Their Letters: A History


Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks' correspondence, today housed in 38 boxes in Archives and Special Collections, has a long and complicated history of restricted and denied access at Mount Holyoke.

The story of these letters at the College begins in December of 1971 when library director Anne Edmonds received a massive wooden crate closed with a padlock. The box had been sent to the library by Jeannette Marks' nurse and executor Betty Cross, seven years after Marks' death. Edmonds then contacted Harriet Newhall, the Director of Mount Holyoke's Admissions Office, and a friend of Jeannette Marks and Mary Woolley, to ask if she had the crate's key. Newhall had assisted Marks in organizing Woolley's Presidential materials after Woolley's death and some of Marks' material after her death, and did indeed have the correct key, which she sent along in January 1972.

But apparently the crate remained unexamined and unpacked until February 1975 when Archives Librarian Elaine Trehub (the College's first archivist) reviewed the contents. The letters were then kept in the Library's "Treasure Room" (predecessor to the College Archives), shelved in the College History section and labeled in red "restricted material". 

A month later, in March 1975, President David Truman wrote to former President Richard Gettell (who served from 1957 to 1968) regarding the “Woolley papers” and their history. Truman seems to have been asking about both the Woolley and Marks correspondence and the Committee of Nine records documenting the appointment of the College's first male president and the removal of Mary Woolley by the Board of Trustees' Committee of Nine.

Gettell replied on March 31: “Since they involved an ancient issue of acute bitterness which tainted much of Roz Ham’s tenure [Mount Holyoke College President Roswell Ham, 1937-1957] and which I was anxious to allay during mine, I took pains not to see the papers nor discuss them in order to be able to plead ignorance of an earlier period of tension within the Mount Holyoke family. As Olive Copeland knows I had enough headaches during my first year getting rid of a strict church and chapel requirement and keeping the wraps on a newborn child found dead on campus. … I was given to believe that the two sets of papers contained material of such heat and vituperation that their release would rekindle the old controversy and prove an embarrassment to many individuals as well as to the reputation of the College. Accordingly, I agreed with the suggestion (I don’t recall who first made it) that it would be politic to seal the files until the participants were no longer living. 1998 was arbitrarily selected as the date and, of course, is subject to revision though there must be alumnae of our vintage and older still around who were in the thick of the battle in 1937. If the archivists are to open these files you may want to have them checked for libel or awkward disclosures before general publication. I do not know whether today they would reflect a quaint bit of history or raise a storm.”

So on July 1, 1975, President Truman wrote to library director Anne Edmunds officially restricting the letters: “Acting on the advice of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, I wish to direct you to arrange that the correspondence between Mary E. Woolley and Jeannette Marks be seen by no one. This correspondence is to be kept in such restricted form until the restriction is removed by the President of the College. It is my anticipation that the restriction would not be removed sooner than ten years from this date.”

But someone had been already given, or soon after was given, access to these papers -- a Class of 1926 alumna named Anna Mary Wells, a historian and mystery author, who was writing a biographical history of Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks.

In 1976 Wells contacted the College to request permission to cite in her forthcoming publication the Woolley and Marks letters that she had seen -- and she was denied permission. Eleven faculty members from the History Department protested this decision in a letter to President Truman in November of that year: [Professor Anna Mary Wells has been] “denied the right to cite the manuscripts at Mount Holyoke that she read and on which she largely based her forthcoming book on Miss Marks and Miss Woolley. For any college, and certainly one devoted since its founding to the highest scholarly pursuits, to attempt to secrete material of historical importance seems to us a violation of basic tenets of scholarship. By permitting her to read the material and then preventing her from citing her documentation, her findings can unfairly be called into question. … The Woolley-Marks Papers are not a record of some private embarrassment, but rather the brave statement of two women important in the history of higher education in this country. As professional historians, we respectfully and urgently request that the Papers be treated with the same care and openness that have characterized the handling of such Papers as those of Edith Wharton and Franklin Roosevelt or any number of other manuscript collections which contain sensitive material which have been used responsibly by scholars to give us history of great value.”

In May of 1977 President Truman requested that the College librarian make the letters available to "qualified scholars". Access was to be granted by the librarian's discretion and "only to the applying scholar; it doesn’t extend to any employee or associate of the scholar who is permitted to use the collection. … If the Librarian is in any doubt about whether access should be granted, the matter should be referred to the President of the College for decision.” So access to the materials appear to have been quite limited until 1990. 

In April 1990 the Archives collection moved to a new home in the basement of Dwight Hall. With the new location and a new reading room, new access and use policies were put in place and the restrictions on the Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks letters were unceremoniously lifted. 

When I began work as Head of Archives and Special Collections in 2012, I did not know of the existence of these letters. I was aware of the individual collections belonging to Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks and pertaining primarily to their professional work, but their shared personal correspondence collection was uncatalogued, sitting patiently in 38 boxes on the shelves. Today we have an internal inventory of these materials that we are updating to make available in the Archives' finding aid database so these letters will be more discoverable and accessible. It is our intent that this Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks exhibit, and the crowdsourced transcription project for their correspondence, will begin to right the wrong of how these materials were restricted for so many years by making it easier for current and future researchers to find and use this remarkable collection of personal letters by two fascinating Mount Holyoke women. 

Leslie Fields
Head of Archives and Special Collections
Mount Holyoke College