A Celebration of Women Writers

"Need of a Great College in the South." by Miss Clara Conway (1844-1904)
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 402-404.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 402] 



The women of the Jamestown Colony and the women of Plymouth Colony were in large part children of the same race-ancestors. We are sisters. My Celtic blood has assimilated the elements that make our kinship doubly sure and doubly strong, and it is with no alien tongue or manner that I come to plead my people's cause on the eve of the anniversary of the Nation's birthday morn, and on the spot made sacred by the consecration of American womanhood to the cause of universal righteousness.

The awakening to sin and sorrow is as wan and haggard in the golden morning of today as in the dim daybreak of history. The great currents of human passion ebb and flow to the same pulsations, and in the flux of human destiny we are brought to a realization of the fact that we are closer to our women ancestors in feeling, in sympathy, in sisterhood than in the bonds of historic kinship. Life had its zest for them as for us, and the circling hours brought them honor or dishonor, even as they bring us joy or sorrow. Childish impulsiveness, self-indulgent paganism, the restlessness of a new growth, were as strongly typical of their life as are the heart-strains of the Columbian hearth-stones in the morning and evening of this full day. The bond of love and duty is eternal. The call to righteousness, feeble as a baby's cry in Teutonic days, is today a martial tone, resounding along the line of the ages and awakening the world's hosts of women to liberty and action. It would be sad, indeed, to think that the rude, unlettered woman, even in her crudest thinking, had no glimpse into a richer, fuller life. It is more comfortable to hope that the woman of today is a realized ideal, beautiful and perfect in her way, but not final. She shares the incompleteness of human life. The true reality is in the mind of God, awaiting its slow evolution through the processes of time and destiny. Between the silence and the stir the woman of today stands with a consciousness of power, emphasized by this Columbian year as never before. The two worlds of the past and future stand on each side, one illumined by the other. Turning away from the silence, she hears the stir of action. Under the windows of her world she sees the tumult of strife, and, looking out into the far-off boundless vista, she realizes that the future has new interpretations and illuminations read in the light of the past. Her life opens on both sides, and she stands, as Phillips Brooks would say, between a world of beautiful ideals and the hard world of matter. Quick-leaping intuition, poetic [Page 403]  thought, faith and love combine to stir up activity, and she answers: "Behold, I am here to serve!" It is this woman to whom I speak today, asking that American women recognize a common motherhood and a common sisterhood, that what is claimed as justice for one may be justice for all; that in the distribution of love, and the gifts of love, the Southern girl has equal recognition with her sister. She is of large brain, of pure soul, of clean hands and of your own blood; flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone. Trebly bereft by the desolations of war, she has yet actively and consciously recognized the force of noblesse oblige. Leisure and wealth gave to her grandmother an exquisite culture. Planter princes lavished fortunes upon the women who were to be the dispensers of royal hospitality that "neither condescended nor cringed."

The heritage of their daughters has been poverty, but not humiliation, nor even defeat, except the defeat of which success is born. From the ashes of the wreck they came into their kingdom of strength and holiness. All over that beautiful land they are nurse, teacher, home-tender, mother–sweet, wise and gracious. They are strong, self-reliant, independent. They ask nothing for themselves, and if I ask in their behalf, it is of those upon whom they have the claim of sisterhood. Schools are on the hillsides and on the plains, good as the best of their kind, for white and colored alike. Do not heed him or her who tells you that we do not provide for the education of our colored people. The fund is a common one, and provision is made in the public school for every boy and girl, white or black. The burden is heavy, but the people have borne it without a murmur. Along the line of primary, secondary, high school and academic instruction, all is well and growing daily better, but we have no Smith, no Vassar, no Wellesley, no Holyoke, no Bryn Mawr. This means that private endowment does not reach us. Our own people are not rich in material things, and others are unmindful or forgetful. This is the claim I present today, not as a demand, but with a strong, earnest appeal to the spirit of a large-hearted sisterhood, which has planted the College Beautiful on so many Northern hillsides. Our girls must go far from home for a broad and generous college culture, or they must do without. Unfortunately, by far the larger majority cannot leave home by reason of limitations that are apparent, and yet these noble-minded girls are the ones to whom this training is an absolute essential. This is not in accordance with the American spirit. Our Mother Columbia does not mean to say to her large family of beautiful daughters: "One-half may have all the joys and blessings of the higher education; the other half must take the lower, or nothing."

It requires no prophetic vision to see the meaning of this waste to the higher American life of the future; not to read the story of limitation to the universal cause of womanhood, if we are not at once active in removing hindrances. There are more pathetic tragedies than those of Teutonic battlefields, and first among them, surely, is the disappointment of young hopes. "Today the morning is noisy with birds," tomorrow they may be old and silent. Let us look for effective rather than final causes; and in seeking to find God everywhere, let us not be afraid to acknowledge the value of national agencies, or to set forces to work that will help God redeem the world. Let one of these be a college at the South for our girls, so magnificently endowed with such bountiful provision for student aid that no good girl in search of an education will be turned away. It should combine all the requirements of the best discipline and instruction. Its foundation should be laid in the thorough training of English according to the most approved methods. There should he a department of domestic economy, so well equipped that every graduate of the college might be prepared, not only for housekeeping. but for home-keeping. Thus shall we express our faith, not only in an overruling Providence, but, as Charles Kingsley says, in an under-ruling, around-ruling, and an in-ruling Providence, from whose inspiration comes all true thought, all true feeling. Every hope is the beginning of its own fulfillment, says our dear Emerson; and as we walk out into the grounds today, let the out-door air sweep in the vision I have sketched. Columbia, thou hast battlements of mountain treasure, caves [Page 404]  of gold and silver, fields and pastures wide and warm, silent cities where two armies sleep, and, more than all, hosts of imperial living men and women, sons and daughters of the King. Above the tumult of the tempest, the storm of battle, the noisy clamor of creeds, we hear them today pleading, not so much "to tunnel the mountain or ride the sea," but to fill this fair earth with benedictions.

The Neibelungen hoard, the source of Teutonic woes, lies drowned in the deep Rhine until the Judgment Day. It was a curse. Our gold, obedient to the heavenly vision, builds a world of grand proportion, filled with richer music than that of cathedral psalm. So, as we listen, the electric flash reveals a vision, and we look out to see outlined against the Exposition sky the gracious figure of Columbia, equally enthroned on her right her eldest daughter Jamestown, robed in pensive gray, the light of hope on her brow, the sweet serenity of faith in her eye. On the left the second sister, Plymouth, robed in tender blue, high-born resolve on her fine face and in her eye the courage that meets death with a smile for love or duty's sake. Blue and gray! forever one as in the sunset sky. The voice we hear is strong and tender What does she say, this fair Columbian maiden to her New England sister? Listen!

"Unfashioned was the earth,
The stars unset,
Ungiven was the air,
The sea not yet,
When in God's purposes
One small decree
Fastened eternally
My soul to thee."

[Page 402] 

Miss Clara Conway is a native of New Orleans, La. She was born August 14, 1844. Her parents were Margaret Riordan Conway and Thomas Conway. She was educated at St. Agnes Academy, Memphis, apparently, but mainly by her own study at home. She has traveled extensively in the United States and in Europe. Her special work is preparing girls for colleges principally Vassar and Wellesley. Miss Conway is founder and organizer of the Clara Conway Institute, Memphis, Tenn., whose enrollment in sixteen years has been about thirty-five hundred. It is now believed by many that Miss Conway, as a leader, will succeed in having established a university for women in the South. Miss Conway advocates strongly prohibition and equality. Her postoffice address is Memphis, Tenn.

[Page 402] 

* What appears is but the closing portion of an address entitled in full, "The Need of a Great College in the South for American Girls."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom