A Look Back at Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s Main Line History

Like many job-hunting new graduates, Woodrow Wilson took what he could get.

Woodrow Wilson (last row, far right) with Bryn Mawr College students in 1886.New graduates rarely get dream jobs. First, dues must be paid, coffee brought and scut work done.

That’s how it was for Thomas Woodrow Wilson who, after receiving his doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University in 1885, took a job teaching women at newly established Bryn Mawr College. A position in which he reported to a female supervisor (ouch!).

Ellen Wilson—like her husband, a Southerner who feared “strong-minded women”—thought it “absurd” and “unnatural” that her husband should stoop to teach females. She worried that Wilson would “find it very unpleasant to serve, as it were, under a woman.” But Wilson did what he had to do. For three years, he taught Bryn Mawr’s girls, whom he described as “too literal and unimaginative.” Then, at the first opportunity, he made his escape to Wesleyan University.

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“I have for a long time been hungry for a class of men,” Wilson wrote to his friend, Robert Bridges, in 1888, explaining the move. Later, of course, he ended up in the White House, where politics forced him to support the necessary evil of women’s suffrage.

Born in Virginia and raised in Georgia, Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian minister. His grandfather had published an abolitionist newspaper in Steubenville, Ohio. But after Wilson’s parents moved south in 1851, they adjusted their sectional loyalties accordingly.

Wilson’s father, Joseph, defended slavery, owned slaves and served briefly in the Confederate army. Yet, the Wilsons didn’t nurture Lost Cause fantasies. In 1881, a 25-year-old Wilson wrote a cousin, Harriet Woodrow, that he opposed “all the parade and speech-making and sentimentality of Decoration Day” (the Southern version of Memorial Day) for perpetuating hatreds of the war years.

Yet Wilson was a thorough Southerner who inherited his region’s contempt for career women. In 1884, he attended—perhaps for amusement—a Women’s Congress meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Women in Baltimore. Writing afterward to his wife, he described the “chilled, scandalized feeling that always overcomes me when I see and hear women speak in public.”

Commenting on one speaker, “a severely dressed person from Boston, an old maid from the straitest (sic) sect of old maid,” Wilson called the woman “a living example—and lively commentary—of what might be done by giving men’s places and duties to women.”

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In the post-Victorian era, such views were more the norm than the exception.

Wilson was 9 years old before he learned the alphabet, and 11 by the time he learned to read. One charitable biographer, Ray S. Baker, suggested that he didn’t need to. Wilson’s parents and older sisters spent evenings reading aloud, so all he had to do was listen. More recent writers think he may have been dyslexic.

Never a top student, Wilson succeeded in class by working hard and doing everything he could to please a demanding father. He graduated from Princeton in 1879, then attended law school for a year but did not graduate.

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Instead, he continued his legal studies in his parents’ house, passed the bar in 1882 and went into practice in Atlanta with a Princeton classmate. But legal work was scarce. Wilson, who hated grubbing for money, found himself collecting debts, a job typically delegated to new lawyers. In 1883, he applied to Johns Hopkins for a doctorate in history and political science, subjects that had fascinated him at Princeton.

According to journalist Cyrus W. Gilbert, Wilson had a deep inferiority complex that allowed him grand visions of remaking society and improving mankind while, at the same time, looking down on most people.

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“It is characteristic of certain temperaments that, when they first face life, they should run away from it as Mr. Wilson did when, having studied law and having been admitted to the bar, he abandoned practice and went to teach in a girls’ school,” Gilbert wrote in 1921. “That was the early sign of a sense of unfitness for the more arduous contacts of life, which was so conspicuous a trait in his presidency.”

That self-involvement, said Gilbert and other critics, allowed President Wilson to take personally a stalemated, not-that-important European conflict and—by bringing in the United States—turn it into World War I. Afterward, it led Wilson to make a personal test of forcing his peace plan on European leaders. Rather than compromise, he failed completely, producing the Versailles Treaty, German outrage and World War II.

As Wilson studied at Johns Hopkins, the dean of Bryn Mawr, M. Carey Thomas—who, in 1894, would become its second president—was determined to make her fledgling school a center of research that would attract great scholars. Enraged by obstacles thrown in the path of her own education because of gender, she was unwilling to tolerate second best.

Equally influenced by her mother’s feminism and her father’s anti-feminism, Thomas also served as first president of the National College Women’s Equal Suffrage League. She was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

And yet, she hired Wilson. According to her biographer, Bryn Mawr trustees were ready to make faculty appointments in the spring of 1884, but Thomas, thinking them all wrong, scuttled their choices. Instead, she hired a biologist from MIT and a math professor from Filton College in England. She would consider no one without a doctorate.

For history and political science, Thomas looked at six candidates, interviewed three and, ironically, dismissed one for her gender. “How can a political zero teach politics?” she posed at the time.

Married in June 1885, Wilson told his wife that he would accept nothing less than $2,000 per year. The college offered $1,200. He balked. The offer was bumped to $1,500, and Wilson accepted.

When the Wilsons arrived, Bryn Mawr had 42 students, two classroom buildings and three small houses for faculty—dubbed, cutely, the Deanery (Thomas’ residence), the Scenery (for its view) and the “Betweenery,” for its position between the other two. The couple lived in the Betweenery for 18 months. Then, shortly before the birth of their second daughter in 1887, they moved to a Baptist parsonage on Gulph Road.

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“Colleagues found Wilson a congenial, if somewhat distant, table companion,” wrote Bryn Mawr history professor Arthur Dudden in a 1950s alumni magazine.

Wilson’s surprisingly vast academic territory was the entire history of the West, plus modern constitutional history and current events. During this period, Wilson also began work on The State, the first textbook ever written on comparative government.

His first-year lectures on Greece and Rome attracted seven students; an advanced course on constitutional history, just one. A visiting friend asked if he could sit in on the latter class, promising to remain inconspicuous. Wilson hesitated, then confessed, “I will have to let you in on a deadly secret. My entire class consists of one girl!”

Things picked up in the second year, when Wilson taught 11 students each in his English and U.S. history classes, 14 in his “History of France” class, and 15 in “Renaissance and Reformation.” Edith Finch, a former student, described his lectures as “good, clear and polished,” but Wilson as disinterested in feedback.

“He allowed the students time to ask questions—though, given no encouragement, they rarely availed themselves of it,” she wrote. “Even conferences with graduate students tended to become lectures delivered before an audience of one.”

And there was this from Wilson’s diary: “Lecturing on the history and precepts of politics to young ladies is no more appropriate or profitable than lecturing to stone masons on the evolution of fashion in clothing. There seems to be a ‘painful absenteeism of mind’ among your listeners. Your speech generates no heat, because it passes through a vacuum.”

As if in retort, another student, Lucy M. Salmon, wrote, “He never liked teaching, as differentiated from lecturing.”

It is accepted at Bryn Mawr that Wilson and Thomas quarreled, though the details are lost. His deep-seated dislike of “women who meddled in the serious concerns of masculine life such as scholarship” was probably incompatible with her scorn at any implication of female inferiority.

There was even a story that Wilson stopped using his first name—Thomas —because it reminded him of Bryn Mawr’s dean. But he had gone by “Woodrow” since at least 1881.

By his third year, Wilson was clearly climbing the walls. Writing to his wife, he said, “When I think of you, I love this ‘College for Women,’ because you are a woman; but when I think only of myself, I hate the place very cordially.”

Bottom line: Wesleyan made him a better offer—more money, classes with men and contacts with male professors who could help steer Wilson toward the political career he now envisioned. Bryn Mawr’s board was shocked at the short notice, but Wilson reasoned that the
college had never hired his promised assistant. So, he thought they were even. He’d done his scut work, and it was time to go.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.

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