Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Mary Lowe Dickinson 1839 ~ 1914

 

Mary Lowe Dickinson was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in 1839. "We read of all-round women. They are of two kinds. There is the little all-round woman, smooth and small, like a bird's egg, holding infinite unfolded possibilities that never had the proper warmth and brooding for adequate development. And there is the other all-round woman, big as the world, with all sorts of excrescences and deficiencies, mountains and valleys of character, with rivers of thought and seas of sympathy, and forests of varied feeling crowned with abundant leaves for the healing of the nations, and with plains of experience and deserts of sorrow, and inside a burning heart of love that penetrates all, and now and then shows itself In some volcanic outburst that reveals the real passion and fervor of its inward life. And yet, with all this infinite variety, the all-round nature holds all in such true balance and poise, develops in such fine proportion, as never to seem to be all sympathy or all sense, or anything but a rounded and symmetrical whole."

Perhaps if the writer of the above paragraph had dreamed that the day would come when her own words would be chosen as perhaps the most fitting description of her own development she would have hidden them, as she has hidden most of her best thoughts, from the world.

From a primary school in a Massachusetts country town, the step to the head assistant principal's place in the Hartford Female Seminary brought her to the opening of Vassar, which occurred in her twenty-fourth year. The lady principal chosen to be the mother of Vassar was sixty years old. From among the younger educators of that day, it was proposed that this teacher should take, in the new college the vice-principals or elder sister's place. But an opportunity opening for three years of life and study abroad with one of her own pupils, the teaching was interrupted, to be resumed with still greater eagerness after three years of travel and student life in the great European centers. After one year as principal of what was then one of the most flourishing of New York City boarding schools, came the marriage with John B. Dickinson, a prominent banker of New York, and after that the social and philanthropic life which was interrupted only by periods of European travel until her husband's death.

Being recognized as one who had watched the development of every new educational movement, the opportunities to put personal touch upon one institution after another came to this busy woman's life. Boards of trustees conferred with her in reference to plans; philanthropists desiring to found educational institutions, and heads of schools and colleges, sought her co-operation, and invited her to aid in the development of their work. One after another, many institutions of prominence for the education of girls invited her to a place on their faculty. Wellesley, the Woman's College of the Northwestern University, Lasalle Seminary, Vassar, the Universities of Denver and Southern California, invited her to positions of honor and trust. Having made a specialty of the study of literature; keeping abreast constantly of the changes and advancement made in that department both in American and European colleges and universities, Mrs. Dickinson was quite ready when the opportunity offered to undertake the chair of literature in the University of Denver, Colorado. Here for two years she worked earnestly, especially for the advancement .of young Western womanhood, which she insisted was the coming womanhood of our day. The work involved many outside demands, much lecturing upon literary and philanthropic topics, and heavy responsibilities, under which her health gave way; but the work had been so well done that the board of trustees continued to hold her position open for her. When return to that altitude was impossible, she was honored by the board of trustees, who named the chair of literature for her. Of this chair they made her emeritus professor, conferring upon her also a lectureship in English.

In the lecture field, one of Mrs. Dickinson's strong characteristics has been the combination of womanliness that never rants, with the earnestness that never fails to present the truth as she sees it with uncompromising directness and power. Much of her speaking has been before educational and philanthropic societies, in colleges and schools and before literary and historical clubs. She has been too busy a woman for much distinctive club life, but she is a member of the Barnard, Patria, and several other clubs.

Aside from her general interest in the development of all phases of woman's education and the special interest in the study of literature, no one subject has more engrossed her attention than that of education in citizenship. So far as possible, she has tried to avoid representing the work of organizations, believing that individual influence over individuals was the surest basis of help. Not with standing this preference for individual labor, she has at one time been secretary of the Bible Society, one of the oldest organizations in New York; the superintendent of a department of higher education in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union; the president of the National Indian Association; the general secretary from its beginning of the International Order of the King's Daughters and Sons, and she is now an honorary president, having served as president for several years, of the National Council of Women of the United States, an organization composed of twenty national societies, whose aggregate membership numbers more than half a million women.

Nor have the educational and philanthropic phases made the entire life of this working woman. Her work has been threefold. Teaching in schools or living a life crowded more or less with women and girls to whom she was teaching some one thing or another that they needed most to know; giving instruction or lecturing in schools and putting her hand to the wheel in charitable societies, there has been another life of work, in which the amount of labor done would have sufficed alone, it would seem, to fill one busy life.

Never fancying herself possessed of any special talent, nevertheless, when the fortune went and troubles came, Mrs. Dickinson turned to account the use of her pen, a facility in the use of which had marked her from a child. After her misfortunes, she began scattering about, at the solicitation of her friends, bits of verse written at one time or another.

Mrs. Dickinson's first book was a gathering up of these little verses, which made a home for themselves in the hearts of many people, and made a way for the author to such fields of journalistic work as would have kept her busy without her other tasks. From that time until this she has been an active writer along all journalistic lines. Never believing in her own talent, always saying that if she had any genius or great ability she would never have needed the spur of necessity, holding steadily to her early resolution never to write anything that should harm or belittle human nature, she pursued the work of reviewer, novelist, poet, biographer, essayist, and educator, never permitting her name to be used if by any means it could be avoided. Thus, enormous amounts of work that have issued from this pen were never recognized as her own. She wrote for the cause which interested her, for the object to be obtained. Her first novel, ''Among the Thorns,'' was an expression of her thought as to the responsibilities of wealth and the best methods for alleviating the woes of the poor. "The Amber Star," printed first in England, and reprinted in America, deals with the problem of waif-life and the question of caring for dependent and orphan children. "One Little Life" is the expression of her thought as to the true significance of The King's Daughters' character and work in the world. Various smaller works have been issued from her pen, one called "Driftwood," including fifteen or twenty of the smaller stories, of which she has given the world more than three hundred, but few of which, however, appeared under her own name. These stories, short or long, reveal unquestionably the true story-teller's gift. The power of characterization, the power of making the individuals live the tale out before one's eyes, the unquestioned plot power, have long ago had their recognition, and opened the way for whatever work in this direction her busy life can do. Her latest novel, "Katherine Gray's Temptation," is said to be the strongest analytical work and the best character-study that has yet appeared from her pen.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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