Friday, June 20, 2014

Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks: A Story in Letters

Hello there, my name is Caroline, and I’m a summer research assistant in the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections! I am a rising senior (go 2015! Yellow sphinx!) double major in Gender Studies and Sociology. My majors focus on depictions of women in the media and meaning-making through the occult – I’m all sorts of at home in the Archives, surrounded by old books and good friends. When I’m not in class or in the basement of Dwight I can be found in the Marks House, orienting new students, and blogging about the Mount Holyoke community!


The Archives and Special Collections has been tackling an immense project for the last year – digitizing, transcribing, and presenting the amazing amount of correspondence in our possession between Mount Holyoke’s own former president Mary E. Woolley and her lifetime partner and friend Jeannette A. Marks.
Our shelves are packed with archival boxes containing hundreds of letters exchanged between Mary and
Jeannette during the years prior to and following Miss Woolley’s tenure as President, as well as during her reign at the helm of MHC. Her collection also includes an unfinished and unpublished autobiography containing details of her childhood, teaching career, tenure at Mount Holyoke, and more.

Jeannette Marks’ collection is similarly housed in the Archives stacks, with correspondence and manuscripts from her time here in the English Literature department and drafts of her biography of Mary Woolley, published in 1955.

The emotion contained in the letters exchanged between them over the course of their lifetimes is palpable – the pages are full of declarations of love, plans made to spend their lives together, and the hopes and dreams the two of them shared.  Several of the letters dated after Mary Woolley was offered the presidency of Mount Holyoke but before she had taken office are particularly poignant – they hint at a revelation between the two women about their mutual affection and devotion to one another, and reading them leaves one both emotionally touched and somewhat guilty for having intruded on what was such a private and important moment in their lives.

The sheer amount of correspondence is staggering, as the women often wrote to one another daily while apart. When both Woolley and Marks took up their posts as president and professor at Mount Holyoke, one may have expected a dip in the rate of postal exchange. The opposite is in fact often true – they wrote short notes to one another frequently during the day, delivered via inter-departmental mail or, on remarkably frequent occasions, to one another while they were living in the same home. Identifying and transcribing each of these quick but meaningful messages is a herculean undertaking, and has proved a wonderfully constant challenge and source of new understanding in the Archives.

The difficulty in transcription and digitization is frequently one of penmanship – the calligraphy and flowing handwriting of a bygone era can be hard to interpret for modern scholars, and the familiarity between Woolley and Marks lends an air of informality to the sometimes-scrawl the women used to address one another. Woolley’s handwriting is large and loose; it flows a few lines at a time over the page and is easy enough to decipher, given time and careful inspection. Marks’ is definitively less so – some words and phrases in her letters have given pause to a series of archival assistants assigned to the task of deciphering them.


Work has continued nevertheless, including identifying letters to be transcribed through research of the women’s lives. Momentous occasions often produce interesting conversation between the two, and examining the historical timeline of their lives and relationship can yield a veritable treasure trove of interesting messages to interpret.

Having the papers in our possession is an enormous benefit to research. The contents depict a richer and fuller story about their life together than biographies and remembrances often do, showing one of Mount Holyoke’s most important partnerships in a frank, candid, and starkly honest form. The Archives is focusing this summer on transforming this wealth of information and hard work into a digital public exhibit, with the help of the dedicated LITS Digital Assets and Preservation Services department.


This exhibit is still under construction – plans for its presentation include an interactive web page and a future invitation for crowdsourced transcription in order to more easily decipher the correspondence.  Research into the amazing lives and fascinating relationship of these pioneering women is just beginning – the Archives and Special Collections hopes that by opening this abundance of information to the public, interest in the lives of the partners will encourage continual research, debate, and insight into this fascinating topic. 

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