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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Banner image: Ruth Adams

Ruth Adams ’1904

In 1903, during her junior year at Vassar, Ruth Adams assessed her room in a letter home: [My room] is on the 4th floor—it is a north room wher[e] I won’t get any sun, but it has a good big window so it isn’t very dark … it hasn’t a very pretty wall paper—a sort […]

Jean Anderson ’1933

Jean Anderson ’33 enjoyed two successful careers, first as a cartoonist who drew upon her experiences at Vassar and later as an obstetrician who was influential in popularizing the Lamaze method in the United States. Born on June 3, 1913, in Morristown, NJ, Anderson attended University High School in Ann Arbor, MI. A Presbyterian minister, […]

Julia Coburn Antolini ’1918

At Vassar, Julia Coburn Antolini ’18 was known as much for her dedicated work as editor-in-chief of the Miscellany News as she was for her lighthearted practical jokes—on professors and then-president Henry Noble MacCracken. Her playful attitude as well as her reputation for outspoken journalistic rigor, sometimes used in critiquing the college, eventually earned her […]

Louise Seaman Bechtel, ca. 1920

Louise Seaman Bechtel ’1915

In an alumnae questionnaire circulated in 1952, Louise Seaman Bechtel was asked if she supported herself. Seaman Bechtel checked “no,” although she scribbled into the margin “but could!” The answer was befitting of Seaman Bechtel, for though she always took a large amount of pride in her role as a wife, she also ensured that […]

Ruth Benedict ’1909

From an early age, Ruth Fulton Benedict was an acute questioner of the world around her. In an early journal, the young Ruth wrote: The trouble with life isn’t that there is no answer, it’s that there are so many answers. There’s the answer of Christ and of Buddha, of Thomas à Kempis and of […]

Elizabeth Bentley ’1930

In the late 1940s, Elizabeth Bentley ’30 appeared in headlines across the country as she testified in front of the Committee on Un-American Activities at numerous investigations of alleged communists. Disregarded by some at the time as a pathetic, attention-seeking, and relatively insignificant figure, “something about her,” claims her biographer Kathryn Olmsted, “touched the fears […]

Alison Bernstein ’1969

A woman who came of age in the turbulent 1960s, Alison Bernstein was very much a product of her time—a woman who recognized the world’s problems and actively sought to fix them. Bernstein used her keen intellect and the tools she acquired in her time at Vassar to help others. From her time working in […]

Bishop in the 1934 Vassarion, which she edited.

Elizabeth Bishop ’1934

The only child of William T. Bishop and Gertrude May Bulmer Bishop and born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 8, 1911, Elizabeth Bishop suffered a difficult childhood. Her father died when she was eight months old, and her mother was institutionalized in 1916 with mental illness. When her mother died in May 1934, as Bishop […]

Harriot Stanton Blatch ’1878

One of the most prominent Vassar suffragettes was Harriot Stanton Blatch (1878), the daughter of pioneering suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Blatch began her work on women’s voting rights in the U.S. after living in England for 20 years—where she worked with the Women’s Franchise League—forming the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women to help recruit working-class women to the movement.

Mary Borden ’1907

A novelist and wartime nurse, Mary Borden ’1907 was renowned for her successful literary career and service during both World Wars. Born in 1886 in Chicago, Mary was the daughter of businessman William Borden, who had fortunes in real estate, mining, and dairy products. Her mother, Mary Borden, was a devout evangelical Christian. In 1904, […]

Marvin Breckinridge ’1927

Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson ’27 was born on October 2, 1905, to John Cabell Breckinridge, the grandson and namesake of Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge—Vice President in the Buchanan administration—and Isabella Goodrich Breckinridge, the daughter of American industrialist B. F. Goodrich. “My father,” she said later, “wished I would have been more conventional…. But my […]

Lucy Burns ’1902

Co-founder for the National Woman’s Party, Lucy Burns ’02 was a leader of the militant-wing of the women’s suffrage movement. Known for her vehement fight for women’s right to vote and her resilience under opposition, Burns is also remembered as one of the early trailblazers in the movement for gender equality. Lucy was born on […]

Mary Steichen Calderone ’1925

“What is a four letter word that ends with a “k” and means sexual intercourse?” Calderone liked to challenge young audiences. She answered the question: “It’s ‘talk.’” Nicknamed “the Grand Dame of sexual enlightenment,” Calderone was a charismatic and tireless advocate of sexuality education and promoted the principle that sexuality, as a vital part of […]

Elizabeth W. Champney

Elizabeth Williams Champney ’1869

Elizabeth Williams Champney, a graduate of the Vassar class of 1869, gained fame for her “Three Vassar Girls” novels. Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1850 to abolitionist parents, Champney moved to Kansas before the start of the Civil War. A member of Vassar’s second graduating class, she began her literary career with a mock-biblical account […]

Eleanor Clark, ca. 1950

Eleanor Clark ’1934

In “The Art of Adventure” published in Vogue in 1953, Eleanor Clark wrote: “It seems safest to start by sticking one’s neck out and sounding as foolish as possible, which on this subject means confessing to an unalterable weakness for the word adventure.” Clark—an enterprising Vassar graduate, radical supporter of labor and leftist politics and […]

Evalyn A. Clark ’1924

Historian and professor Evalyn A. Clark was one of Vassar’s most renowned and loved teachers. Her life, which spanned the twentieth century, was devoted to probing and understanding the history within her lifetime and innovatively sharing her knowledge with generations of students who found her a challenging and devoted teacher and mentor. Vassar played an […]

Anne Cleveland ’1937

With a keen wit and distinctive visual style, Anne Thorburn Cleveland’s cartoons of life at Vassar during the 1930s give vibrant insight into college life in the mid-twentieth century.

Photo of Adelaide Crapsey

Adelaide Crapsey ’1901

In poetry, perhaps more than any other genre, it is always tempting to merge the personal and the persona. This is particularly true in the case of Adelaide Crapsey, given that her work was published posthumously—thanks in large part to the diligence of her devoted colleagues, family, and friends.

Florence Cushing ’1874

Born on April 24, 1853, Florence Maria Cushing was the first of the five children of Boston merchant Hayward Pierce Cushing and his wife, Harriet Maria Pierce Cushing, and also the first of the three Cushing sisters to graduate from Vassar.  Jennie Cushing graduated in the Class of 1880, and Ida in 1883. Graduating in 1874, […]

Dr. Katharine Bement Davis ’1892

On January 1, 1914, Vassar alumna Dr. Katharine Bement Davis became New York City’s first female Correction Commissioner. She was the first woman to head a uniformed agency, and one of the first women to head a major bureaucratic organization in the United States. Davis was born in Buffalo, N. Y. on January 15, 1860. […]

Crystal Eastman ’1903

“Life [is] a big battle for the complete feminist,” wrote the radical feminist, activist, and civil rights advocate Crystal Eastman, and few have been better equipped for fighting the battle than Eastman herself. Crystal Catherine Eastman was born on June 25, 1881, to Rev. Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford Eastman. Although the family lived in […]

Portrait of Emily Jordan Folger

Emily Jordan Folger ’1879

The editors of the Vassar Encyclopedia are grateful to Dr. Stephen H. Grant for this article on a distinguished member of the class of 1879. He is the author of Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014), the first biography of Emily Jordan Folger and Henry Clay Folger, founders […]

Caroline E. Furness

Caroline E. Furness ’1891

Caroline Furness was professor of astronomy and director of the observatory at Vassar for 20 years. Vassar president Henry Nobel MacCracken identified her course on variable stars as the first of its kind offered in any American college, and her book, Introduction to the Study of Variable Stars (1915), became a standard in the field. […]

Gertrude Garnsey ’1926

“Though it was a far cry from her original plans,” said an article about Gert Garnsey in The Miscellany News in 1944, “her work has had its adventures.”  “One could say,” the article teases, “she was vaguely involved in a murder and one could say that she…roomed with a former editor of the Misc and lived over a speakeasy. […]

Patricia Goldman-Rakic ’1959

Imagine you are a student of classical music, and discovering in your sophomore year that you attend the same school that trained Mozart. Or imagine you are a student of art, and learning that the very school that is shaping your talent, once helped to shape the talent of Picasso. Now you can understand what […]

Nancy Graves ’1961

One of the two daughters of Walter L. and Mary Bates Graves, Nancy Stevenson Graves’61 was born on December 23, 1939, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. She attended Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield and the Northfield School for Girls. Her interest in art arose early through visits to Berkshire Museum, where her father worked as assistant to […]

Elizabeth Hazleton Haight '94 (1872-1964)

Elizabeth Hazelton Haight ’1894

A consummate student and heralded classicist, Elizabeth Hazelton Haight ’94 was an important part of Vassar from the time of her matriculation in 1890 until her death in 1964. Described in the New York Times at the time of her death as a “great and gracious woman” who was the “master of every situation she encountered,” […]

Bernadine Healy ’1965

In 1985, Dr. Bernadine Healy ’65 told a Vassar audience: “Live in the present. . . .be committed and intense about what you’re doing today. . . . I’d like to quote an anonymous Spanish poet: ‘Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.’” Dr. Healy dedicated her life to two things: […]

Mary Virginia Heinlein ’1925

On June 25, 1954, Professor of Drama Mary Virginia Heinlein ’25 received a hand-written poem from her student Kuni Marcus ’54. The piece—an assignment turned in very late, perhaps—concludes thus: Professor! Do I know because I know?Or, do I know because you told me so? Heinlein began teaching at Vassar in 1942, returning to her […]

Gladys Hobby ’1931

Responding to an alumnae survey in 1981 at the age of 71, Gladys Lounsbury Hobby, said “as I turn from the journal and see the book nearing completion, I am beginning to think about ‘what next?’ I do not plan to be idle.” Mentioning that she had “made the first penicillin in the USA,” she […]

Grace Murray Hopper ’1928

Computer pioneer, mathematician and teacher Grace Murray Hopper recalled seeing her first computer, the UNIVAC “thinking machine”: “When I walked in and saw that monster, I was scared to death!” She had every right to be frightened; the machine consisted of 200 miles of wiring and 5000 tubes, stood eight feet high, was fourteen feet […]

Adella Prentiss as a student

Adella Prentiss Hughes ’1890

Adella Prentiss Hughes enjoyed telling how her maternal grandparents met. Her grandfather, Benjamin Rouse, lived in Boston. Paying a visit to his grandmother one evening, he was about to enter her house when he was struck by a woman’s voice coming from inside. Entering the house, he met the owner of the voice, a young […]

Mary Augusta Jordan ’1876

The editors of the Vassar Encyclopedia are grateful to Dr. Stephen H. Grant for this article on a distinguished member of the class of 1876. He is the author of Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014), the first biography of Emily Jordan Folger and Henry Clay Folger, founders […]

Helen Kenyon ’1905

Born in Brooklyn in 1884, the daughter of Clarence Kenyon and Emma J. Kelsey, Helen Kenyon had a privileged upbringing at the turn of the century. Her father was the owner of one of the first garment factories in New York, and her family’s genealogy could be traced back to the Mayflower. With an auspicious […]

Virginia Kirkus ’1916

In 1967, as chairman of their 50th reunion, Virginia Kirkus Glick ‘16 wrote a characteristically vigorous invitation to her class, echoing Lewis Carroll in a playful poem: “The time has come,’ the Walrus said,      To talk of many things:Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —      Of cabbages — and kings —Of what VC has meant […]

Christine Ladd-Franklin ’1869

Christine Ladd-Franklin—mathematician, logician, and psychologist—was born in Windsor Connecticut, on December 1, 1847. Her father, Eliphalet Ladd, a prominent merchant, and her mother Augusta Niles Ladd, an early feminist, both came from distinguished families. One great uncle, William Ladd, had founded, in 1828, the American Peace Society, a merger of the Christian pacifist societies of […]

Mary Fisher Langmuir ’1920

The Vassar archives on Mary Shattuck Fisher Langmuir overflow with newspaper clippings announcing her highly anticipated and sought-after appearances across the country—”Dr. Langmuir Speaks Before Arlington PTA,” “Dr. Langmuir gives talk on Discipline,” “Dr. Langmuir to address junior league”—as well as the numerous articles she wrote on child and family psychology. The thick folders filled […]

Julia Lathrop ’1880

Social worker and reformer Julia Lathrop was nicknamed “America’s First Official Mother” for her devoted work in bettering the conditions for the often-neglected members of society: children, the mentally challenged, and the disabled. Yet Lathrop understood early in her career that caring did not suffice in heralding real changes in the torrid living conditions of […]

Lois Long ’1922

At the time of her death the notoriously reticent editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, declared that “Lois Long invented fashion criticism,” adding that she “was the first American fashion critic to approach fashion as an art and to criticize women’s clothes with independence, intelligence, humor and literary style.” Hired by the magazine’s founder, […]

Nancy Harkness Love ’1935

In the March 1929 edition of The Magus, a literary magazine published by the Milton Academy Girls Upper School, Hannah L. Harkness wrote a short nonfiction piece, “The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring, Tra La!” The fifteen-year old describes her joy at the changing seasons: “Lessons are more drab than usual,” she admits, “and […]

Anne MacKay ’1948–’49

MacKay’s leadership was critical in the founding of Vassar’s first lesbian and gay alumnae/i group, LAGAVC, which held its first conference on campus in April 1991, and her foresight ensured that a rich slice of Vassar’s LGBT history would not be lost when she served as editor of Wolf Girls at Vassar: Lesbian and Gay Experiences 1930–1990 (1993), which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.

Mary McCarthy ’1933

LIFE magazine described Mary McCarthy as the “lady with a switchblade,” and TIME referred to her as “really our only woman of letters.” She was well known for her quick wit, her uncompromising need to write the truth and her seemingly effortless ability to create controversy.  Much has been written about her various relationships, her three marriages, her political, […]

Antonia Maury ’1887

The astronomer and historian Dorrit Hoffleit has noted that by the time Antonia Maury entered Vassar “she was probably better prepared for science than any other student.” Born in Cold Spring, New York, on March 21, 1866, Antonia Caetana de Paiva Pereira Maury was the daughter of Reverend Mytton Maury, a protestant minister and naturalist, […]

Mildred McAfee ’1920

Born in 1900 to Reverend Dr. Cleland Boyd and Harriet Brown McAfee at Park College, Missouri, Mildred H. McAfee was surrounded at birth with the influences that would fill the rest of her life: faith and education. The daughter of a clergyman, and born at the college her grandfather founded, McAfee combined religion and learning […]

Dean McCaleb in her office in 1917

Ella McCaleb ’1878

Famous among friends and colleagues for her lifelong devotion to Vassar and the first person to assume the title of dean at the college, Ella McCaleb ‘78 provided unique support to both Presidents James Monroe Taylor and Henry Noble MacCracken and an indispensable link between their presidencies. Speaking at the time of her death in […]

Inez Milholland ’1909

“She was avid for life, and impatient for a world fit to live in.” Alice Cheyney ’1909, discussing Inez Milholland An activist and social reformer, Inez Milholland was a woman willing to champion the causes of anyone—women, laborers, children, or the poor—who found themselves disenfranchised. Dedicated to social equity regardless of class or gender, she […]

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay ’1917

In the summer of 1912 at an evening party in Maine, a young woman with light red hair was asked to recite some of her poetry to the guests. “All I could see from where I stood; Was three long mountains and a wood…” she began. By the time the poem, “Renascence,” was finished she […]

Ruth Crawford Mitchell ’1912

When Ruth Crawford Mitchell was a junior at Vassar in 1910, her parents offered her the opportunity to travel around the world. Mitchell and a friend from Vassar traveled un-chaperoned to England to witness the coronation of George V, then visited Finland, Norway, Russia, Japan, and several islands in the Pacific that summer, missing a […]

Princess Ōyama ’1882

One of the class of 1882’s most vibrant members was also the first Japanese woman to receive a college degree. Sutematsu Yamakawa (known to her Vassar friends as “Stematz”) came to the United States in 1872 with four other young Japanese girls. They traveled as part of the Iwakura Mission, a group of a hundred […]

Margaretta Palmer ’1887

Born in 1862, in Branford, Connecticut, Margaretta Palmer graduated from Vassar in 1887. She was a student in Maria Mitchell’s Astronomy III in the fall term of1885 and one of 10 students in the advanced class the following year. At her commencement, in 1887, she and fellow astronomer Antonia Maury were among the seven graduates […]

Ellen Swallow Richards ’1870

A plaque under the entrance arch of Vassar’s Blodgett Hall reads: Ellen Swallow RichardsClass of 1870Pioneer in the Study of Family LifeFounder of Home EconomicsA tablet is placed on the buildingDedicated to the field of workCalled by her Euthenics “Euthenics” now rings oddly in Blodgett Hall, home to the study of economics, anthropology, psychology, sociology, […]

Josephine Roche ’1908

A tireless activist for rights of workers and children, Josephine Roche dedicated her life to proving that better living conditions were good business and that there were practical, effective ways to help people.

Blanchette Rockefeller ’1931

Blanchette Ferry Hooker was born in New York City on October 2, 1909. As the daughter of Blanche Ferry and Elon Huntington Hooker, she came from extraordinary affluence. Her mother’s family owned the Ferry Morse Seed Company in Detroit, while her father was president of the Hooker Electro-Chemical Company. This inherited fortune, combined with the […]

Constance Mayfield Rourke ’1907

Constance Mayfield Rourke (1885–1941) wrote to her mother in 1921: I think even for you, certain elements of my character must be difficult to understand, at least their intensity. I am appealed to so strongly by the mystical, the inexpressible. There are times when I could have become a nun, I can understand that now. […]

Muriel Rukeyser ’1934

“The range and daring of her work, its generosity of vision, its formal innovations, and its level of energy are unequal among twentieth-century American poets. Her poems can be panoramic (yet vividly concrete), intimate, epigrammatic, meditative, sensual, mordantly witty, visionary; never are they quiescent or disenchanted.” Adrienne Rich, “Muriel Rukeyser for the Twenty-first Century.” (2003) […]

Ellen Churchill Semple

Ellen Churchill Semple ’1882

Man is a product of the earth’s surface. This means not merely that he is a child of the earth, dust of her dust; but that the earth has mothered him, fed him, set him tasks, directed his thoughts, confronted him with difficulties that have strengthened his body and sharpened his wits, given him his […]

Margaret Pollock Sherwood ’1886

Born on November 1, 1864, in Ballston, New York, Margaret Pollock Sherwood, Vassar Class of 1886, was the author of many novels, short stories, collections of poetry and  essays. As did her first, An Experiment in Altruism(1895), some of her novels appeared under the nom de plume Elizabeth Hastings.  Miss Sherwood taught in the English department of Wellesley College […]

Belle Skinner ’1887

Belle Skinner was a humanitarian and music-lover whose life her brother William memorialized in the construction of the Skinner Hall of Music at Vassar in 1932.

Barbara Stimson ’1919

Dr. Barbara Bartlett Stimson ’19, a highly respected, path-breaking orthopedic surgeon served as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps throughout World War II, with tours in England, North Africa, and Italy. Stimson was the first female member of the New York Surgical Society and of the American Association of the Surgery of Trauma. […]

Julia Stimson ’1901

Colonel Julia Catherine Stimson ’01, the head of Nursing Service of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on May 26, 1881, the daughter of Dr. Rev. Henry A. Stimson and Alice Wheaton Bartlett Stimson. The second of seven children, Julia was a member of a particularly distinguished and […]

Eva March Tappan

Eva March Tappan ’1875

Throughout her life, Eva March Tappan exhibited a love of learning that imbued her being. From a young age she sought out knowledge both in formal education and in spare time. This brought her to Vassar, where she cultivated her skills in order to bring this joy to others. At first, she taught, directly bestowing […]

C. Mildred Thompson in the 1903 Vassarion

C. Mildred Thompson ’1903

Clara Mildred Thompson was born in Atlanta, Georgia on November 27, 1881 to Robert Galbraith Thompson, an Irish-born hotel owner, and Alice Wood Thompson. Initially preferring to be called “Mildred,” she added the initial “C.” when she discovered there was another child named “Mildred Thompson” in her neighborhood. After attending Atlanta public schools, among them […]

Baroness Uriu ’1881

Shigeko Nagai, later—by her marriage to Rear Admiral Uriu—Baroness Uriu, was one of the first women piano teachers in Japan to teach Western classical music and a piano instructor to the first graduates of the Tokyo School of Music (1885). The daughter of a samurai who had been on the losing side of the civil […]

Margaret Floy Washburn ’1891

Margaret Floy Washburn graduated from Vassar College in 1891 and joined the ranks of Mu Chapter, Phi Beta Kappa in 1898. She audited classes in Psychology at Columbia, but, unable to matriculate because she was a woman, transferred to Cornell into a credited program for the M.A. degree. Her Master’s degree was sent by E.B. […]

Jean Webster ’1901

The letters that Jerusha Abbott, the protagonist of Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, writes to her patron vary from being comical to earnest. In one letter, Jerusha writes: You never answered my question and it was very important. ARE YOU BALD? I have planned exactly what you look like—very satisfactorily—until I reach the top of your head […]

Ella Weed, ca. 1885

Ella Weed ’1873

A few months after Ella Weed’s death in 1894, a Vassar alumna, Belle Ward ‘88, praised Weed in the Vassar Miscellany: “There is not one among us who is not better for having known of such a woman. One who accomplished so much in such simple deeds; simple, yet in their very simplicity most great.” […]

Mary Watson Whitney ’1868, ’ 1872

Mary Watson Whitney, a member of Vassar’s first graduating class in 1868, was Maria Mitchell’s student in astronomy. The assistant to Maria Mitchell until she succeeded her as chair of the astronomy department and as director of the observatory, Whitney built Vassar’s research program in astronomy into one of the nation’s finest. Mary W. Whitney […]

Catherine Bauer Wurster ’1926

A pioneer in her field, Catherine Wurster ’26 devoted her life to advocating for affordable public housing, serving during her career under three U.S. presidents. Catherine Krouse Bauer was born on May 11, 1905, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Alberta Krouse Bauer and Jacob Bauer, the chief state highway engineer, whose occupation may have influenced […]

Laura Johnson Wylie ’1877

Born in Milton, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 1, 1855 to William Theodore Wylie and his wife Sarah Murray Johnson Wylie, Laura Johnson Wylie spent her childhood on the move, learning from her father and caring for a growing collection of half-siblings. When she entered Vassar as a freshman she was far behind her fellow classmates, later […]