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Southern Women at Vassar
The Poppenheim Family Letters, 1882–1916

Edited by Joan Marie Johnson

The Northern education of two Southern women in postbellum America

When sisters Mary and Louisa Poppenheim, daughters of a prominent Charleston, South Carolina mercantile family, left their childhood home in the 1880s to attend Vassar College in New York, they entered a world that challenged their beliefs about women and society. First Mary and then Louisa pursued degrees at one of the most rigorous and progressive women's colleges in the country. In a stream of letters home, the sisters chronicled the opportunities and ideals they encountered. Their mother, alarmed by such influences, replied with gentle yet firm counsel on the "proper" responses of a southern lady. Intimate and searching, these letters reveal the struggle of two young women to resolve conventional southern expectations of women's roles with their interest in women's activism. Their letters also illuminate the tension between progress and tradition that characterized the New South.

Particularly interesting because both mother and daughters go far beyond a recitation of their daily routines and health, the correspondence includes thoughtful discussions of society and manners, family and friendship, literature and learning, and a lady's code of conduct. Mary and Louisa describe in elaborate detail every aspect of their collegiate experiences, furnishing an intimate view of the experiences of female college students at the turn of the century and of the power of education on the lives of young women.

Joan Marie Johnson sets the letters in context with a historical introduction and provides full-text transcriptions of more than 190 letters. Noting that their northern education did not diminish the sisters' keen sense of place, Johnson tells how their post-graduation activities, including the founding of a regional women's magazine and holding of leadership positions in national women's organizations, illustrate the hybrid character of southern loyalty and progressive activism.

Joan Marie Johnson holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, and is currently a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library in Chicago. As the recipient of a Spencer Foundation research grant, she is conducting further research on the higher education of Southern women. She has also published articles on Southern women, race, gender, and reform. Johnson lives in Evanston, Illinois.

"In this perceptively edited collection of family letters, Joan Marie Johnson shows how the Poppenheim sisters, particularly Mary and Louisa, negotiated their Southern identity as they acquired a rigorous academic education that partially transformed them, as Mary wrote, into 'regular Yankees about taking care of ourselves.' Scholars and students of Southern progressivism and of Southern college educated women will find these engaging letters an excellent resource."—Marcia Synnott, University of South Carolina

"The letters thoughtfully collected in this volume contribute to our understanding of crucial cultural and social issues of the late nineteenth century, including the roots of progressive activism, realities of liberal education, intersections of gender and class, and struggles for a New South. Most important, however, is the intimate and unadorned portrait of life at a women's college that emerges from the correspondence of the Poppenheim sisters. Their voices offer valuable first-hand evidence that the best of the early women's colleges provided rigorous academic experiences within a comprehensive liberal arts curriculum."—Katherine C. Reynolds, coeditor of Carolina Voices: Two Hundred Years of Student Experiences



book jacket for Southern Women at Vassar


6 x 9
274 pages
6 illustrations
ISBN 978-1-57003-443-5
cloth, $39.95s

Women's Diaries and Letters
of the South


    Copyright ©2018 The University of South Carolina Press