“Same sex colleges have always been test beds for transformations among American women”—so read a recent article in the New York Times Magazine. Suzanne Bordelon’s biography and analysis of Gertrude Buck’s, (and, by extension, her partner Laura Johnson Wylie’s), tenure, pedagogy, and politics at Vassar College during the Progressive era (1890-1920) underscores these transformations—from the Suffrage movement to how rhetoric ought to be taught, from the development of the Little Theater movement to the democratization of society.
Buck, a student of John Dewey’s concept of education as key to democracy, expanded the classroom from just conveying information to a place where students were given the tools to reform and ultimately transform the greater society. She focused an activist pedagogy—using the tools of rhetoric—basing the assignments not only on student interests but developing moral citizens (48) who would function in an egalitarian democracy. Buck democratized the teaching of rhetoric, and put forward what we would recognize today as a progressive and feminist pedagogy. She integrated her own socio-political ethics into her teachings, stressing democratic principles to writing, augmentation, and the field of rhetoric. She and Wylie also practiced their feminism in the model they put forward in governing the department of English: a decentered, democratic model in which all the faculty had a voice.
In a letter to Vassar College President Henry Noble MacCracken from November 1918, Buck explained her emphasis on educating women students so they would be “capable of a greater degree of initiative and constructive intellectual activity than heretofore.” (55) She contended that the then-current educational norms were unchanged, and replicated “the military monarchy” or external authority, not a system for training “free born, thinking, self-responsible, government-making citizens of the twentieth century.” (55-56)
Her claim that the then-current education system produces what students seek—“units” (56)—is but a distant echo of the current cry on many college campuses today. Faculty decry contemporary students who are just seeking a college education as a means to a job, who focus on their grade point average rather than challenging themselves and developing critical thinking skills.
A Feminist Legacy is a window into cultural history and politics not only of the college classroom, but of the greater Poughkeepsie community, and the country. The college under President James Monroe Taylor (1886-1914) sought to educate “cultured but human, not leaders but good wives and mothers, truly liberal in things intellectual but conservate in matters social,” according to President Henry MacCracken (94), Taylor’s successor.
To this end, Vassar College originally sought to remove students from politics, limiting debates and lectures on issues such as the suffrage movement which MacCracken viewed as propaganda. Vassar suffragists were prohibited from organizing and meeting on campus. Inez Milholland, then an undergraduate student at Vassar, circumvented this policy by holding a suffrage meeting in the cemetery adjacent to campus. Laura Wylie set up the women’s suffrage Party of Poughkeepsie shortly thereafter. Buck challenged the patriarchy herself, with the publication of two limericks, in one of which she implied that women might also participate in their own oppression, what feminist theorists today call being “internally colonized.” In the other limerick, Buck notes that male privilege is at women’s expense. Both concepts are key to feminist theory today.
Bordelon explores Buck’s development of the Little Theater movement on Vassar’s campus, which is well demonstrated by one of her most famous students Edna St. Vincent Millay. Under Buck’s guidance, Millay not only wrote but acted in various productions, a collaborative venture (149).
Buck also focused on “town-gown” issues, striving to socialize education and address social justice concerns as she tried to enrich our democracy. To this end, Buck created the Poughkeepsie Community Theatre, literally bridging the gap between the upper-middle class women attending Vassar College and the diverse community outside its gates.
A Feminist Legacy allows the reader to witness the transformations that were happening politically and socially for women not only in Vassar’s classrooms, but in the microcosm that was at that time Middle America. Unfortunately, the book is more reminiscent of an academic dissertation, with far more theory and analysis than necessary. At times, I feel that Bordelon was reiterating primary sources for the reader instead of following Buck’s own pedagogy and allowing the reader to get involved with the subject on her own. I learned a lot, but I do not think many will be willing to slog on through the dense and dry prose that belies the exciting educational, social and political life of Gertrude Buck, Vassar College, and Poughkeepsie at the beginning of the last century.
-- JoAnne Myer