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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Banner image: Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879)

“The best human benefactor of WOMAN,” Matthew Vassar and Sarah Josepha Hale

“Matthew Vassar was not a scholar or statesman, or of ‘learned profession,’ but around his grave the mourners were a band of eminent men in the best ranks of American life. He died childless; but hundreds of the fair daughters of our land wept his death as for a beloved father; and his memory will be honored, while Vassar College stands, not only as its noble Founder, but as the best human benefactor of WOMAN.”

“In Memoriam,” Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, July 1868.

On April 30, 1860, Sarah Josepha Hale, “editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, wrote to Matthew Vassar, “I am much interested in what I have learned respecting your plans for a new Institution, on a very liberal scale, for the Young Ladies of America . . . . I feel solicitous to know more of the plan, in order to make it known to the readers of the ‘Lady’s Book.’ ” Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most widely circulated women’s magazine in America, contained notes on women’s fashion, recipes, short stories, essays, poetry, short biographies, and, occasionally, sheet music. Hale, with her assertive, persistent, and clear vision of a proper education for young women, figured largely in the shaping of Vassar College, from providing publicity for the institution and advising its founder on the appropriate dress of its students to successfully advocating for a change in its name.

In her first letter to Vassar, Hale expressed her firm belief in the value of educating young women, informing him that she had long impressed upon the readers of Godey’s Lady’s Book the importance of training women to promote “Christian character” and “home happiness.” She enclosed some of her editorials on the subject and promised to support Vassar’s plan in her magazine. At the close of her letter, Hale asserted, “We want true women . . . taught to devote all to their duties as women . . . they will enjoy the full reward as they give, to God, their country and their families the sweet fealty of womanhood in its beauty of virtue and piety.” Vassar, whose letters, reflecting his own limited education, often contain misspellings and grammatical errors, responded just eight days later, expressing his delight in finding a kindred view of women’s education, as well as his hope that she would offer her “mature reflection and practical knowledge” on the shaping of the college both in Godey’s Lady’s Book and through further letters.

Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879)

Indeed, she did. Hale wrote again to Vassar in 1861, soon after the college was chartered. Expecting that the institution might inspire European countries to more seriously consider higher education for women, she explained in detail her beliefs about the purpose of young women’s education. She grounded her reasoning in religion, asserting that women exhibited more morality than men, whom they could assist “in all the high aims and holy pursuits of humanity,” in addition to educating children since “God gives childhood into their keeping.” Hale also hoped for the establishment of Free National Schools for women, where she expected that Vassar graduates might teach.

Chiefly, Hale thought that Vassar women might become missionaries. She contended that, with a Vassar education, young ladies “might be fitted for this high calling — ‘A Bible Woman’ and teacher of Christ and Christendom to the poor, ignorant, degraded, and hopeless women and girls of Heathendom.” “Should not,” she asked Vassar, “American women help in this work of evangelizing their own sex?” Vassar held firm to the goal that Hale proposed and, in an 1867 letter, reflected on his attendance at a “Woman’s Union Soc” meeting: “ ‘Hindoos’ . . . greatly lack ‘the one thing needful’ to make them a good, great, and strong nation, to-wit, a pure system of Christian theology . . . . I think at no distant day our College may send out some missionaries to these heathen lands.”

Hale’s most significant contribution to the college may have been conceiving of and seeing to fruition a radical change in the college’s name. In a lengthy letter on March 30, 1865, she contested the institution’s intended title: “Vassar Female College.” Hale firmly opposed the use of “female” to refer to women (as well as “male” to refer to men), believing that these terms relegated human beings to the status of animals: “I know you are seeking to elevate womanhood. To do this woman must have her proper title . . . and not be clogged with the false and foolish slang phrases which reduce her to the level of animality.” Hale cited the Bible, which refers to animals as female and male, and humans as women and men. She suggested that Vassar change the title to “Vassar College for Young Women,” which was, “a noble name, definite, delicate and dignified,” and she specified that the institution could be referred to simply as “Vassar College” for letters and addresses. Proposing that Vassar discuss “his” wishes at the next Trustee meeting, she closed the letter with an admonition: “Pray do not, my good friend, disappoint me.—It is not for myself that I expect any benefit.—I plead for the good of Vassar College, for the honor of womanhood and for the glory of God.”

Promising to propose the change at an upcoming trustee meeting, Vassar ardently agreed with Hale: “I have it in my heart to change the title of the college by omitting or dropping the word ‘Female’, which is not only useless but absolutely vulgar in the connection which it stands.” In a letter a couple of months later, Vassar updated her on working to garner support for the name change among the trustees: “You know Miss Hale my views but I can do nothing alone . . . to do this against the judgement of the Majority on the Board would I think be arbitrary if not insulting.” Vassar urged Hale to have patience and assured her that the name would be changed by January. Come January, however, Vassar wrote that he was still trying to convince the trustees. But he also revealed a markedly final strategy: “I have in my last Will and Testament devised another portion of my Estate to the ‘Vassar College’ making it imperative on the Trustees to change the title if they wish to secure this last gift.”

Five months later, on June 27, 1866, Vassar wrote a triumphant letter, announcing, “The great agony is over——your long cherished wishes reilised——Woman stands redeemed, at least so far as ’Vassar College is concerned from the degrading vulgarism in the associated name of ‘female.’ ” He recounted the process by which he realized this success; after several trustees had offered numerous titles, including “Vassar Woman’s College,” “Vassar Girl’s College,” and “Vassar Lady’s College,” the Board decided to omit the middle word altogether and settled on “Vassar College.” Years after the victory, in the June 1874 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale mentioned the name change to bolster her wider campaign for the use of “woman” as opposed to “female”: “Vassar College has long ago gotten rid of the obnoxious epithet.”

Matthew Vassar (1792–1868)

Hale ardently advised Vassar on many lesser issues, speaking firmly, for example, against enforcing a dress code: “It seems to me that character not costume will be the test of merit in Vassar College.” She argued that, in preparation for life after college, students must learn to negotiate class disparities, which a dress code might help to conceal. Similarly, Hale criticized “Sumptuary laws,” telling Vassar that “Children are not taught to walk well by keeping them in leading strings. The individual will must act with the conscience, judgment must regulate taste or there would be no real improvement of the pupil.” Hale did specify, however, that students should dress modestly and should not be allowed to sport either excessive jewelry or bloomers.

In addition to required uniforms, Hale objected to the prospect of a three-month long winter break, suggesting instead a long vacation in the summer months when students, she assumed, felt less motivated to study. She also questioned whether pupils should indeed have off the proposed four months of vacation time (apparently three months in the winter, plus one month in the summer), implying that this might be too much time for students to remain away from their studies.

Matthew Vassar also consulted Hale on decisions regarding faculty members and finances. She suggested Lucy A. Cuddehy, principal of the New York School of Design for Women, for a position as professor and/or Lady Principal, the only administrative officer besides the President, noting how “in Christian graces of character she is a sister spirit of all who worship God in spirit and in truth.” Promising to convey her recommendation to the President & Faculty Committee, Vassar responded, “I place great reliance upon what you say on her behalf & I need not assure you she will not be overlooked.” Though offered the position, Mrs. Cuddehy chose to keep her position in New York, making way for the formidable Founding Lady Principal, Hannah Lyman.

In 1865, Sarah Hale suggested that Vassar increase the proposed tuition. In a letter agreeing with her suggestion, Vassar asked whether the college should open itself up to donations from woman philanthropists. He requested that Hale advertise in Godey’s Lady’s Book

for women benefactors and explain that the money would go toward an increase in the number of “Teachers,”—woman assistants to the nine original professors—as well as a larger Art and Sciences program.

Vassar frequently asked Hale to publicize his institution in Godey’s Lady’s Book and, just as often, Hale enthusiastically offered to promote Vassar College. In 1861, in a fervent announcement of the college’s founding, Hale paid homage to Matthew Vassar: “This institution…owes its origin wholly to the munificent liberality of a single founder,” and she quoted from the eventually famous declaration in his address, on February 26, 1861, to the new trustees of his proposed college: “Woman, having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development.”

In January 1864, Hale declared with great fanfare, though incorrectly, that the college would open that year (in fact, it would not open until the following year). Her announcement featured a brief biography of Vassar who, with his “strong intellect, stern integrity, and persevering effort,” would “have his name enshrined, and his home consecrated in the hearts and minds of American women for all time to come.” When she announced the college’s actual opening in the August 1865, Hale reassured readers that the college would work to ensure the health of its students through a school of Physical Training, featuring such traditionally feminine activities as riding, “flower-gardening,” and skating and by offering curriculum that was “ample but not crushing.” Two months later, Hale praised the college’s selectivity, explaining that “in Vassar College specific fitness in scholarship is required.”

For his part, Vassar mailed Hale copies of the college’s promotional and informational publications, including “Circular and Catalogue,” with the hope that she might include the most important information in her magazine and mail copies to her friends in England. In a letter from September 1864, he thanked Hale for sending him the proof of a forthcoming Godey’s Lady’s Book article about Vassar College. Hale occasionally advertised the college free of charge (for which Vassar noted his indebtedness) or at a low cost. In 1867, Hale dedicated three pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book to illustrations of Vassar College at a reduced price of $100 per page (the regular price was $200), in addition to two pages of descriptions free of charge. Hale suggested that Vassar print all of these pages separately for larger distribution and add a summary of the college’s founding, “organization, and success.” According to Hale, who offered to personally distribute these pamphlets, they “would be the most effective way of showing England, our own Congress, and our people generally, how much has been done through your name for the cause of women.” Two months later, Vassar thanked her once again for advertising the college in Godey’s Lady’s Book, this time in conjunction with articles on “Women of China” and “Branch Missions.” Referring to the earlier dispute about the name of the college, Vassar enclosed a donation “because you purpose to send Women and not Female missionary,– may the Lord bless & help on the good work.”

Hale also promoted women’s education in general and her distinct perspective on the topic in Godey’s Lady’s Book. In October 1865, Vassar eagerly awaited an article on “Domestic Economy,” a course of study he planned to institute, believing that soon matriarchs, as opposed to servants, would perform household necessities. Two months later, he thanked Hale for featuring the writing of English art critic John Ruskin, who promoted women’s rights and praised their minds: “When such distinguished writers & Schollars wield their pens in behalf of womans Mission in the world, we may hope that . . . a brighter era awaits her future destiny . . . already is this sentiment pervadeing the Minds of our Young Ladies pupils & inspiring them with more fervent industry of study in our College.”

Throughout their exchange, Vassar spoke with a degree of hyperbole to Hale about his institution, possibly attempting to maintain her support. In 1865, perhaps appealing to Hale’s devotion to religion, he characterized the first campus church service as the most “interesting and impressive” he had ever attended. He also informed Hale that “a more intelligent gathering of young Misses cannot be found in any Country.” Just over a year later, Vassar assured Hale that college admissions had become more competitive. Similarly, he offered an idyllic description of both Commencement Day and Founder’s Day 1867, characterizing the former as “lovely” and the latter as “charming.”

Hale and Vassar colored their letters with glowing compliments to one another. In an 1861 letter, Hale stated, “ ‘Vassar College’ will be the pride of our country and the pattern education Institution for the education of American young women. And the name of Vassar will become a household word and be cherished in the heart of every School Girl in our land as that of a dear friend.” The pair referred to one another as close friends, Vassar remarking in 1867 to Hale that he was “happy once more to see the familiar handwriting of my long tried friend, and equaly so to reply­­.” Hale, expressing to Vassar the value of his life, often cautioned him to take care of his health. Vassar advised Hale similarly: “We cannot spare your valuable services to the world yet.”

Both Vassar’s and Hale’s health declined toward the end of their exchange, precluding them from ever meeting in person despite multiple promptings to do so. In the 1867 letter, Vassar, characterized his “health” as “feeble.” Recounting a bout of “paralisis” a month prior, he avowed, “I must see my good friend Mrs. Hale before parting this transitory life – you have promised me a conditioned visit.” When Hale still had not visited seven months later, Vassar informed her that his health, “of which you manifest so much solicitude to prolong,” would allow for their meeting after the college opened for the fall semester. By spring of that academic year, however, Vassar and Hale still had not met. Vassar wrote to Hale, explaining that his health did not permit him to visit her, but imploring her to come to Poughkeepsie: “Unless you do me the honor of a visit some time the ensuing summer, I am fearfull we shall never greet each other in this life, and if we should be so happy as to meet in the world of spirits, how are we to recognize each other there.” Vassar included in the letter photographs of himself and requested that Hale return the favor. She intended to visit for Commencement in 1867, and Vassar had reserved a seat for her with the distinguished guests. But Hale’s health prevented the pair from meeting. She had been suffering from eye problems, which Vassar playfully proposed might be cured by Hale’s viewing the college’s revised title upon the college’s “edifice.” He had suggested in 1865, soon after the college opened, that Hale’s antipathy toward “Vassar Female College” would preclude their meeting: “I suppose I must deny myself the pleasure of seeing you in Po. until after the change of the College Title which will certainly be accomplished next winter.”

Sarah Josepha Hale and Matthew Vassar never met in person, but their friendship flourished over their nearly eight-year long correspondence as they exchanged hopes, ideas and compliments, shared a vision for and passionately devoted themselves to the education of women, and powerfully shaped both the foundation and the future of Vassar College.

Related Articles


Sarah Josepha Hale Papers, Vassar College Special Collections Library

Matthew Vassar Papers, Vassar College Digital Library

Hale, Sarah Josepha, “In Memoriam,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, vol. LXXVII, no. 457 (July, 1868)

LC, 2018