Mary Ellen Chase: teacher and author

January 10th, 2012 by Cathleen Miller

Mary Ellen Chase in Montana

Recently, a researcher inquired about Mary Ellen Chase’s tenure as a teacher at the Hillside Home School in Hillside, Wisconsin.  It is always a treat to have the opportunity to dig in to a collection that I have only fleeting familiarity with, reading letters and getting a real sense of that author’s thought processes and concerns.  Upon finishing this research, I feel like I have a much better understanding of Chase as a person and a writer.

After her graduation from the University of Maine in 1909, Chase was encouraged by a teacher to head West to find work.  She taught in boarding and public schools in Wisconsin, Chicago and Montana before her entry into a Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, where she taught while she studied.  In 1926, she was hired by Smith College, where she remained for the entirety of her professorial career.

In a 1936 interview in the Portland Sunday Telegram, Chase declared,
“My writing of books is a sideline.  It is not my main job or the one I like most to be identified with.  I love to teach, and only occasionally love to write.  But I do write, largely because I want to acquaint others with the background of Maine life, with the splendid character of Maine people, and with the unsurpassed loveliness of Maine fields, shores and sea. . . .  Next to my teaching I love best to roam around the country at home or in England and study flowers.  I have learned a fair amount both in England and in Maine, although I cannot claim to be an authority.  I love to cook and to sew, and I must admit my tastes lie far more in ordinary walks of life than in authorship.  I have read all my life; and my chief worry about the next world (wherever and whatever it is) is that my favorite books may not be among its blessings!”

Her letters from the Hillside Home School discuss another ordinary pleasure of her life–being in the company of young people.  She writes of longing for children of her own, how much she looks forward to settling into the role of wife and mother.

I found Chase’s longing for motherhood particularly interesting since, after her arrival at Smith, she met Eleanor Shipley Duckett, who would be her life-long companion.  I should not have been surprised by Chase’s desire for marriage and children, as even if she had found herself attracted to other women during her youth, there were no role models of happy same-gendered couples.  It seems, though, that Chase settled into a contented life with Duckett, despite the absence of children in their household.  Duckett’s portrait of Chase for the March 1962 issue of the Colby Library Quarterly describes their comfortable routine together at home, and offers great insight into Chase’s character.

Duckett wrote, “For more than thirty years Mary Ellen Chase and I have shared a home on the campus of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.  Together we have crossed the Atlantic more often than we can recall.  Year by year we have walked the Meadows from Cambridge to Grantchester; year by year we have climbed the Mendip hills in Somerset. . . .  And then we have come home again, I and my friend Mary, to teach in Smith, to plan for our students, to write our books, to watch the fortunes of war and peace in our world.

How am I to picture her?  Perhaps to those who talk with her their first experience comes through her amazing vitality.  From the days when as a child she stood swaying upon the white gate before the house in Blue Hill, Maine, looking for whatsoever excitement might chance to come or go along the road outside, “between the sky and the sea,” she has seized every moment that called to her fro action or decision or debate.  It is Mary who may be counted on to keep a dinner party alive with laughter; to speak with courage at a time of horrid crisis; to rise from a sick-bed to write another chapter of her book in a hospital chair; to argue vehemently and in all pleasantness questions of world politics.” (pp. 1-2)

Chase’s complexity comes through in all of the biographies of her included in the collection.  Her sister-in-law, Evelyn Hyman Chase, shared the following perspective on Chase’s life in the Summer 1987 issue of Smith Alumnae Quaterly:

“On subsequent days and in subsequent years class discussions led to Mary’s revealing why she made own choice between the two accepted routes toward life’s gratifications: marriage or career.  She had chosen the path of career; had chosen to remain unmarried.  When the Smith girls asked if she were satisfied with her choice, she said, “I don’t need to get married; instead of my own child, I have my youngest brother Newton to nurture and guide.”  …  “And every time I finish a book,” Mary went on, “it is as if I had had another child.”  She said her novels about life on the Maine coast and its sailing ships were just as satisfactory children to her as Newton.  These books…all described several generations of women–women whose roles were chosen for them by custom, women who triumphed over the forces and challenges of nature but all within a social structure dictated by unchanging Puritan tradition–a structure that Mary did not question.” (pp. 18-19)

While it is unclear what the true nature of the companionship was between Duckett and Chase, the certainty is that Chase’s choice to be a writer and teacher over a mother and wife set her apart from most of her peers.  Evelyn Hyman Chase’s biography of Mary Ellen Chase recounts Chase’s reaction to reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  Chase believed that this book should be required reading for all undergraduates, and she wrote to Friedan to tell her so.  Mary Ellen Chase lived just long enough to see women’s liberation take off (she died in 1973).  I wonder what she would say to the developments that have happened for women over the past 50 years.


Early NOW in Maine

November 15th, 2011 by Ann Morrissey

Nancy Cushman Dibner (1926-2007) was a political activist interested in many causes but perhaps best known for her work in the early 1970s on the formation of the Maine Chapter of NOW.  National NOW was a powerhouse that lobbied for a multitude of women’s causes.

The collection contains 148 files mostly from 1970-1973 and is separated into sections on national NOW, the state NOW chapter in Maine, issues materials, a short biographical section and a collection of Memorabilia.  These papers were donated to MWWC by her sons, Steve and Eric Dibner.

Some of the highlights of the papers are:

1. How to start a NOW chapter!  The political world of women in the early 70s was dominated by nationwide efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (the ERA).  National NOW was the most powerful and most visual champion of that effort.  Women all over the country wanted to be part of NOW and to have chapters within their own states.  NOW sent out instructional pamphlets with specific instructions on how to organize their chapters.  The Dibner papers contain a copy of the 1970 manual from NOW which includes advice on officers, money raising and available materials.

2. ERA Efforts in Maine.  NOW’s Bill of Rights had as its first demand the passage of the national ERA which required state-by-state efforts.  The battle for the ERA passage in Maine was particularly hot in 1972 and 1973 and is well documented in the Dibner papers.  As the proposed amendment went to the Maine legislature a second time, the language intensified and all out efforts to support the funding of the amendment’ passage were developed including a softball game whose proceeds went toward the ratification of the ERA.

3. Issues Series.  The array of issues in the NOW and Maine NOW files are varied and colorful.  Besides these files, Dibner kept over 50 files of clippings and white papers on some expected issues (abortion, education, employment, legal issues, religion & politics) and on some unexpected issues (feminist items for sale, vegetarian feminists, marriage & name choice, and women & credit.  These folders are an eagle’s eye look at the early 70’s and the concerns of women.

4. Feminist / Political Buttons.  One of the great joys of the collection are the over 100 political & feminist buttons that show the range, humor and pathos of the period.  They range from Nixon eats lettuce, Uppity Women Unite and Abortion Upon Demand, to Sexism is a Social Disease and Respect Animals Don’t Eat Them.

For any researcher interested in the early 70’s, in NOW, or in feminism in general, the Nancy Dibner papers are a treasure of materials.

From the Vote to the ERA: Feminist Waves

December 15th, 2010 by Cathleen Miller

In the 1970s, women fought for property rights, equality in credit, fair divorce laws, wages for housework, and urged the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Ramona Barth

Flo Kennedy

The ERA was first proposed in 1923 by Alice Paul under the name the “Lucretia Mott Amendment.”  This amendment was introduced in every term of Congress thereafter, finally winning passage in 1972.  Indiana was the last state to ratify the ERA in 1975, leaving the amendment three states short of ratification.

Because the ERA has not been approved as an amendment to the nation’s constitution, women still lack full protection under the law.  Supporters of the ERA continue to introduce the amendment in congressional sessions, and strategize to win its passage.

from the Nancy Dibner papers

The 1980s marked a backlash against feminism, and many debated the value of, or need for, the feminist movement.  In the 1990s, the “third wave” of feminism began to find its voice, calling for a deeper understanding of the intertwining of oppression based on race, class, gender, and sexuality.  Third wave feminists have worked to examine popular culture and politics, and have looked deeply at the notion that the “personal is political,” a slogan made famous by their mothers’ generation, who argued that the choices women made in their personal lives were absolutely connected to the inequalities in society.

About the collections included in this exhibit:

Ramona Sawyer Barth papers
Ramona Barth (1911-2002) was a feminist activist, author, spokesperson for the National Organization for Women (NOW), and teacher.  She was one of the founders of Maine NOW, but participated in protests and actions in many cities along the East coast.   The photographs here represent a small portion of the materials she collected.  These photos document actions, and highlight some of the activists who Ramona Barth worked with during her years in the feminist movement.

Nancy Cushman Dibner papers
Nancy Dibner (1926-2007) was instrumental in the formation of the first Maine chapter of the National Organization for Women.  She served as the chapter’s secretary from its inception. In her own words, she stated that her significance in the NOW organization was her diligence in reminding people of the “necessity in chap[ter] and state of adequate record keeping and files [of the] communications within chap[ter] and organization, [and] press coverage of day-to-day activities as well as actions.”  Dibner was appointed by Governor Ken Curtis to serve as council member from Portland for the Governor’s Advisory Council of the Status of Women activated by the 106th Legislature.  Nancy Dibner became president of the Southern Maine chapter of NOW in 1973 and represented Maine at the 8th NOW National Convention.  She was also the co-editor with Anne Hazlewood-Brady of Mainely Now.

Anne Hazlewood-Brady papers
Born in Sloatsburg, NY in 1925, poet and playwright Anne Hazlewood-Brady graduated from Vassar College in 1946. She completed graduate work in literature at NYU, Columbia, and the University of Maine. She now lives in Arundel, Maine.  She became increasingly active in the women’s movement upon moving to New York City in 1969. Her activities there included the founding of the Women’s Interart Center and involvement in the organization of the Women’s Strike for Equality (1970), which commemorated the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
Anne Hazlewood-Brady’s papers document her writing and the production of her work, as well as her personal life and activism.

National Woman’s Party collection
While these papers primarily document the Massachusetts chapter of the NWP, the influence of these women was felt across the country. The suffragists held bold pickets, confronted state and national government officials with the reality that women were being treated as second-class citizens, and were jailed and physically assaulted for their actions. This collection includes photographs, campaign books, journals, records of members and officers, copies of laws affecting women, membership forms, newspaper clippings, and scrapbooks.

We hope you have enjoyed this online exhibit.  These collections offer wonderful resources on the study of feminist action in the United States in the twentieth century.  If you are interested in viewing material from any of these collections, please contact the curator for assistance.

From the Vote to the ERA: Surge of the Second Wave

December 10th, 2010 by Cathleen Miller

photo from the Ramona Sawyer Barth papers

Button from the Nancy Dibner papers

In 1968, a group of 150 feminists gathered to protest the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  They highlighted the ways that average women were harmed by the beauty standards perpetuated by the pageant with several different actions, the most famous of which was the “Freedom Trash Can.”  Women were encouraged to throw away any item that was a symbol of the oppression women suffered because of unreasonable standards of beauty.  Women threw away bras, high heels, curlers, pantyhose, and girdles.  They talked about setting the contents of the trash can on fire, but were discouraged by police.  Nevertheless, they were called by the pejorative “bra burners,” which is still sometimes used to belittle feminist activists.

This action brought feminism back into the consciousness of many women, and “second wave” feminists of the 1970s worked toward  the elimination of subtler forms of inequality.

photos of a protest outside a Playboy club from the Ramona Barth papers

These materials from the Anne Hazlewood-Brady papers document the August 26, 1970 Strike for Equality, which Hazlewood-Brady helped to organize.

Anne Hazlewood-Brady wrote the following poem to commemorate the occasion of the Women’s Strike (courtesy of the Veteran Feminists of America website)

August 26, 1970 (Anne Hazlewood-Brady)

We took to the streets like a river
flowing into history. Women.
Women who have borne the world’s children.
Women who are jailed for whoring and for loving.
Women who will not be fouled, fooled or frightened anymore.
Women from the Grecian urn; truth and beauty made flesh.
Women like tribal queens.
Women from the sounds of silence
from the sun’s first beam
from the wind’s hot advances
and the sea’s murmuring.

Women out of the earth’s very beginning
arose and walked arm in arm
past stunned and jeering faces,
and we will not know today
nor yet in the blue tomorrow’s wake
what churned behind those faces.
It was enough, being a woman, to be there,
Demanding, by our numbers,
our rightful place to make a better world.

Check back next week for the final installment of “From the Vote to the ERA.”