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History of William Smith College

William Smith Traditions

Who is William Smith?

The Coordinate Tradition

Play Six Degrees of William Smith College

William Smith Time Capsule

History of William Smith College
The Millers

Elizabeth Smith Miller and
her daughter Anne Fitzhugh
Miller encouraged William
Smith to become involved
in the women's movement.

In 1906, William Smith, a local businessman and nursery owner, signed a deed of gift to establish the college that bears his name. At the turn of the century, as Smith was determining how to best transform his wealth into opportunity for others, he befriended a number of suffragettes and activists including Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter Anne Fitzhugh Miller. The two had a deep impact on him. The elder Miller, whose childhood home was a station on the Underground Railroad, was the daughter of U.S. congressman and abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Her cousin was women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It is probable that in his many visits to the Miller home on Seneca Lake, Smith had an opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and others. At that time, the people who passed through Geneva were a ‘Who’s Who’ of cultural reform and transformation, and Smith was not immune to the influx of fresh ideas.

It is because of Smith’s resolve that William Smith College was founded as a nondenominational, liberal arts institution dedicated to educating women broadly, not just vocationally.

In 1908, William Smith College opened with 18 students in the charter class, although there were 20 by the end of the year. The College was founded adjacent to Hobart and entered into a coordinate arrangement that is now unique among American colleges.

Just as William Smith College’s founding was greatly influenced by the women’s rights movement, so too has its existence been shaped by the events of the times. Those who have been at the center of changing the role of women in society have come to the College to reflect on their work, share ideas and offer advice. They include women who have taken on careers traditionally assigned to men, like anthropologist Margaret Mead and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as those who have dedicated themselves to advocacy, like feminist Gloria Steinem and activist Angela Davis. 

The women who have graduated from the College have taken this advice and done remarkable things. Many of the earliest graduates became teachers, scientists, social workers, doctors, nurses, painters and dancers. Lydia Gibson Dawes ’18 received her MD from Yale, studied with Anna Freud in Vienna, and was the first child psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital, Boston. Mary Louise Kirkland ’27 was an opera singer. Helen Reid ’19 was an agricultural advocate. Susanna Kingsley ’16 was an advertising writer in New York City. Genevieve McCarthy ’15 owned and ran her own travel agency. Betty Sweet Christiansen ’16 was a political activist. The list goes on and on.

The timeline that accompanies this Web site is intended to record the history of the College’s first 100 years and demonstrate how students, administrators, faculty, speakers and award recipients have shaped history itself.

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