Patricia Auspos

Published On


Page Range

pp. 27–92


  • English

Print Length

66 pages

1. The Making of a Victorian Myth

Alice Freeman Palmer and George Herbert Palmer

  • Patricia Auspos (author)
Alice Freeman Palmer (1855-1902), one of the most influential forces in women’s education in late 19th-century America, became President of Wellesley College at the age of 27 in 1882. A beloved, charismatic leader, she raised the school’s academic standards and solidified its finances. She fell deeply in love with George Herbert Palmer (1842-1933), a professor of Moral Philosophy at Harvard University, but was reluctant to marry him because he insisted she would have to give up the Wellesley presidency. She finally agreed, and they married in 1887. Her public life did not end, however. After she spent several years as a paid lecturer, speaking all over the country on women’s education, she and George were both offered jobs at the newly founded University of Chicago in 1892. George refused to leave Harvard, but Alice continued to negotiate for herself. Overcoming George’s objections, Alice became the first dean of women at the University of Chicago in 1892. She went to Chicago for weeks at a time, leaving him in charge of their Cambridge household and the renovations of their new home, financed in part with her earnings. Alice loved her work, and George applauded her achievements. But he repeatedly pressured her to return home earlier than planned to ease his loneliness or deal with troublesome servants. After three years, she resigned from the deanship and stayed in Cambridge, where she devoted herself to George and a demanding mix of volunteer activities.
After Alice’s untimely death in 1902, George published a best-selling account of her life. His Life of Alice Freeman Palmer (1908) enshrined her in the public imagination as a domestic angel who happily gave up her career to marry the man she loved and fulfill her womanly destiny. As a result, she became a symbol of what a college-educated woman could accomplish before marriage, rather than an inspiration for women who wanted to combine marriage and career. The Palmers’ correspondence and the poems Alice wrote in secret tell a more complex, and more troubling, story of her work and marriage. They reveal how she struggled to maintain her independence and resist his efforts to protect and control her.


Patricia Auspos


A graduate of Barnard College, Patricia Auspos earned a Ph.D. in Modern British History from Columbia University and taught at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She researched and wrote about social policy issues and programs as a staff member at MDRC and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, and as an independent consultant. Breaking Conventions is her first book. She lives in Jackson Heights, New York City.