- 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
Her pastor, John Greene, a young and eager Amherst graduate, tried valiantly to interest her in Mount Hoiyoke Seminary. Mary Lyon had actually been a distant relative of the Smiths, and the Reverend Mr. Greene naturally thought that the seminary just over the mountain would be a logical choice. It was flourishing and by 1870 or so considered a great asset to the neighborhood. Moreover, John Greene’s charming and intelligent wife had been educated there, and she agreed that no more worthy cause existed. Since Sophia Smith stubbornly refused to take the ten-mile trip to South Hadley even to see the place, a delegation of Mount Holyoke teachers came to call upon her. On that occasion she abruptly became more deaf than ever, convincing the ambassadors that further visits would serve no purpose. They left without ever really stating their case, positive that Miss Smith would enter the next world with her wealth undiminished by so much as the price of a cup of tea.
Mr. Greene himself finally conceded defeat and proposed a plan he thought almost as worthwhile. Amherst College, he was sure, would be able to make excellent use of a bequest. It was just as conveniently located, and the education of ministers was a completely accepted necessity, not a risky experiment like the higher education of women. Miss Smith, however, rejected the Amherst proposal out of hand. She had never been to the town of Amherst either and would not think of going there. She had always believed that Amherst professors were a subversive group secretly bent upon controlling western Massachusetts, and she was not about to offer them either aid or comfort.
The Reverend Mr. Greene was a patient and sympathetic man, but he had already spent a disproportionate amount of his time shouting about money to his parishioner, slighting his other pastoral duties and neglecting his growing family. He tried to resign as Sophia Smith’s financial counselor, but she wouldn’t allow that either. An estate advisory service was considered an important part of a nineteenthcentury minister’s duty, and he was reminded ofthat fact whenever he spoke of other responsibilities. Their relationship cooled considerably, but the demands upon his time continued.
As a compromise Miss Smith eventually agreed to consider some alternative proposals if Greene would write them out in detail. Since he had already invested three years in futile conversations with this quixotic woman, he seems to have felt that there was little to lose by putting his suggestions on paper. His letters were polite but rather terse. He now addressed Miss Smith as “Madam” and tried another approach entirely: One of the finest opportunities ever offered a person in this world is now offered to you in another enterprise. You may become to all time a Benefactress to the race. I refer to the endowment of a Womans’ College. … You can now, by a codicil to your will, appropriate the sum designed for a deaf mute institution to this object and have your name attached to the first Womans’ College in New England.
(Mount Holyoke was still technically a seminary, and although Greene knew all about Vassar, Poughkeepsie was not New England.) The minister presented his proposal as attractively as he could. He was still intensely interested in women’s education, and he realized that Miss Smith’s vanity could only be served by a charity bearing her own name. She was still antisocial and excruciatingly shy, but wealth had long since relieved her of her earlier modesty. The Greenes reasoned that since Mount Holyoke already had a name, it would have to be another place altogether. They wondered why they hadn’t perceived this obvious fact before. There was one potential problem, but the chance had to be taken. Miss Smith’s college and Mount Holyoke would be a mere ten miles apart and might eventually find themselves in competition for students, faculty members, and even prestige. Greene kept his misgivings to himself, however, and Sophia Smith seemed quite receptive to the thought of a college, though she did insist upon certain conditions. One important proviso was that no Amherst professor be consulted about anything whatever. Another of her express desires was that all students be housed in one-story cottages, because Miss Smith believed that stairs were damaging to the female reproductive system. (This capricious proviso fortunately was not included in the final version of Miss Smith’s will.) And of course the place was to be called Sophia Smith College. At the suggestion that it be just plain Smith she grew furious and threatened to withdraw all support. She would have much preferred the town of Hatfield to Northampton as a site but gave in when it was pointed out to her that land was higher, drier, and cheaper in Northampton and that the college would have more room to expand. Ample space would be necessary if no buildings were to exceed a single story. After these matters were all arranged to her near satisfaction, she signed the will. The women’s-college idea had had one great point in its favor all along. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could have been further from her brother Austin’s desire.