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Giving Girls a Place of Their Own

Laurie Lisle

Publication Year: 2009

Westover, a girls' school in Middlebury, Connecticut, was founded in 1909 by emancipated "New Women," educator Mary Hillard and architect Theodate Pope Riddle. Landscape designer Beatrix Farrand did the plantings. It has evolved from a finishing school for the Protestant elite, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's first love, to a meritocracy for pupils of many religions and races from all over the world. The fascinating account of the ups and downs of this female community is the subject of Laurie Lisle's lively and well-researched book. The author describes the innovations of the idealistic minister's daughter who founded the school in 1909, her intellectual successor who turned it into a college preparatory school in the 1930s, the quiet headmaster who managed to keep it open during the turbulent 1970s, and the prize-winning mathematics teacher, wife, and mother who leads the high school today. This beautifully illustrated book tells an important story about female education during decades of dramatic change in America.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press

Series: Garnet Books

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PREFACE: My Westover

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pp. xi

This book had its beginning in the autumn of 1971, when I was working for Newsweek in New York. In the wake of the women’s liberation movement, I was seeing everything with new eyes, and I wanted to re-evaluate my life as a girl, especially my three years at Westover. The impact of leaving home at the age of fifteen for a hermetic female community had been huge. As far as I could tell, the school had changed very little from the time my mother had attended in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I wondered why I had never heard the words “women’s rights” spoken by my intelligent and independent women teachers, even by the indomitable Louise Dillingham, who had ruled the place for many years with a peculiar combination of absolute authority and enigmatic detachment. I was wondering...

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pp. xxi-xxii

I am grateful to the nearly one hundred people who have graciously shared their memories and insights with me in person, by telephone, letter, and e-mail. The oldest was Mary Willcox Wiley ’18, and the youngest were girls who were not yet alumnae. Mary, who had just had her hundredth birthday when I visited, had a merry smile and an amazing memory, and when it faltered, she would say, “I can’t quite get hold of that tail feather”; we had a good laugh after I mentioned uniforms, and she replied that she had never seen any “unicorns” at Westover. Since Louise Dillingham’s personal papers...

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1. Mary Hillard and Her Era: Protestant and Progressive

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pp. 1-20

On a day in late april of 1909, a woman named Theodate Pope and a group of teachers from St. Margaret’s School in the city of Waterbury, Connecticut, excitedly got into the Pope family’s chauffeured motor car, carrying a samovar, a ham, hatboxes, and precious colored photographs. The overloaded car made what one of the women later described as a “perilous” trip over the hilly six miles to the village of Middlebury. The village green, shaded by elms and encircled by white colonial homes and shops, was now bordered on one side by an enormous, pale stucco school with a steep slate roof and a bell tower. Over the large dark green door, an...

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2. Creating a School: “A Real Girls’ Republic”

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pp. 21-40

In the western world there is an age-old dream of womanly togetherness. Alongside the history of female exclusion from male institutions, there are stories of females voluntarily withdrawing together to embrace values that are absent in society. This tradition includes Amazon myths, Christian convents, and the Beguine communities of lay women during the Middle Ages. In 1405 Christine de Pisan wrote about an imagined City of Ladies devoted to the principles of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. In nineteenth-century America, the antislavery, temperance, and other reform crusades gave birth to a feminist movement, and its aspirations were...

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3. The Art of Living: A Balanced Life

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pp. 41-60

Mary Hillard had always wanted her school to be a place devoted to the wholesome values of her girlhood, the same ones that had shaped the grandmothers of most of her pupils. Life at Westover would be “simple, sincere, and natural,” she had written in the school’s first catalog. Her own childhood had consisted of “an education which brought her soul in touch with God, her mind in contact with the great thinkers of the past and present, [and] her body in contact with nature in all her aspects among the hills of Connecticut,” in the words of a her minister friend in Waterbury, John Dallas. As she structured a way of life for her young charges—one she envisioned as a balanced existence—she hoped that they would adopt it as their own after graduation. Some activities and traditions were similar to those in other...

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4. The Spirit of the School: Engaging Youthful Idealism

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pp. 61-78

Like her father with his ministry and her mother with her streak of religious fervor, Mary Hillard was deeply grounded in her Protestant faith. “It has been a long time since I have really been afraid of anything in life,” she wrote to her old friend Harris Whittemore, now president of Westover’s board of directors, because of the solace she took in the words of the Twenty-Third Psalm. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” the ancient psalm begins, before going on to affirm a deep reliance on a benevolent God. “That beautifully expresses what I have become, through much suffering of many kinds,” she wrote to him in middle age. If God “leads us ‘into...

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5. Louise Bulkley Dillingham: Becoming Miss D

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pp. 79-98

A year before the unexpected death of the highly es- teemed Miss Hillard, the youthful Louise Dillingham led Westover chapel services, helped with admissions, taught psychology and advanced French classes, all the while getting to know the students, the teachers, and the nature of the school by “observing and absorbing its life and traditions,” she later wrote. A pupil at the time recalled that she “kept a low profile” and was “very pleasant.” A black-and-white snapshot taken of her at the time shows a sturdy, stocky young woman with a wide generous smile and a very intense gaze, her dark hair combed back in a no-nonsense manner and gathered at the nape of her neck. She was remembered as a firm but kind teacher with a twinkle in her eye, who spoke French so rapidly and in such a soft voice that she was very difficult...

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6. Encouraging Independence: Democracy and Honor

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pp. 99-114

The news of the bombing of pearl harbor reached west- over at the end of the Sunday quiet hour on December 7, 1941. One pupil heard about it as she walked from the library into the main building and past Lucy Pratt’s downstairs office, where the radio was on. The next day, everyone gathered in Red Hall to listen to President Roosevelt’s grave words over the radio announcing his intention to ask Congress to declare war on Japan. In the following months, as beaux, brothers, and brothers-in-law prepared to go to war, Louise Dillingham eased the rules about male visitors. Young men were now allowed to visit at times other than Saturday afternoons. And instead of sitting together in one of the small downstairs rooms with glass-paned doors, girls were allowed to take their callers to the Common Room for Coca-Colas and...

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7. The Desire for Justice: Admitting Negro Students

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pp. 115-132

When veterans returned home after the end of world War II, it became more difficult for women to get admitted to college or to use their educations in the workplace. Meanwhile, they were encouraged to devote themselves to domesticity. Educators were affected by this anatomy-is-destiny crusade, and many assumed that education should only prepare women for becoming better wives and mothers. “It took intellectual courage to question the premises of ‘feminine’ education,” a historian has noted. A number of older educators resisted these beliefs, and they proposed women’s history studies as a way to inspire younger female scholars, but most of them were conflicted or silenced. Bryn Mawr’s president, Katharine McBride...

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8. A Great Lady: Honors and Illness

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pp. 133-150

When Louise Dillingham’s oil portrait painted by the mother and grandmother of pupils was unveiled in Red Hall in 1953, alumnae had spoken of the “great intelligence, warmth of heart, breath of mind and vision, and humility of spirit” of Miss D. “Long may she reign over our little kingdom.” Four years later, the school celebrated her twenty-fifth anniversary as headmistress. She was given the Westover Award, which had been established by alumnae a few years earlier. The new president of the board of trustees, Elliott H. Lee, a retired banker from New York City and the husband and father of graduates, effusively praised her qualities of mind and heart as well. In response, Miss D said she was glad to have known Mary Hillard for more than a year before taking her place. She also said that she was grateful for what Westover had given her during the past quarter century, and for what she had been...

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9. Days of Desperation: Rebellion and Falling Enrollment

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pp. 151-172

Time had stood still in many ways at Westover until Louise Dillingham’s departure. The school was virtually the way it had always been, with daily morning prayer and vespers services, an honor system more sensed than spelled out, and a variety of uniforms for classes, sports, dinner, and even for taking walks. After more than three decades of her reign, much of the faculty was elderly. Seniors had traditionally run the school, with the administration taking a hands-off approach, but this was especially true after Miss Dillingham became unwell. Even after her death, the new girl handbook still expressed her lofty thoughts: “Some of your reasons for coming to Westover may have been that you liked its atmosphere of ordered purpose, that you felt the enthusiasm of its community, and that you also felt there...

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10. Regaining Balance: Finding the Courage to Continue

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pp. 173-195

After the departure of John Alexander during the summer of 1971, the board of trustees asked assistant headmaster Joseph Molder to be acting headmaster, while the selection committee looked for a permanent headmaster or headmistress. Westover was “torn and anguished,” in the view of Nancy May Rennell, head of the committee. Recalling that trustees had turned down two women educators in favor of Iglehart and Alexander, she asked: “Why not concentrate on finding a woman now?? There must be something to women’s lib!” Rebecca Love Drew also recommended that they find a female, since it might be difficult to find a good man. “Westover has had its fingers burned twice now,” she warned Dorrance Sexton, and it...

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11. Classroom Innovations: Learning from Girls

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pp. 196-214

For as long as anyone could remember, Westover’s science department in the old Methodist church’s stables had been too small. When physics was first offered in the 1930s, Louise Dillingham had made room for it in the basement of the main building. Three decades later, the biology and chemistry classrooms were still crowded and noisy, and the space for physics was “almost desperately inadequate,” noted the 1968 accreditation committee. Ten years after that, the chemistry lab continued to be so cramped that science teacher Terry Hallaran worried about flammable fumes sparking an explosion. Nonetheless, Terry and his wife, Alice, “cheerfully arrange and rearrange the different classes and inspire students with their own interest and expertise,” the educators observed, while enthusiastically adding interesting electives and...

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12. Backlash: Defining the Difference

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pp. 215-230

As half the girls’ schools in America disappeared, only a few voices were raised in opposition, like the eloquent one of Adrienne Rich, who had attended a female high school before going to Radcliffe College. Teaching teenage girls together was especially important, she believed, because those are the years when “polarization between feminine attractiveness and independent intelligence” is widest, or, in other words, when attention given to appearance often undermines the ability to think. She was well aware of the many ways that the world sabotages schoolgirls—from making sexist assumptions to ignoring sexual harassment. “If there is any misleading concept, it is that of ‘coeducation’: that because women and men are sitting in the same classrooms, hearing the same lectures, reading the same books, performing the same...

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13. The Ethic of Care: Defending Girls’ Schools

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pp. 231-247

Unfortunately, a few months after Ann Pollina’s installation, the important American Association of University Women suddenly backed off from advocating girl-only classrooms, saying in the spring of 1998 that attention should be given instead to improving education for the vast majority of girls in the nation’s coeducational schools. It was also concerned about the legal and political consequences of endorsing the separation of the sexes in public schools. Its report, which published conflicting or neutral—not negative—data about girls’ schools, “is at worst uncertain” about their advantages, a Wall Street Journal editorial stated, and it concluded that it was...


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pp. 249-280


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pp. 281-296

E-ISBN-13: 9780819569660
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819568861

Page Count: 324
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: Deluxe slipcased edition has same ISBN.
Series Title: Garnet Books

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Subject Headings

  • Westover School.
  • Girls' schools -- Connecticut -- Middlebury -- History.
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