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FANNIE SHOUSE-JAMES, Vassar College & Gender Equality

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Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Fannie Shouse-James entered Vassar College in September of 1869 under its “preparation controversy” policy. She progressed in her education at Vassar College, leaving in April of 1873 due to the unexpected death of her father, Daniel Louis Shouse. He was a business partner of Thomas Martin “T. M.” James. The following October of 1873, Fannie married John Crawford James, a son of T.M. James. In 1874 Fannie gave birth to Vassie James, whom she named for her beloved alma mater. Vassie James attended Vassar, too, graduating in 1897, as did Fannie’s granddaughter and own namesake Fanny James-Egan who graduated in 1904.

Fannie (Shouse) James Recollects

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The following recollection written by Fannie Shouse James was found in her desk drawer after she died. Fannie’s daughter Fanny James-Egan [Mrs. Louis H. Egan] who also graduated Vassar in 1904, submitted the document to the library of Vassar College, where Fannie’s memoir remains archived today.

It was in September 1869, just sixty years ago that four Kansas City girls started for Vassar College. My father having business in New York went with us to Poughkeepsie and left us at the Nelson House until College opened.

The original Nelson House, left, operated by Capt. A.P. Black, adjacent to Lawyer’s Row in Poughkeepsie, New York

There were no sleeping cars coming into Kansas City and no pullmans so we made the trip to Chicago in a day coach in twenty-two hours. From Chicago we secured berths in a very primitive sleeping car, but in the middle of the night were were called to get up and go into the day coach on account of trouble in the car. We found the Nelson House filled with others like ourselves waiting for the College to open. These girls were studying for exams so we each bought a book of a different kind and put ourselves to work.

At that time examinations for college entrance were given at the college and it took several days to get through. We were not allowed to stay at the college until we had passed the exams. It was rather upsetting to meet girls in the hall crying because they had failed.

Professor Charles Hinkle required Fannie to take preparatory classes prior to entering Vassar College as a fully accepted student.

Mrs. Warren had been my teacher in Kansas City and felt sure I could pass for full freshman work, but dear kind Professor [Charles J.] Hinkle was German and so intent that I was frightened and failed to make the grade in Latin so I was put into the second preparatory class with some classes in freshman work, — math for one, and I had the privilege of studying in a small class in Trig under Miss [Priscilla H.] Braislin and astronomy with Miss [Maria] Mitchell which I count one of the blessings of my life. Helen Hiscock, who was the second Mrs. [Truman J.] Backus, was in that class and a very brilliant student.

While we were waiting in the Observatory Miss [Maria] Mitchell would entertain us with stories of her life, her trip to Europe where she was entertained by famous astronomers. The French Astronomer Royal gave a ball in her honor at which she stood – I imagine in a woolen dress, high neck, long sleeves – horrified at the dress or undress of the ladies and half-frozen. She said she was both deaf and dumb all the while she was in France.

  • Maria Mitchell of Vassar College
    Maria Mitchell, Professor of Astronomy
  • Vassar College Astronomy class
    Astronomy class outdoors
  • Vassar Astronomical Observatory-1874
    Vassar's Astronomy Observatory
  • Prof. Maria Mitchell teaches Mary Whitney
    Seated Maria Mitchell & student Mary Whitney
  • Croquet at Vassar Observatory
    Croquet at the Observatory
Dr. John H. Raymond, President of Vassar College

Dr. [John H.] Raymond was President – a fine Shakespeare scholar and reader and often entertained us for an evening. He preached too, and the girls said his prayers were often twenty minutes long – I never timed him.

We had no thought of going away over the weekend. There was always something we enjoyed, and I often spent part of my Spring vacation in college and enjoyed that too.

Method or Mayhem

at Vassar College

Method or Mayhem?

In Miss Priscilla S. Braislin’s Trig class, Fannie learned math. More so, she learned gender equality.

Braislin threw out the textbook and substituted parody as a learning tool.

The Trig’s pastiche The Mathematikado was an act of destruction and creation, print and performance, based on the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera The Mikado.

Using the language of mathematics, the parody by Vassar students effectively argued “college students” of the day were not solely male. Women merited like recognition.

Equality Unleashed

Equality Unleashed

In The Mathematikado of Professor Priscilla Braislin [left], comic characters Anna Lytics (analytics), Cora Leary (corollary), Polly Gon (polygon), and Aunty Cedent (antecedent) among others addressed their social problems in mathematical terms.

The Mathematikado evolved from a comic parody The Trial of Trigonometry, first written by Fannie’s classmate Helen Hiscock.

With additional references to their knowledge of Greek, Latin, natural history, English literature, logic, and economics, the Vassar woman affirmed they were not simply experiments in education. Their ability to deploy their knowledge and learning for use authentically made them “college students.”

All the famous men of the Country were interested in Vassar and wanted to visit it. I heard Samuel F.B. Morse, George Wm. Curtis, Wendell Phillips, Charlotte Cushman; Booth came to Poughkeepsie and we went to hear him. Geo. B. McDowell spent a week with us.

The Anti-Slavery Society

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President of
The Anti-Slavery Society

In 1869, when students invited Wendell Phillips to return to Vassar after a successful visit two years earlier, Vassar trustees refused Phillips permission to speak, saying ” a man so identified with radical views ought not to come… as [Vassar students are] not to be exposed to radical doctrines of any sort.”

Students protested vehemently and formed an impressive uprising against the administration.

Even Maria Mitchell joined in on the commotion; she said Phillips had the “right to come and to say whatever he chose.” Eventually, the trustees relented and Phillips was permitted to lecture.

Cross Dressing

at Vassar College

Cross-Dressing Tragedienne of the 19th Century

Charlotte Cushman considered the greatest actress in America during the mid-19th century, played both male and female dramatic roles. She did it on stage and in real life. She carried on a series of romances with other women…

In England, she met Matilda Hays [standing], an English writer, journalist, and part-time actress. For 10 years they maintained a tempestuous relationship. They dressed alike and were publicly recognized as a couple. Elizabeth Barrett Browning called it a “female marriage.”

” Charlotte Cushman’s Reading in Poughkeepsie was attended by many of the students, who intensely enjoyed the unusual treat. Fresh zest was lent to the elocution classes the next day by the criticism, both favorable and (dare we say it?) unfavorable, which the discussion of the reading called forth. “

The Vassar Miscellany, Vol. I, p. 57