Mary Scofield Clifford’s Education
(Editor’s Note: March is Women’s History Month and News of Davidson will feature stories and articles pertaining to women, both in the past and present, who have made a contribution to life in Davidson. We kick off the month with this poignant history, thanks to our columnist, Nancy Griffith, about a young woman who wanted nothing more than to have a meaningful education, but was met with a response that was “a poor chance reading, writing, and a little arithmetic tacked on to “Society Training” was supposed to be all that a girl could hope for.”)
For Women’s History Month, we have a letter written on July 14, 1920 by Mary Scofield Clifford to Cornelia Shaw. At the time, Shaw was the Davidson College Librarian and had undertaking the writing of a history of the college. She reached out to alumni and others for their recollections of the college. Clifford’s family came to Davidson in the 1850s when her father oversaw the construction of the original Chambers Building.
Clifford begins by saying “Your letter of July 13 has just reached me. I fear that I shall be able to give you very little help in your [historical] work.” She continues with several stories including one describing her experience as a Davidson student in the 1860s (a time when women were not officially allowed to be students but some found ways to get into classes). Below is her story.
“You know in the 60’s there were not many “boys” in College, not only was the number few but the “boys” were little fellows. We were at that time living near Mt. Mourne. Because I had been a pupil under Dr. Samuel Lander in the Lincolnton Female Seminary and had become a Latin enthusiast, my father went down to Davidson and asked his special friend, Professor E.F. Rockwell if I could gain admission to the College classes. He said “no” and because the trustees would not allow a “girl” to enter college classes but that he would take me as his private pupil in Latin. [Illegible] for a whole year I rode on horseback the 5 miles from my farm down to Davidson and recited with Prof. Rockwell making a very remarkable record. Prof Rockwell gave me a testimonial which stated that I had covered more ground in Latin than was required by the course of study in Yale or Harvard. Later on Professor W.G. Richardson took me as a private pupil in French so I managed to get a taste of college training. By the way I hear that Professor Richardson is just down as “Rev.” He was not a “Rev” at all but a very polished gentleman and a fine scholar. I was very fond of him and of his wife and children. I taught several of the children. I went to Dr. Phillips and asked him to take me as a private pupil in math, but he questioned me as to what work I had done in math, and after I gave him a statement he said I had done fully enough for a woman. I have always felt that it was hard for a woman to be cut out of a chance for a college course of study that stood for something. In my day the schools for girls were not at all thorough. If I have strength enough I am planning to write out a history of my experiences in getting an education under the old regime. It was a poor chance reading, writing, and a little arithmetic tacked on to “Society Training” was supposed to be all that a girl could hope for. “
For more of Clifford’s letter, go to http://libraries.davidson.edu/archives/digital-collections/mary-s-clifford-letter-14-july-1920. The website contains an annotated transcription and related photograph.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history. She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.