Grace Macurdy of Vassar College: Scholar, Teacher, and Proto-Feminist


This is a guest post by Robert L. Pounder

Robert L. Pounder, Emeritus Professor of Classics at Vassar College, here contributes a review of Barbara McManus’s posthumous book about Grace Harriet Macurdy, titled The Drunken Duchess of Vassar. Pounder, who has been conducting in-depth research on the social history of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) in the 1920s-1930s, writes that Classics was “dominated by unaware, myopic, smug, unsympathetic men, men who viewed academic accomplishment by women with condescension and skepticism.”  Women in academia, like Macurdy, were thought to be anomalies–a different species. Based on his work at the ASCSA Archives, Pounder has also published an essay, “The Blegens and the Hills: A Family Affair,” in Carl W. Blegen: Personal & Archaeological Narratives, ed. N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, J. L. Davis, and V. Florou, Atlanta 2015.


Born in 1866 in Robbinston, Maine, Grace Harriet Macurdy was the sixth of nine siblings whose parents had immigrated to the United States from the nearby Canadian province of New Brunswick just a year before her birth. Her father, Angus McCurdy (the spelling of the name was later changed to Macurdy because he did not want to be thought Irish) was a carpenter who barely eked out a living.  After leaving his children in the care of their mother and paternal grandmother for long periods and thus improving his situation somewhat, he was able to move the family to Watertown, Massachusetts by 1870; there they grew.  Watertown provided a better series of houses and slightly improved material circumstances for the Macurdy children.  Moreover, they profited greatly from the guidance of their mother and grandmother, both of whom encouraged the children, including the girls, to read, write, and pursue their educations.

Barbara McManus, The Drunken Duchess of Vassar, Columbus: The Ohio State University Press (2017).

There arose from this unlikely beginning one of the most distinguished, if not suitably recognized, American classicists of the 20th century.  The life of this scholar and teacher forms the inspiration for an exemplary biography by the late Barbara McManus, herself an important classicist. McManus has composed a study of Grace Macurdy’s life and career that enriches our knowledge of the history of classical scholarship in America and Great Britain.  It also broadens our understanding of the social contexts that shaped the study and teaching of Greek and Roman antiquity in the early 20th century, shedding fresh light on the challenges that women scholars faced in order to be taken seriously in a field dominated by unaware, myopic, smug, unsympathetic men, men who viewed academic accomplishment by women with condescension and skepticism.  The relative obscurity of Grace Macurdy today, even among scholars in her field, attests to the long and rocky road that women scholars had to follow in the 20th century – in the U.S., England, and Europe alike – with no guarantee that excellence and innovation would be rewarded or even noticed.  McManus addresses this issue head-on, pointing out that, even into the 20th century, women scholars were viewed by the academic establishment as anomalies, even as oddities, a different species, weaker personages who tried but could not equal the intellectual achievements of men. To illustrate: when a Festschrift comprising twenty-two articles was published to honor Macurdy’s dear friend, the British classicist Gilbert Murray (who claimed to admire her work), every one of the twenty-two authors was a man (Greek Poetry and Life, Essays Presented to Gilbert Murray On His Seventieth Birthday, 1936).  These men believed that the natural state of women was as wives and mothers, not as leaders in business or politics or the academy. This state of affairs had grown out of 19th- century attitudes, and it would take many decades, into the 1970s and the women’s movement, for the foundations of such beliefs to start crumbling, a process that has not ended but continues to this day.

Grace Macurdy (1866-1946) showed promise from her childhood years onward.  By 1879 she had advanced in her studies to the point where she could enroll in Watertown High School’s college-preparatory course. There she studied English, French, history, mathematics, chemistry, physics, and – significantly – Greek and Latin, in which last subjects she particularly excelled.  The next step was application to the “Harvard Annex” – renamed Radcliffe College in 1894 – a private program that offered women  instruction, by Harvard professors, equivalent to that received by men at Harvard College.  In 1884, after three days of Harvard entrance examinations, she passed without any conditions, achieving honors in classics.  Grace entered the Annex in September 1884.  Her performance placed her at the top of her class.  As McManus points out, Macurdy did not share the ambitions of most of her fellow students, who aspired to teaching positions in New England schools: “She was determined to win recognition as a classical scholar with a professional career like her Harvard mentors.”  And she miraculously did not suffer the pangs of uncertainty and self-doubt – engendered by ambivalent attitudes of many of the Harvard professors toward the higher education of women — that afflicted many of her friends.  Helen A. Stuart, class of 1891, wrote to a friend:

It was always impressed upon us that we must be inconspicuous, and must never cross the Harvard Yard, unless we were attending some special lecture or reading…As to the relations between Harvard and the Annex, it was borne in upon us very frequently that the University as a whole scorned us, and only the broad-minded professors were really interested in our success.  The students in general thought of us as unattractive bluestockings and compared us unfavorably with the Wellesley girls.

Ironically, McManus observes, Grace Macurdy’s working-class background helped her to conquer this sort of self-doubt and ambivalence.  Her family had to scrimp and save, and they lacked the niceties of life, including social status and interactions, except within their modest circle.  Grace “could not afford ambivalence,” since “success was her only option.”  In 1893 she was hired by Professor Abby Leach to teach in the Greek department at Vassar College.

Abby Leach (1855-1918).

Thus began the remarkable career of Grace Macurdy as scholar, teacher, and proto-feminist.  Her charismatic personality and sparkling intelligence captivated students, bringing her popularity within the Vassar community.  Abigail (Abby) Leach, a formidable figure who had been the initiating force behind the establishment of the Harvard Annex, was revered by Macurdy, but not to the same degree by students, many of whom found her an uninspired, rote teacher.  One of them, Margaret Shipp, Vassar 1905, wrote home: “Miss Leach may know a lot and be very famous, but she is absolutely the most uninteresting instructor I ever came across… She is about as flexible as a wooden post.”  But Leach was a formidable figure at Vassar.

Hired in 1883, she had singlehandedly built up the Greek department, an offshoot of the former Department of Ancient Languages, and after having taught many Latin courses for several years, by 1886 was in charge of all the courses in Greek, now a separate department, “my” department, as she referred to it in an early conversation with Macurdy. Upon her arrival, Macurdy was given the freshman and sophomore Greek courses to handle, though the upper level work was reserved for Professor Leach (who did not like to be referred to as “Miss”). At first, Abby Leach offered strong support to Macurdy, urging her to take a year off to study in Berlin and elsewhere in 1899-1900.  Upon her return, Macurdy was advised by Leach to enroll in the doctoral program at Columbia.  There she spent two highly productive years that produced a dissertation on the chronology of the plays of Euripides, and her PhD was conferred in 1903; Vassar immediately promoted her to associate professor of Greek.

With clarity and precision, Barbara McManus presents the story of the conflict between Leach and Macurdy that began soon after Macurdy’s return to teaching.  Alarmed by Macurdy’s growing popularity in the classroom and by the recognition she was receiving outside the walls of Vassar, Leach invented numerous excuses to hold her back and prevent her from teaching advanced courses. She dreamed up dubious charges of poor or negligent teaching. It was a classic case of jealousy and envy.  Leach felt threatened: Greek was her department, and an upstart was undermining her authority, or so she thought.  In 1907 she recommended that Macurdy be fired.  The Vassar president, James Monroe Taylor, was drawn into the battle,which was waged for another decade, and so were the Committee on Faculty and Studies of the Board of Trustees and the next president, Henry Noble MacCracken.  Despite the angry opposition of Leach, Macurdy’s demonstrated achievements resulted in several reappointments in this period, which came to an end only with Abby Leach’s death in 1918.

James Monroe Taylor and Henry Noble MacCracken, Presidents of Vassar College, 1915. Source: ASCSA Archives, Ida Thallon Hill Papers.

As the years went on, Grace Macurdy’s career blossomed.  As was mentioned above, she became a good friend of the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray and his wife. She also entered into a friendship with another British classicist, J.A.K. Thomson, with whom she corresponded and traveled.  The relationship with Thomson was close but probably not a conventionally romantic one;  rather it was borne of deep and sympathetic intellectual affinity. Thomson, thirteen years her junior, a King’s College, London classicist with Marxist leanings, translator of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and author of popularizing works such as The Classical Background of English Literature, probably clicked with Macurdy in part because of shared leftist politics. Both Murray and Thomson became important soulmates for Macurdy, forming a sort of family for her in England.

Barbara McManus (1942-2015)

Macurdy became the Vassar representative on the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (although she had not studied at the School).  In that capacity she was drawn into the feud between the director, Bert Hodge Hill, and the chair of the Managing Committee, Edward Capps, a battle that was waged in the mid-1920s and ended with the dismissal of Hill, who had been director since 1906.  Macurdy fought on the side of Hill and his wife Ida Thallon Hill (Vassar 1897), her former student and now intimate friend, and bravely spoke out in Managing Committee meetings against the campaign to impugn Hill and his directorship. The quarrel had grown out of Capps’s irritation with Hill’s slowness to publish assigned material from Corinth and the Athenian acropolis as well as his failure to provide timely reports to the Managing Committee about School excavations and activities, reports that were needed for Capps’s growing fundraising initiatives.  A triumph of Barbara McManus’s biography is her masterly analysis of the voluminous materials that document the Capps vendetta.  Housed in the American School archives, these letters, cables, copies of petitions, memoranda, official minutes and reports, and other documents present challenges to anyone attempting to make sense of the twists and turns of what happened.  McManus gives us a clear interpretation, and she also corrects mistakes present in earlier publications. Her achievement in writing about the Women’s Hostel controversy at the American School – it ended with the construction of Loring Hall, a residence for both sexes – is equally impressive. Her scholarly method is meticulous and exhaustive, the results always easy to follow (see also N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, “Clash of the Titans: The Controversy Behind Loring Hall“).  The premature death of this scholar is a blow to classical scholarship; her quiet role in the advancement of classical studies is now seen as an essential one, too soon ended.

The life of Grace Macurdy had its share of heartbreak and misfortune.  A mysterious ailment caused the loss of most of her hearing in both ears  in the early 1920s.  This disability she managed to deal with, using ear trumpets and other methods, until her death. The deaths of family members over the years brought sadness, but this remarkably chipper, wry woman surmounted all obstacles to happiness and serenity.  Her books, Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman-Power in Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt (1932) and Vassal-Queens and Some Contemporary Women in the Roman Empire (1937) were met with appreciative and, in a few instances, glowing reviews (though there was a tendency among her fellow ancient historians to regard powerful women in the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean as tangential figures, scarcely worthy of serious study).  Her final book, The Quality of Mercy: The Gentler Virtues in Greek Literature (1940) returned her to the literary roots of her dissertation.  Following her retirement from Vassar in 1937, Macurdy continued to write and to play an active role in such institutions as the American School of Classical Studies.  As her health declined, life became more difficult, especially owing to a deterioration in her sight that a costly and difficult eye operation failed to cure.  She died in Poughkeepsie in 1946.

One of Grace Macurdy’s books. ASCSA, Blegen Library.

Barbara McManus has unearthed unexpected and intriguing nuggets about Macurdy. For instance, although her immediate background was working-class, her ancestors in Canada and the United States included many eminences; indeed, she was a distant relative of both Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (an appendix provides her family tree).  She herself formed some surprising friendships, such as those with the novelist John Galsworthy and the poet John Masefield, men who were drawn to her charm and magnetic intelligence.  Only now is her importance coming to the fore, and we have McManus to thank for that.  A final quibble: the title of the biography seems off-base to me.  An affectionate nickname applied to the teetotaling Macurdy by her adoring students — who were bent on capturing her whimsical eccentricity – the flippant term “drunken duchess” undermines the seriousness of the biographical subject.  Fortunately, it cannot undermine the laudable achievement of the biographer.


Dollies and Doilies: Priscilla Capps Hill and the Refugee Crisis in Athens, 1922-1941

Posted by Jack L. Davis

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about the (forgotten) relief efforts of Priscilla Capps Hill through Near East Industries during the great refugee crisis that followed the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922.


In the months that followed the Asia Minor catastrophe in September 1922 and the population exchange of 1923, more than a million Orthodox Christians were ultimately compelled to desert their birth rights in Anatolia. Their influx to Greece generated an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. American expatriates in Greece took immediate action. Darrell O. Hibbard of the YMCA and Jefferson Caffery, Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Mission, created the Athens American Relief Committee, which notified Red Cross missions in Europe and America about the crisis and organized the first relief efforts. Bert H. Hill, Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), was appointed Chairman of the Relief Committee, in which role he was expected to coordinate communication with the Greek government.  Harry Hill (no relation to Bert), an Englishman, head of the American Express Company in Athens, was charged with purchases and banking.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected by the time the Committee was disbanded on November 24, 1922, when the American Red Cross arrived in Greece to provide humanitarian aid together with Near East Relief, the latter focusing largely on Turkey.  Its work had been invaluable. (See also E. Daleziou, ” ‘Adjuster and Negotiator’: Bert Hodge Hill and the Greek Refugee Crisis, 1918-1928,” Hesperia 82, 2013, pp. 49-65.)

The ASCSA’s involvement did not stop there. In the years to come “the School continued to be a hub for Americans offering their services to a variety of refugee relief efforts such as the ARC, the American Women’s Hospital Organization, Near East Relief, the YMCA, and the Athens American Relief Committee” (Daleziou 2013, p. 58). In addition to relief work, Edward Capps, the Chair of the School’s Managing Committee and a professor of Classics at Princeton University, was asked by Greece’s former prime-minister Eleftherios Venizelos to raise awareness in America of what was happening in Greece. Without wasting time, Capps, who knew Venizelos personally from his days as U.S. Minister to Greece (1920-1921), founded The American Friends of Greece (AFG), the broader mission of which was “to promote friendly relations between Greece and the U.S.” (The AFG later published booklets in support of Greece during World War II and a monthly newsletter, “The Philhellene,” which circulated from 1942-1950.)

Priscilla’s Story

Incorporation of the AFG on October 15, 1923 marked the start of Priscilla Capps’s involvement in refugee affairs, a much less well-known story than her father’s.  Priscilla Capps (1900-1985), a graduate of Smith College, had assisted her father in Athens during his service as Minister, while she was a student at the ASCSA, as a kind of “first daughter.”

Priscilla Capps clad in a traditional Greek costume, ca. 1920s. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Oscar Broneer Papers.

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Athens at the Turn of the Century: A Sentimental Capital and a Resort of Scholars

On February 17, 1901, a young American archaeologist and member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was “roaming over the city in search of Mr. Kavvadias, the general ephor of antiquities in Athens, in order to get a permit to begin work at Vari tomorrow” (letter of Charles H. Weller to his wife).  Together with a small group of students from the School, he had conceived of the idea of conducting a small excavation at the Vari Cave on the southern spur of Mount Hymettus, near the ancient deme of Anargyrous. Known since the 18th century, the cave had been visited and described by several European travelers who were particularly taken by the reliefs and inscriptions carved on its walls.

Vari Cave interior with sculpted figures, 1923. Source: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

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Expat Feasts in Athens on the Eve of the Balkan Wars

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor's letters to her mother, October 1910

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor’s letters to her mother, October 1910.

“Maybe I asked you before, but will you save all my letters, dear, for I may want to use some of the material in them” Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor (1886-1960) reminded her mother a month after her arrival in Greece (Oct. 20, 1910). And because Emma Pierce respected her daughter’s wish, a valuable collection of private correspondence describing the daily life of a young American bride in Athens in the early 20th century has been preserved in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).

This is the second time From the Archivist’s Notebook features an essay about Zillah Dinsmoor.  In February 2014, guest author Jacquelyn Clemens published an account of Zillah’s Greek experience, mining information from her letters. “Students and scholars who study at the American School… have often been accompanied by their spouses, significant others, and children who live with them here in Athens. In the early 20th century, Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor was one of these women who traveled to Athens along with her husband, architect William Bell Dinsmoor” wrote Clemens in her introductory paragraph. (Read J. Clemens,”Letters from a New Home. Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor“)  Barely 24 years old (and away from home for the first time), this fashionable young woman from Massachussets wrote long letters once a week to her mother about her new life in Athens. Read the rest of this entry »


The Bohemian Past of Madame Gennadius

On Saturday December 27, 1902, a well-publicized wedding took place in London.  John Gennadius, former ambassador of Greece to England and a great book-collector, age 58, and Florence Laing, the youngest daughter of Samuel Laing and the widow of painter Edward Sherard Kennedy, age 47, were married in a double ceremony, first at the Greek Orthodox church of St. Sophia and later that day at the Anglican church of St. Peter’s at Cranley Gardens.  There are no photos capturing the ceremony or the reception that followed, but Gennadius, the creator of more than seventy scrapbooks, did keep numerous newspaper clippings announcing this celebrated marriage. More than a few of them mention that the bride had an annual income of roughly 8,000 pounds, leading some to hint that it may have been a marriage of convenience. Time proved that their union was a harmonious one; it lasted 30 years until his death in 1932. She outlived him by another twenty years. The Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was the offspring of their union. The deed of gift was signed in 1922 and the building was completed in 1926.

John and Florence Gennadius, ca. 1925. Source: ASCSA, Gennadius Library.

John and Florence Gennadius, 1920. Source: ASCSA, Gennadius Library.

The best source for John Gennadius’s life is a small, but thorough, booklet, Joannes Gennadios, the Man: A Biographical Sketch (1990), by Donald M. Nicol, director of the Gennadius Library (1989-1992). In it, there is very little information about the circumstances of how Gennadius met Florence Laing Kennedy. Nicol suspects that they were introduced by “Prince Alexis Dolgoruki, an acquaintance of Gennadios, [who] had married an English lady, Miss Fleetwood Wilson, who was an old friend of Florence.” In an endnote, Nicol mentions that Florence was an artist in her own right, having exhibited her “genre paintings” in the Royal Academy and other London galleries between 1880 and 1893. Read the rest of this entry »


Communism In and Out of Fashion: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Cold War

Posted by Jack L. Davis

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about attitudes of the ASCSA and its members toward Communists and Communism in the 20th century.


“Feeling they were witnessing the demise of capitalism, many writers moved left, some because their working class origins helped them identify with the dispossessed, others because they saw socialism or Communism as the only serious force for radical change, still others because it was the fashionable thing to do; they went where the action was.”
Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark (2009), pp. 16-17.

DancingDark_smallIn 1974, when I first arrived at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), we youngsters were told that we should not express our political views in public. The ASCSA’s institutional mission might be hurt, were it perceived not to be neutral. In September 1974 that was certainly a reasonable position for the ASCSA to assume. Yet I was curious. In 1974, I was myself radicalized, and had definitely headed left. I could not condone U.S. policy in respect to the Junta, or the suppression of the Left in Greece. Could I say nothing? Had the ASCSA always maintained a position of strict neutrality? Or were its postures more convenient than sincere? Read the rest of this entry »


Gertrude Smith: A Classic American Philhellene

Posted by Dylan Rogers

Dylan Rogers holds a PhD from the University of Virginia, and he has been Assistant Director at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens since 2015. The essay he contributes to “From the Archivist’s Notebook” was inspired by his summer experience at the School.

“Summers at the ASCSA are a vibrant time for the School, full of students and scholars, with the buzz of activity and chats at Ouzo Hour. Taking on the role of the Assistant Director of the School last year, I was intrigued to learn that each Summer Session Director is given the title, “Gertrude Smith Professor.” At first, I was only vaguely familiar with Smith’s scholarship on Greek law. So, why would the School associate SS Directors with her? This led me on a quest to find out more about Smith—and to find out what her story exactly was. She must have had a passion for Greece, but why? And in what ways did she spread this love to others?”


Gertrude E. Smith in her office at the University of Chicago, ca. 1950.

Gertrude E. Smith in her office at the University of Chicago, ca. 1950. Photo: University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center.

Gertrude Elizabeth Smith (1894-1985) spent most of her adult life in Illinois. Born and raised in Peoria, Smith would later go on to receive her education at the University of Chicago, writing a PhD dissertation on Greek law– after which Smith would begin teaching at the university, eventually becoming the Edwin Olson Professor of Greek in 1933. From 1934 until her retirement in 1961, Smith was the Chairman of the Department of Classics at Chicago, making her a prominent female figure in the field of Classics in America in the 20th century. Smith also served as a founder of Eta Sigma Phi, the national Classics honor society, was the first woman to serve as the president of both the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS, 1933-1934) and the American Philological Association (1958), and was a long serving member of the editorial board of the journal, Classical Philology (1925-1965). After her retirement from Chicago, Smith would go on to teach briefly at the University of Illinois, Loyola University in Chicago, and Vanderbilt University (Gagarin 1996-1997). Read the rest of this entry »