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Review: Book captures a resonante time at Mount Holyoke College

Special to The Recorder

“A Male President for Mount Holyoke College” by Ann Karus Meeropol (McFarland, 258 pages, $45)

Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley is the oldest ongoing institution of higher learning for women in the United States. Founded in 1837 by Mary Lyon of Buckland as a female seminary, the school has generally been run by women.

In Mount Holyoke’s centennial year, Roswell Ham became the first male president of the college. Men continued to run the school until the late 1970s. Ham’s appointment in 1937 was unexpected and controversial.

In “A Male President for Mount Holyoke College: The Failed Fight to Maintain Female Leadership, 1934-1937” Ann Karus Meeropol delves into the drama behind that appointment.

Few college presidencies were open to women in the 1930s. For three years outgoing president Mary Emma Woolley, faculty, and alumnae fought to preserve Mount Holyoke’s tradition of female leadership. Unfortunately, many of the college’s trustees, who made the ultimate decision, wanted a man to succeed Woolley.

I couldn’t read this book as an entirely unbiased critic. I graduated from Mount Holyoke and both my mother and grandmother attended the college during Woolley’s 36-year tenure as president.

My mother was on campus in 1937. Like most of her classmates, she adored Woolley and found the appointment of Ham perplexing and disheartening. Meeropol’s book reveals that Woolley’s dream of a female successor was more or less doomed in the 1930s.

The author explains that in the mid-20th century, the trustees at Mount Holyoke and other American colleges and universities came to see their schools first and foremost as businesses — businesses that needed a strong masculine hand to manage finances and dominate employees.

The story Meeropol tells is fascinating and dramatic. The papers relating to the “succession crisis” of 1937 were sealed until a few years ago so this story has never been told before.

The book would be stronger if Meeropol had provided more context for the reader. She shares the details of Woolley’s life as a whole, but readers unfamiliar with Mount Holyoke will probably wish she had shared more of the history of the college. She also could have profitably provided more social and cultural background information for the battle she describes.

As it is, however, the book is very, very good. It illuminates a resonant moment in American history with passion and precision.

Meeropol paints Woolley as a pioneer and makes the decision to replace her with a man understandable but not acceptable. Meeropol’s colorful, detailed depiction of an 80-year-old struggle will move readers and remind them that the fight for social justice never ends.

Ann Karus Meeropol will speak about her new book on Wednesday, April 9, at 7 p.m. at 101 Dwight Hall at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. For directions, visit the Mount Holyoke College website: www.mtholyoke.edu

Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” (www.merrylion.com) and “Pulling Taffy” (www.pullingtaffy.com). She is always looking for new books from Franklin County-related authors to review for this paper. If you have a book suggestion, email her at Tinky@merrylion.com.

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