- Historic Sites
The founders of the first women’s colleges weren’t necessarily crusaders or even educators; one savored a vision of himself as the second Great Emancipator, and another was motivated chiefly by hatred of her brother
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
That was the end of Jewett. 1 he letter was shown to Mr. Vassar, who reacted with appropriate emotion, and Jewett’s resignation was requested. Charles A. Raymond was informed of the contretemps and instantly offered to serve in Jewett’s place. That, however, was not to be. The trustees wanted nothing more to do with vagrant schoolmasters. Instead they quickly chose one of their own number to be head of Vassar Female College when it opened in 1865. This man’s name was John Howard Raymond, and he was installed in office after he had proved that he was no relation to Charles A. and that their identical surnames were pure coincidence.
After Mary Lyon the founders of the Seven Sisters proceed in a descending spiral of unlikelihood, with Sophia Smith perhaps the most enigmatic of the entire group. Fortunately the college named for her managed to erase most traces of her eccentric personality early in its history, and the Smith image has evolved quite independently of its odd benefactor. Perhaps it helped that Sophia died five years before the college opened in 1875.
Miss Smith was an unworldly Massachusetts spinster of few ambitions, no pretensions, and an assortment of afflictions. Although her brothers and sisters were all rather remarkable in one way or another, Sophia herself was shy, plain, deaf, and, as she grew older, increasingly suspicious and melancholy. Although the family was prosperous by the standards of the time, the males were almost pathologically miserly. The Smiths carried respectable New England frugality to extremes. Sophia Smith’s bachelor brother Austin, for whom she kept house, was fond of boasting that he had neither offered nor given away “a meal of victuals” in his entire lifetime. He charged each of his sisters a shilling in fare to ride in the family carriage, and he wore the same suit for twenty years. Being a consistent sort of person, Austin Smith attempted to convince the town fathers that they should run the village of Hatfield as parsimoniously as he managed his own home. The municipal extravagance he thought most absurd and unnecessary was free general education, and he is known to have introduced a resolution that would have forbidden the public schools to offer any instruction beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. He didn’t really believe that most youngsters deserved even that but was grudgingly willing to make allowances for the changing times. However, when Hatfield considered the ultimate folly of building a high school, Austin Smith left town in a fury. He went to New York to increase his fortune, attracted there not only for business reasons but also because he had heard nothing about taxation for advanced education from that direction. He did astonishingly well in the city and was able to save almost every penny he earned. His neighbors in the small village of Hatfield had sometimes been able to humiliate him into small expenditures, but New York was pleasantly anonymous. It suited him perfectly. Austin Smith knew no one, joined nothing, and was apparently content with his narrow and solitary life. The money accumulated without hindrance until he suddenly became seriously ill and died before drafting a final will. Like many misers, he had been a compulsive testator, convinced that no beneficiary, public or private, would ever treat his money with the proper respect. In fact will making appears to have been his only diversion, but since notarizing the various rough versions would have cost money, Austin didn’t bother; and when he died, his timid and bewildered sister Sophia unexpectedly inherited all of his money.
To the astonishment of the community of Hatfield, which had always assumed that Sophia shared her brother’s notions of economy, she built the grandest mansion in town, making sure that it contained every luxurious feature that her late brother had most loathed and abominated. Sophia Smith put in mirrors, bay windows, marble mantels, black walnut furniture, and a grand piano. That last would have been something of a curiosity in any Hatfield household, but it was particularly conspicuous in the home of the deaf and lonely Miss Smith and caused considerable comment and speculation. Uncaring (and probably unhearing), Miss Smith moved into this magnificent edifice with a maid and lived there for three uneasy years, worrying constantly about how best to dispose of the balance of Austin’s fortune.
None of the usual expenditures of the wealthy seem to have occurred to her. The church would have been a natural choice for so religious a woman, but since Austin had publicly vowed that “the Lord won’t get a cent of my money,” Sophia hesitated. Perhaps building and furnishing the house had temporarily satisfied her need for revenge upon her brother. In any case, after much soul-searching and agonizing she came to favor the idea of endowing a school for deafmutes. Within weeks, however, another philanthropist pre-empted her plan and broke ground for exactly the sort of institution she had in mind. Since there were only a few hundred deaf-mutes in the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a second school seemed superfluous.