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Vassar Encyclopedia

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

Helen Drusilla Lockwood

The editors of the Vassar Encyclopedia are very grateful to Suzanne Bordelon, the author of A Feminist Legacy: the Rhetoric and Pedagogy of Gertrude Buck for this essay on Helen Lockwood. Dr. Bordelon teaches at San Diego State University and is the advisor to the University’s interdisciplinary minor in Rhetoric and Writing Studies.

Described as a “Vassar College legend,” Helen Drusilla Lockwood received her bachelor’s degree from Vassar in 1912, earned her master’s in Intellectual History in 1913 from Columbia University, and went on to teach in Vassar’s English Department from 1927–1956. (1) Like her mentor Laura Johnson Wylie, chair of the English Department from 1897–1922, Lockwood taught at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, where she served as a composition instructor and specialist in public speaking. At Vassar, Lockwood developed several innovative courses that pushed her students to challenge their basic assumptions, avoid unsupported generalization, and think for themselves.

Helen Lockwood
Helen Lockwood

In significant ways, Lockwood followed and extended the innovative pedagogical practices of her teachers in the English Department: Wylie, Gertrude Buck, and Mary Yost. Her colleagues on the faculty recall that Lockwood “had a lively sense of a tradition of great teaching at Vassar: a tradition of pioneering and originality . . . She believed, then, that there was a tradition to perpetuate here, and she perpetuated it in her own way”. In fact, Lockwood even garners a brief mention in The Group, Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical novel about eight members of her class (Vassar class of 1933). One character’s main interest in college had been journalism, and “her favorite course had been Miss Lockwood’s Contemporary Press”.

Lockwood’s teaching has been characterized as “stunningly innovative” and “challenging,” and she is described as someone who “did not suffer fools gladly”. As Rita Rubinstein Heller, the chronicler of the Bryn Mawr program points out, Lockwood “was respected, but feared, by almost two generations of Vassar women, as well as her Bryn Mawr blue collar women”. In describing Lockwood’s approach to life and teaching, colleague Barbara Swain writes that “[t]he challenge to know what you really think and are, to find your “basic assumptions” and discover what has molded you, characterized her approach to everyone. This was the knife-point with which she probed all the minds, young and old, sluggish or lively, with which she worked.” Lockwood believed that such self-awareness would benefit students both intellectually and personally. This emphasis on forcing students to examine their “basic assumptions” also is evident in the following passage from economist Caroline Ware, who, like Lockwood, attended Vassar and later taught at Vassar and at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers: “She was a great teacher by any dimension . . . . She was very unique—one of the very best. She had a way of posing the relevant questions which took the person outside the bounds of expectation . . . . At Vassar she was legendary for coming into a class of freshmen, looking around and saying, ‘I suppose there are some of you here who still believe in God.’”

Like her mentors in the English Department, Lockwood pushed her students to question commonly accepted knowledge. In significant ways, Lockwood’s approach can be viewed as a reaction against patriarchal and conservative approaches. She wanted her students to think for themselves, to examine rather than simply reproduce traditional assumptions.

Not all students, though, appreciated Lockwood and her approach to teaching. In the early 1950s during the McCarthy period, Nancy Jane Fellers, a student in Lockwood’s Contemporary Press course, accused Vassar, and Lockwood in particular, of denying Fellers’s academic freedom. The case, which generated newspaper articles, even attracted the attention of the House of Representatives, where Rep. B. Carroll Reece of Tennessee presented Fellers’s side of the issue, making his statements part of the Congressional Record. According to Swain, Lockwood and Vassar were charged with “atheism, liberalism, collectivism, socialism, and communism—all at once!” (2)

Lockwood was steeped in the college and its traditions even before she entered the gates of Vassar. Both her mother and aunt were members of the Vassar class of 1890, as Vassar president Alan Simpson recalled in a 1977 Convocation address, “tales of their college experiences were household stories”. At Vassar, Lockwood was a serious student, who, in addition to her studies, participated actively in debate, and tutored in Latin and English. After graduating from Vassar, she taught for a brief time at a New Jersey public school, next worked two years at a Massachusetts girls’ school, and then taught for six years at the Baldwin School in Byrn Mawr. Lockwood taught two semesters in Bryn Mawr’s newly created Summer School for Women Workers in Industry, later serving as its director of English studies and as a representative on its Board of Directors. As Heller points out, “extant Lockwood syllabi provide a striking illustration of the tough-minded liberal empowering workers through explicit skill development”.

In 1922, Lockwood returned to graduate school for three years, studying first at the Sorbonne in Paris and then completing her doctorate in Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Lockwood’s interest in workers and labor history carried over into her graduate work at Columbia. According to Swain, Lockwood later told her that she found her teaching experience at the Bryn Mawr Summer School to be “‘devastating.’” As Swain explains, Lockwood “felt she had not known how to speak to the workers, what language would carry across the gap in experience”. In her dissertation, Lockwood examined the writing of workers in England and France from 1820–1850. Her dissertation, Tools and the Man, was published by Columbia in 1927. In her study, says Swain, Lockwood “included some account of English worker-poets, but gave detailed accounts of French workers, those who wrote both poetry and articles during those years”. According to Swain, Lockwood’s study reassured her that “‘the people’— the workers — could find profit in the art of the middle class, and they had demonstrated their power to find their own voices . . .” (emphasis in original). Lockwood continued her connection to the Bryn Mawr School and its successors for some forty years by either serving on the board, planning and supervising the English program, or taking part in the Arts Workshop.

After completing her dissertation, Lockwood taught composition in the English Department at Wellesley College for two years. She then returned to Vassar in 1927 as an Assistant Professor of English and remained until her retirement in 1956, chairing the English Department from 1950–1956. In 1969 and 1970, she made “substantial gifts” to Vassar’s Center for Black Studies. She died in 1971, leaving an estate of six million dollars to Vassar. Lockwood left this unrestricted estate to the college “with the hope that my interest in the quality of teaching and my concern with pioneering in the reinterpretation and deepening of a liberal education will be remembered”. One tangible outcome of this gift is the Helen Drusilla Lockwood wing of the library, which, as Heller points out, “now stands as a memorial to the formidable ‘HDL’.” Another legacy is Lockwood’s college letters. Lockwood’s typical Sunday letters to her family— “Dear people”—for instance, were, according to Simpson, “seldom less than fourteen pages and occasionally as many as twenty-four”. These letters offer an inside glimpse of her life at Vassar: “how she is getting on in her courses, what she thinks of her teachers, her calls on the faculty, her attendance at chapels, lectures and concerts, her work in debate, her friendships and roommate troubles, and all the fun and games and tears that came her way . . .”. The letters provide a detailed and fascinating record of the growth of Lockwood’s intellectual powers, her self-awareness, and her interest in social issues. In particular, they document quite explicitly the profound influence that her participation in college debating had on her development and her subsequent career and life choices.

Lockwood’s Intellectual Development and Debate

During her college years at Vassar, Lockwood participated strenuously and successfully in debate. This participation came through her sophomore argumentation course, taught by Mary Yost, and the college’s two debating societies, T. & M. (odd-year classes) and Qui Vive (even-year classes). Lockwood had debated in high school, and her mother had given Helen her Qui Vive pin when she entered Vassar. In a 1953 article entitled “Past was Real: It was Earnest,” Lockwood stressed the popularity and broader political significance of these early debating societies: “So long had it been taken for granted that Vassar women would be spokesmen in their communities. Everyone belonged.” The debating societies were important to students because Vassar faculty often assumed that their students would be leaders in their communities. In her first year, Lockwood already was looking forward to Yost’s sophomore-level course in argumentation, which was closely connected with debate. In the 1912 Vassarion, the following motto was set against her name: “In arguing, the simple heat / Scorched both the slippers off his feet.” As Alan Simpson points out, debate played a significant role in her intellectual development: (3) She [Lockwood] made her mark as a debater in her sophomore year, was the power behind the speaker in her junior year, and then speaker herself. It is almost impossible to exaggerate what this activity did to sharpen her most characteristic intellectual powers, the capacity for close analysis, for rapid organization, for clear-cut exposition, and for relentless criticism. One exciting memory for Lockwood occurred when Yost told her that she had recommended Lockwood to the Qui Vive chair as a candidate for the “big debate” committee. These committees participated in the inter-society debate between Qui Vive and T. & M. “[S]he asked me if I would like to serve,” Lockwood wrote to her parents. “As if there could be any doubt! Well I was so thrilled I could hardly work.”

Helen Lockwood’s photograph in the 1912 (Vassarion)
Helen Lockwood’s photograph in the 1912 (Vassarion)

In 1912, Lockwood served as the chair of the Qui Vive debate committee. In the 1911 debate, the societies debated the following resolution: “That our present immigration laws be amended by the passage of the Gardner Bill, advocating the literacy test.” The debate, Simpson notes, had three judges: “President Garfield of Williams College, a son of the twentieth President of the United States; Miss Kristine Mann . . . she had been an instructor in English at Vassar and was now at the Cornell Medical School; and Professor D. W. Redmond, from City College.” (Mann co-authored with Gertrude Buck A Handbook of Argumentation and Debating, 1906.) Although Lockwood’s team did not win, she was undaunted by the loss and already was making plans for next year’s “big debate”: “The great event is over and though the decision was given in favor of 1911 we are all very happy for they had a hard fight to win . . . Miss Yost said that we far surpassed T and M’s Junior debating. She added that if we improved next year as much as T and M had since last year, nothing could defeat us. So you see that we are all feeling that work well done is victory and are already making plans for next year. (The blot above is not due to tears but I spilled some water in fixing my flowers.)(4)

According to Swain, the qualities that Lockwood later stressed in her own teaching were “[l]ogic, inductive reasoning, and structure . . . .” These were the skills that she had learned in Yost’s argumentation class and debating activities.

Lockwood’s Contemporary Press and Public Discussion Classes

As a teacher at Vassar, Lockwood taught first-year composition, critical writing, American Literature, and English Romantic poetry. She also developed two courses that enacted her socially conscious pedagogy: The Contemporary Press and Public Discussion. The 1928-29 Vassar College Catalogue describes The Contemporary Press course as the “[s]tudy of the presentation of contemporary artistic and social problems in selected periodicals and newspapers of America and Europe. Each student will work on a chosen subject throughout the year and present her material in a series of articles.” Lockwood’s Public Discussion course focused on observing and discussing current public issues, activities, and debates. According to Lockwood’s “Outline” for the course, “This course aims at defining democratic processes of discussion and effective communication of matters of public concern.” The 1933-34 Vassar College Catalogue states that the course stresses “oral and written exposition of social and literary questions of public interest. Speaking to different audiences, discussion in conferences, cross questioning, working toward a consensus of opinion. Practice in finding issues, defining terms, and marshaling evidence.” According to a 1933 article in the Vassar Quarterly, the course developed the English Department’s “tradition of social criticism and debate,” more specifically the department’s previous courses in argumentation.

Lockwood’s emphasis on critical thinking and a broader social consciousness is evident in undated course notes on English 312, The Contemporary Press. Lockwood clarifies that she uses the term Contemporary Press “generally to apply to problems of present day communication rather than to newspapers alone, for they are all interrelated.” Lockwood’s “Outline” and her course description indicate that her female students critically analyzed magazines and newspapers, investigated strategies for appealing to different audiences (i.e., “mass,” “scholarly,” “liberal”), discussed “the history of freedom of the press, its meaning in term of possible controls and possible alternatives for the survival of any magazine or paper at all,” analyzed the “development of meaning in ‘stereotypes’,” and practiced writing articles for magazines and reporting news for the college’s weekly radio program. Students also completed surveys in Poughkeepsie or at the college and then reported the results in news stories and features. In addition, students were to examine “the way life works.” According to Lockwood, “As a basis for this and indeed for other parts of the course, each student writes at the beginning of the year and checks again at the end of the year a statement of her own values and a statement of those of some man or woman whom she knows very well, values concerning God and the universe, the state, earning a living, family, education, recreation, people different from her family group. This exercise presupposes that the students cannot get far with reporting or analysis without knowing their own presuppositions. They usually find this a surprising and important exercise.

In writing their reflections, students applied critical analysis to their own values to become aware of the different social norms and assumptions that shaped their lives and their own thinking processes. The assignment implied that the course might cause students to change or rethink some of their long-held beliefs.

Lockwood’s American Culture seminar in 1953
Lockwood’s American Culture seminar in 1953

Similar pedagogical goals were evident in Lockwood’s Public Discussion course. In her “Notes on English 218, Public Discussion,” written 21 June 1956 at the time of her retirement, Lockwood presents the key principles of the course, asserting, Public Discussion is an alternative to war and to conformity without consent. It involves the full participation of every member of a group in his full capacity. It involves both his logic and his emotions. It involves his use of voice and his whole body; his written outlines and his oral presentation.

Like many contemporary rhetoricians, Lockwood viewed public discussion as significant because it provided an alternative to violence; and like Buck and Yost, she emphasized the need for a democratic process, one that blended reason and emotions. Lockwood explains also, in her “Notes,” that students are slow to embrace these principles; however, their acceptance of them “is crucial if there is to be the mutual respect based on recognized need of each other without which the processes of democracy are impossible.”

The course’s political dimensions and emphasis on group problem-solving skills are evident in Lockwood’s discussion of elements that have been part of previous year’s courses. Near the end of the term, for example, students typically studied parliamentary procedure, and the class would follow Robert’s Rules of Order for at least one week. Some years, Lockwood noted, students presented “some very interesting and lively” panel discussions over the local radio stations. When the Vassar Social Museum was in operation, students typically participated in an interdepartmental exhibit, Lockwood noted, “such as the one on Man Can Live in Harmony with Nature, an explanation of problems of population and land in terms of TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority], the Great Plains (Missouri Valley Authority), and similar efforts in China and the Andes.” One of Lockwood’s early interdisciplinary projects, the Social Museum was created in 1936 and designed for student exhibits on subjects related to Dutchess County. In addition, students spoke at various county meetings, helped with elections, and assisted in planning a weekend conference. In diverse ways, Lockwood’s course prepared Vassar women for participation in political organizations; it prepared them to be agents of change in their communities.

A significant aspect of Lockwood’s curriculum at Vassar and at the labor schools with which she was affiliated was a stress on the connection between what happens in the classroom and broader society. This belief was evident, as Alan Simpson noted, as early as her college days: “I want thinking to be followed by doing,” Lockwood wrote at that time, “Emerson says that character is more important than brains, that a ‘great soul will be strong to live as well as strong to think.’ Doesn’t that sum up culture?” This focus also can be found in an unpublished pamphlet Lockwood wrote in 1967, detailing the students’ experiences at Vassar under President Henry Noble MacCracken. (5) “. . . Students at Vassar shared in the development of participation in the community. The vision of social responsibility and pubic service whether volunteer or paid, has pervaded the climate of the college.” From the time a student entered to her graduation, she heard it expressed by the leaders of the college, she saw them often acting it themselves in Poughkeepsie or the nation, and she found it assumed in her courses. She volunteered in the social centers in Poughkeepsie and helped them [through fund drives] financially. She expected to take part in making the college community . . . . “This quotation captures a fundamental aspect of Lockwood’s approach to life and pedagogy, a focus on social responsibility, civic participation, service, and activism.


  1. At this time, Vassar students didn’t declare majors; instead, they followed a prescribed curriculum, leading to the awarding of the bachelor’s degree.
  2. Fellers wrote a letter rebutting a negative review of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s, God and Man at Yale in the student newspaper, the Vassar Chronicle. The daughter of retired Brigadier General Bonner Frank Fellers, who had served on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff, Nancy Fellers asserted that in a conference after the publication of her letter, Lockwood told her, “You do not hesitate to break into print with your dangerous ideas. If something is not done, your getting through Vassar will be imperiled”. Fellers asserted that Lockwood’s negative reaction to the review may have been spurred by her earlier response to Lockwood’s assignment asking students to “state their basic beliefs about God and the universe, the state, the family, money, culture, attitudes toward the grander, and education.” As noted, Lockwood typically had students repeat the assignment at the end of the school year and reflect on any changes in their beliefs. Fellers acknowledged that her first paragraph may have angered Lockwood: “I believe in God, human, dignity, and the United States of America. Next June I shall believe in God, human dignity, and the United States of America.” Both the college and Lockwood denied Fellers’s accusations, with Secretary John H. Holmes of Vassar affirming the college’s principles “that education neither accepts nor indoctrinates but teaches a process of searching for truth.”
  3. Simpson’s essay was originally a convocation address delivered 1 Sept. 1976 for the dedication of the Helen D. Lockwood Library. His address was later published and included selected transcribed letters from Lockwood’s college years.
  4. This passage comes from a letter Lockwood wrote on 19 March 1911, which is reprinted in Simpson’s article.
  5. The pamphlet was written in response to the potential “removal of Vassar College to New Haven Connecticut, to join with Yale University, at the time also a single-sex undergraduate college, in a coeducational enterprise” (Daniels 175). The move never took place.

Related Articles

Gertrude Buck

Laura Wylie

The History of English at Vassar College


Daniels, Elizabeth A. Bridges to the World: Henry Noble MacCracken and Vassar College. Clinton Corners, NY: College Avenue Press, 1994.

Gaines, Billie Davis. “No Hiding Place: Civil Rights and Vassar in One Woman’s Life.” Vassar Quarterly Spring 1989: 10-18.

Gleason, Josephine, Dean Mace, Susan Turner. “Helen Drusilla Lockwood 1891–1971” ts. (Folder 1). [Read at Faculty Meeting 22 Sept. 1971.] Helen Drusilla Lockwood Biographical File. Archives and Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries (VCSC).

Heller, Rita Rubinstein. “The Women of Summer: The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers: 1921–1938.” Diss. Rutgers U, The State U of New Jersey, 1986.

Lockwood, Helen D. “Contemporary Press.” [Course description] (Box 8, Folder 135). N.d. Helen Drusilla Lockwood Papers. (VCSC).

– – -. Letters to her parents. 6 Feb.1910 (Box 1, Folder 15B);19 March 1911 (Box 1, Folder 17A). Helen Drusilla Lockwood Papers. (VCSC).

– – -. “Notes on English 218, Public Discussion.” 21 June 1956 (Box 7, Folder 119). Helen Drusilla Lockwood Papers. (VCSC).

– – -. “Outline of Work in English 312 (Contemporary Press), English 218 (Public Discussion), Interdepartment 301 and 302 (Problems of Communication through Documentary Films), also Today’s Cities and a Note on Radio Writing.” Spring 1946 (Box 8, Folder 135). Helen Drusilla Lockwood Papers. (VCSC).

– – -. “Past was Real: It was Earnest.” Vassar Miscellany News 15 April 1953: 1+.

McCarthy, Mary. The Group. New York: Harcourt, 1963.

“New Courses.” Vassar Quarterly 1933: 266.

Simpson, Alan. Helen Lockwood’s College Years: 1908–1912: A Convocation Address by Alan Simpson, President of Vassar College. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1977.

“The Social Museum: The College and the County Make Use of Each Other.” Vassar Alumnae Magazine December 1937: 11.

Swain, Barbara. Helen Drusilla Lockwood: Class of 1912: Department of English 1927–1956: A Memoir and Appreciation by Barbara Swain, Professor Emeritus of English. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1977.

United States. “Academic Freedom at Vassar.” Ed. Cong. Rec. Cong. House: GPO, Washington, DC, 1953. 1-14.

Vassar College Catalogue. Vol. 1928-29. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1928.

Vassar College Catalogue. Vol. 1933-34. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1933.

Vassarion. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1912.

“Vassar Denies Student’s Charges of Teachings Disparaging Religion.” Poughkeepsie New Yorker Nov. 10, 1952: n.p.