November 04, 2014

Woodrow Wilson and the Seven Sisters

After attending Princeton, which he lo-o-o-o-o-oved, Tommy W. Wilson started his graduate work at the University of Virginia, where he formally shed his first name and started going by Woodrow. After only a year he moved back to Georgia to practice law, which he didn't enjoy. We've entered a period of Wilson's life where he doesn't enjoy anything, because he sees himself as bound for greatness and chafes at having to pay his dues in any capacity. (This is a common phase for many future presidents — JQA spent a decade or so in a similar huff — that would be more ingratiating if they weren't eventually proven right.)

After a few years of law Wilson enrolled at Johns Hopkins to pursue a doctorate. Although he loved campus life —especially being in charge of as many student activities as possible — he was less focused on scholarship than he was on his new girlfriend, whom he would marry in 1885.

He still had a year left on his doctorate but, as a newlywed, he felt pressed to provide for his wife, and took a professorial job at the newly founded Bryn Mawr, an all-women's college.

As a graduate of Wellesley (go Blue!), I was excited to find a president who had worked at one of the Seven Sisters, until I realized that Wilson was a big pill about it.

Woodrow Wilson with Bryn Mawr's first graduating class, 1886. (top row, far right)
He considered a women's college beneath him and reportedly phoned in most of his lectures, sometimes just reading aloud from magazine articles he had written. However, having not officially finished his doctorate he couldn't be picky. Luckily, his books and articles were garnering him a reputation as a historian, and Johns Hopkins was inclined to let him finish his doctorate in absentia. Once he had done that, new job offers from "real" colleges came pouring in. He had signed a contract with Bryan Mawr, but it stated that he would be given an assistant "when practical." Because he hadn't been given one as soon as he expected, he claimed breach of contract and left to teach at Wesleyan, and then a few years later at Princeton.

Not a shining moment for Woodrow Wilson. A plaque at Bryn Mawr commemorating his time there was casually removed about 10 years ago.