the end answerable to a predominantly male board of trustees whose control over the succession exceeded theirs. A man from Yale was chosen as the next president.