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 1933, President MacCracken recalled, “she considered herself a liaison officer functioning between the college with its compacted interests and the outside world as it is represented by it alumnae.” She faithfully kept in touch with many alumnae, for “[h]er first and great loyalty was to Vassar College and the ideals for which it stands, but that loyalty carried her out into the wide fields where Vassar graduates were working.”
Born on April 23, 1856, in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, to John Dicky and Sarah Beidler Sherrick McCaleb, Ella McCaleb entered Vassar in 1874 and graduated in 1878. The following year, she began teaching at the Clifton Springs school in New York, where she remained until 1881, when she assumed a teaching position at the Detroit Home and Day School, a school for girls founded in 1878 by Rev. James D. Liggett, the father of its principal when McCaleb came to the school, Ella Ligget ’69. In 1885, as the college awaited the arrival of President Taylor, McCaleb returned to Vassar as secretary to the acting president, James Ryland Kendrick. She continued in the same position under Taylor until 1893, when she was appointed secretary of the college and associate professor. As secretary, she reviewed applications for admission and academic arrangements, conducted most of the college’s correspondence, and kept academic records. In 1913, she was named the college’s first dean.
As secretary, McCaleb fulfilled many of the responsibilities implied by the title of dean; her acquisition of the title acknowledged the consequence of her existing responsibilities and introduced a slight increase in disciplinary authority. The title of dean did not denote a substantial change in responsibilities for McCaleb, something apparently common at the time in such appointments. Writing in The Chautauquan, in 1901, Jane A. Stewart had noted:
The duties of the dean do not seem to demand in all colleges the establishment of a distinctive office, the responsibilities being sometimes shared, as at Vassar, by the woman principal and the secretary. The woman principal in this case assumes charge of the social side of life, of permissions for absence, and of the chief portion of the discipline. The secretary has in hand the management of the educational machinery, the arranging of classes, consultation with students in regard to their courses, deficiencies, etc.
Deans at small colleges, Stewart noted, presided over “the supervision of conduct and studies, attendance at chapel, and the control of all matters pertaining to graduation and discipline.”
As administrator and disciplinarian, Ella McCaleb exercised an unforced authority over Vassar’s students. Her campus neighbor, art department chair Oliver S. Tonks, noted that she exhibited an “inclusive fondness for living things” which allowed her to enact “utter justice” in a benevolent manner. Similarly, President Henry Noble MacCracken wrote that McCaleb “knew no prejudice or pettiness in her administration of Vassar discipline” and that she exhibited an “eagerness to see the best in every one.” Students who attended Vassar during McCaleb’s time as secretary and dean remembered her fondly, maintaining deep personal connections with her long after graduation. As a former student, Margaret Armstrong Howe ‘14 recalled, “She had a beautiful austerity with no sharp edges, and a high-mindedness which always cleared the mists from our minds.”
McCaleb exhibited this benevolent rigor in dealing with the enrollment of Edna St. Vincent Millay ’17. Largely self-schooled and already something of a cause célèbre owing to the failure of her poem “Renascence” to win—as poets and critics alike expected—the national Lyric Year poetry prize, the 21-year-old Millay applied to Vassar without sufficient academic preparation to enter her freshman year. In the summer leading up to Millay’s proposed matriculation, McCaleb pointed out to her that she lacked the required foundations in languages, mathematics, and history, and she urged Millay to complete as much preparatory work as possible before arriving on campus in the fall of 1913. Responding to Millay’s apparent strong resistance, McCaleb wrote her in August of 1913,
It is not because of any hatred of you that this summer work is demanded but because every Vassar girl has to take certain subjects in her first year, and there is no justice or pleasure in admitting a girl if she is not ready to go on with the required work…. If you are really so desperate and ill-prepared as your letter suggests, then perhaps you have no right to try for Vassar this year—the disappointment of those who are interested in you would be nothing compared with the possibility of your attempting too much. No one wishes you to endanger either your health or your best development, but this is only a college, with pretty much the same regulations for every body, and not a great university with all sorts of different people.
With characteristic decisiveness, McCaleb informed Millay that, despite her poetic acclaim, she should not expect to receive special treatment at Vassar, where she would encounter academic rigor and would be expected to adhere to institutional rules and regulations. A well-intentioned concern for Millay’s personal health motivated McCaleb’s correspondence with the poet. In a letter home written after her arrival at Vassar, Millay exclaimed, “[Miss McCaleb] is a darling, and I love her.” Thus, as Millay’s biographer Nancy Milford writes, Millay ultimately “won a crucial ally in Ella McCaleb.” When at the end of her senior year, the faculty and administration barred Millay from participating in commencement activities as a penalty for leaving the college too often without permission, it was Ella McCaleb who wired Millay’s distraught mother, Cora, to inform her that Edna had in fact graduated along with her class. The following day, she sent a more detailed letter to Cora Millay, admitting that “all the way through college Vincent has found it extremely difficult to live according to college regulations, and she had been forgiven possibly too often.” But she also admitted she “was rather dumbfounded by the action of the faculty when it decided that Vincent would have to withdraw last week and not be allowed to take her degree with the class.” Most probably, McCaleb’s “beautiful austerity” played a part in President MacCracken’s decision to allow Vincent to graduate.
As Ella McCaleb’s role as dean evolved, she spoke of the necessity of balancing students’ social, imaginative, and athletic endeavors within the college’s rigorous academic program. “A serious problem here, as in all colleges,” she said, “is that of guarding the freshman from an excess of studies and pleasures and helping them to adopt right ideals and form proper habits in relation to college work.” She saw it as the college’s duty to provide an education that simultaneously developed mental, physical, emotional, and academic strengths. Oliver Tonks recalled, “while she fully appreciated the importance of scholarship, she never forgot the value of character building as it touches both a decent industry and an intense loyalty to the principles upon which the college is based.”
Dean McCaleb envisioned women who graduated from Vassar as pursuing active, professional roles wherein they could have a profound effect on their world. On March 28, 1918, as American units were reinforcing depleted French and English troops in World War I, she said:
Women must soon do their own work and also much that has so far been done chiefly by men. This means get ready. The call is for the thoroughly trained college women; for those who have the courage, the patience, the self-control to follow daily the course that will strengthen and increase intellectual, moral and spiritual power. They must be able to lead, to inspire, to endure–a task for well-directed, full-grown power.
On several occasions, McCaleb was called upon to defend the capability of college women, sometimes in response to misogynistic attacks on women’s education. In a November 23, 1922, letter refusing a subscription to Adelphi College—founded in 1896 and in 1912 transformed into a women’s college—elevator manufacturer Alonzo See called women’s colleges useless, claiming that college women knew nothing of the English language and lacked common sense and suggesting institutions like Vassar deserved incineration. “Of all the fool things in the world,” he said, “I think the college for women is the worst. Nothing could be better for girls in college than to put them at hard manual labor for a year, so there might be put into their heads some little trace of sense.” Dean McCaleb quickly and pointedly replied, calling See “silly” and his letter “foolish.” She continued,
Evidently the writer does not know much about women graduates. They do have a great deal of common sense and they are very willing to work. I am sorry that he seems to have had such unfortunate experience with college women. He evidently does not know many college women, because if he did, he would feel very different. They have proved themselves in every community worthy of good education.
When critics claimed that achieving an advanced level of education threatened a woman’s prospects for marriage, McCaleb attested to her students’ eligibility for marriage. In response to doubts that “marrying men” would select women with educational backgrounds equaling or perhaps even surpassing their own for matrimony, McCaleb pointed to evidence that indicated the contrary:
From a rough estimate made a short time ago in regard to about one thousand students who graduated between 1897 and 1906, we learned that 412 were married, 267 were teaching, 140 were in other professions, leaving 181 living at home with their parents. This is far from being an accurate statement concerning all the graduates of Vassar, but will indicate something of the destiny of our alumnae.
In the winter/spring of 1922, she continued to articulate this argument in an essay that spread throughout the country like wildfire when she supported college women’s freedom to make their own fashion choices. The specific instigation of the dean’s defense—despite her partaking in the popular “flapper” culture—of the “Vassar girl” of 1922 remains a mystery. However, in her piece, she declared “America has never had a finer set of mothers-and-wives-in-the-making than today’s girls.” Critical responses to McCaleb’s defense appeared throughout the country. On March 15, 1922, Colorado College’s The Tiger published an editorial taking issue with McCaleb’s support of the “modern girl.” The article read,
Dean McCaleb may have had 37 years’ experience with girls, but nevertheless we have our doubts. To look at some of the modern girls on the campus today with their short skirts, often showing bare knees, with their bobbed hair, certainly violating God’s greatest gift to woman, her hair and all her vanity and frivolity, man thinks a second time as to whether that type of woman would make him a helpful mate through life.
Responding to the equation of a woman’s physical appearance with her moral substance, McCaleb asserted a woman’s mental abilities and moral strength were independent from and more important than her aesthetic choices, however unfortunate.
[W]hen you see an especially short and tight skirt on a girl, one so extreme that it is ugly, it doesn’t mean that there is any virtue lacking in the make-up of the girl. It means simply, that she neither sat down nor walked around when she selected her skirt! Girls’ mistakes in regard to dress are most of them sins of omission. They give an effect of hasty consideration from only one angle. And after you buy a dress, you know, you can’t discard it right away!
Espousing essentially feminist ideals, she continued,
As I see [college women of 1922] they have a singularly serious idea of life and are trying to work out some idea of service in spite of all the talk to the contrary. That a girl leaves her knees bare is no sign of lacking moral strength. Personally I frown on bare knees because they are neither pretty nor warm at this time of year. That a girl’s hair is bobbed is no indication that she isn’t intellectual. That she uses rouge indicates no spiritual deficiency. Vassar discourages such habits and so should I, personally, but those are purely external things. They have nothing whatever to do with the mental or spiritual girl.
Finally, she declared that the Vassar woman “has a good portion of hard sense under her coiffure. It has been developed by freedom and responsibility. I believe in a certain amount of freedom for girls. They may be put on their honor as soon as they are old enough to discriminate. This develops better moral fibre.”
As she continued her decanal duties, McCaleb also worked to support the heritage to which she belonged as an alumna. She encouraged the forming and strengthening of bonds between generations of Vassar women by maintaining the Poughkeepsie Vassar club and presiding over the granddaughters’ club on campus for students whose mothers attended the college. The class president of 1906 wrote, “Miss McCaleb always appeared to me as a link that bound together generations of Vassar women, imprinting on them the steadiness of purpose, a quiet resourcefulness, an uprightness and valor of spirit. She stood for rock-bound belief in the old, the lovely exhibition of an interest in you that never flagged.”
Throughout her career and even after her retirement in 1923, McCaleb used her connection to Vassar and its alumna to expand accessibility to education. In 1931, the Poughkeepsie Vassar club set up an Ella McCaleb Scholarship that provided Vassar educations to young women who could not otherwise afford the privilege. In this vein, Miss McCaleb also served as a trustee of the Penn School founded on St. Helena’s Island in South Carolina in 1862 and led since 1901 by the “education for life” theories of Rossa B. Cooley ’93. Upon her death, the Vassar faculty established a fund for the benefit of the Penn School in her honor.
McCaleb remained present at Vassar even after her retirement in 1923. In 1912, the college had erected a dean’s house for her on campus, and here she frequently hosted events for faculty, students, and alumnae up until her death from chronic myocarditis on January 9th, 1933. Speaking at her memorial, President Henry Noble MacCracken articulated the immense depth and breadth of McCaleb’s influence upon the college:
Throughout her life the college was her ruling passion. She cared for it intensely… .It was the Vassar of the spirit that she loved, and for it she worked with a devotion that knew no rest. This precious gem of American design, she held most dear, and taught everyone else to hold equally high. She was of the generation that believed the franchise of Vassar to be a passport to no mean city. If at times her great loyalty involved strictness in interpretation of the law, it was because she could not bear to see its privilege degraded. Always she took pains to make clear the justice of every rule, and the necessity even of stern decision. How many times I can recall students confronted by the discipline of the faculty’s action, inspired by Dean McCaleb to try again and to conquer, not the rule, but their own weaknesses, for the sake of the high reward of the Vassar diploma.
Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, New York 2001.
Jane A. Stewart, “Women’s Deans of Women’s Colleges.” The Chautauquan, Volume 33. August 1901.
“Vassar Pioneer of Girls School.” Logansport Daily Reporter, July 12, 1909.
“100 Women and No Extravagance: Vassar Like Utopia of Feminism.” Oakland Tribune,
Volume LXXV. April 16, 1916.
“Flappers Defended by Vassar Dean” The Lima News. February 13, 1922.
“College Woman on Rich Man’s Trail.” New Castle News, Volume XLIII, No. 84. November 13, 1922
“The Dean Retires.” Vassar Miscellany News, Volume VII, June 15, 1923.
“Ella McCaleb, 76, Educator, is Dead: Dean Emeritus and Graduate of Vassar.” The New York
Times, January 10, 1933.
“In Memoriam,” Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XVII, January 14, 1933. (Address of President MacCracken at service on Jan 12th in the Chapel).
“Faculty Establish Fund in Miss McCaleb’s Memory.” Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XVII, January 21, 1933.
Biographical File. Ella McCaleb. Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC).
“Dean McCaleb.” Folder 71.46. The Henry Noble McCracken Collection, (VCSC).
Ella McCaleb Papers, 1895–1927, (VCSC).