• Matilda Butler

Unbelievable: She Had to Sit Behind a Screen to Take College Classes!

Updated: Apr 20

FLORENCE BASCOM

INSPIRATIONAL MESSAGE WE FIND IN THE LIFE OF

FLORENCE BASCOM

Accept What You Are Allowed and Then Work to Expand on That.

It wasn’t always easy…

Have you heard of Florence Bascom? We're guessing the answer is "No." And yet she is one of those Amazing Women we should all know about. Let's start her story back in 1891 when obtaining an education was extremely difficult for women. Yet, as you will see, Florence Bascom was willing to accept all kinds of challenges in order to live the kind of life she sought.


Through her life story, we found the inspirational message,

Accept what you are allowed and then work

to expand on that.

See what message you derive from her life as we tell it through letters.

Baltimore, Maryland, May 10, 1891

Dear Father and Mother:

Thank you for urging me to go to Johns Hopkins. Professor George Williams is just as brilliant as I had thought. I am learning about his microscopic geological techniques and know that will be invaluable to me in my study of geology.


However, I admit that every class I take while sitting behind a screen is humiliating and infuriating. It is difficult to always hear what the professor says or to see his illustration of points. Having to sit in a corner behind a screen in order to protect male students from being distracted is absurd. Perhaps the professors should make the male students attend classes behind screens and I could sit in the front row to get the most from the professor’s lectures. This is not to be, of course.


I was most favored growing up in our home — home of the president of the University of Wisconsin. Father, I now appreciate even more than before the importance of your role in instituting coeducation at the University.


And Mother, I value being raised by you and seeing your active support of women's rights, women’s suffrage, and your strong interest in the natural sciences. All of that emboldens me to keep moving forward.


The background you both provided helps me to stay focused on my education and not let these petty difficulties detract me from my goal. Yes, it is still hard to believe that I had to wait seven months before the executive committee “allowed” me to take classes, while still denying me admission as a student.


Give my best to George, Jean, Emma, and of course, my little sister Mabel. Tell them all that I think of them often.


Your Loving Daughter,

Florence Bascom

Mr. John Bascom

Williams College

Political Science Department

Williamstown, Massachusetts

§§§§§§


Baltimore, Maryland, March 10, 1892

Dear Father and Mother,

It is with great joy that I report I have been, at long last, accepted into the doctoral program. It will not be easy but I am prepared for the challenge. Many will not know about my admission because it was by secret vote. However, I will get on with my work and vow to make you proud.


Your Loving Daughter,

Florence Bascom

Mr. John Bascom

Williams College

Political Science Department

Williamstown, Massachusetts

§§§§§§


Baltimore, Maryland, August 23, 1893

Dearest Father and Mother,

I have my degree in hand and hope to soon return home so that we can celebrate together. As you know, the work on my dissertation had to be done in isolation. But it is done. And now it is accepted.


I am told that I am the first women to receive a Ph.D. in geology not just from Johns Hopkins but from any American university. What an honor. I will strive to use my education to further the science of geology and also to teach others about this fascinating science. Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to teach women rather than men as they already have access to science education. And given my experience as a student in a male-oriented institution, such a college might make me stand behind a screen while teaching in order to not distract the men. So a position in a woman’s college is preferred.


I am pursuing a job possibility and will let you know how soon I can get home to see you.

How is Emma doing? Is she better? What does the doctor say? Please tell her that I will write soon.

Your loving daughter,

Florence Bascom



Mr. John Bascom

Williams College

Political Science Department

Williamstown, Massachusetts

§§§§§§


Athens, Ohio, October 23, 1895

Dear Father and Mother,

Thank you for your recent letter. I treasure it both for the news and for the sentiments.

I write to inform you that I hope I have now found my future home. My two years of work at the University of Ohio, while satisfactory, is not what I want to continue into the future.


Therefore, I am pleased to tell you that I have just accepted a faculty position offered by Bryn Mawr College. I will be a Reader in Geology.


It is true that I have been hired to teach a single course, but I have plans that are much more grand than that. I will work toward developing a new major in Geology. In the meantime, I want to ensure that I have stimulating lectures and engrossing field work for the students. I expect great things from the women I will teach. Field work, I acknowledge is frowned on by the institution, but it is critical to ensuring these women are not relegated to secretarial-type work that keeps them at desks while men make the discoveries and get the credit.

As always, I will keep you up to date on my progress. I will soon be taking my belongings and leaving Athens. I will send you my new address as soon as I have moved in.


Your loving daughter,

Florence Bascom



Mr. John Bascom

Williams College

Political Science Department

Williamstown, Massachusetts


§§§§§§


Bryn Mahr, Pennsylvania, June 10, 1896

Dear Father and Mother,

As you know, I have been quite interested in being able to work for the United States Geological Survey (USGS). I have looked into their program and believe they are a vital government agency with research and funding that will have great value in understanding more about the origins of rock structures.


Therefore, I want to share the news with you that I am now the first woman to join the United States Geological Survey. Of course, I will continue my position at Bryn Mahr that I have worked so hard to establish.


And what will I do? I hope to be able to create survey maps and study the crystalline rock formations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and even Maryland. This will include rock structures and erosion cycles in addition to data gathering to understand mountain formations. That is a big list, but there is so much that I hope to accomplish.


I again thank you for raising me to believe in the strength of women and to not take a back seat to men.


Please share my good news with George, Emma, Jean, and Mabel.


Father, in your next letter I hope you will let me know more about the progress you are making on your book. Will you still call it Evolution and Religion?


As ever, your loving daughter,

Florence Bascom



Mr. John Bascom

Williams College

Political Science Department

Williamstown, Massachusetts


§§§§§§


Have an extra 90 seconds? Then be sure to watch this video about Florence Bascom and see that today she can be considered a real “rockstar. The video is courtesy of the USGS.




Check Out This Inspirational Quote from

Florence Bascom

The fascination of any search after truth lines not in the attainment,

which at best is found to be very relative,

but in the pursuit,

where all the powers of the mind and character are brought

into play and are absorbed by the task. ~Florence Bascom


A Final Word about Florence Bascom’s Letters

No, we didn’t find a hidden treasure trove of letters from Florence Bascom. However, the letters are based on her life and accomplishments. We imagine they are similar to what she would have said to her parents. We have written in a style informed by her life as well as the style of letters during the late 1800s. We found a particularly helpful volume published in 1876 entitled How to Write Letters by J. Willis Westlake.


From this book, we learned, for instance,

  • A daughter would sign both her first and last names when writing to parents or family

  • The address of the sender was on the first line along with the date

  • The address of recipient, even parents or family, was placed at the bottom of the letter

We did a considerable amount of research to find the address where John Bascom and his wife, Emma Curtiss Bascom, lived once they returned to Williamstown from Madison, Wisconsin where John Bascom was the university president. Since we could not find the correct street address, we used an abbreviated address for his Political Science office that we believe would have been satisfactory even in the late 1800s.


We hope you’ve enjoyed these letters.



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And a Final Note about Florence Bascom’s Influence on Her Students

We know that Bascom was eager to stir a passion for the study of geology in her students. And it seems she achieved that goal. Here is just one example:

  • In 1937, the Fellows of the Geological Society of America included a total of 11 women. Of these, eight were Bryn Mawr College graduates.


INSPIRATIONAL MESSAGE WE FIND IN THE LIFE OF

FLORENCE BASCOM

Accept What You Are Allowed and Then Work to Expand on That.


NOTE FROM MATILDA: In writing about the lives of strong women, I often add a personal note. When I read about Florence Bascom and all the hurdles she faced, I recognized the wisdom of her approach. She could have said (as I probably would have):


“If Johns Hopkins won’t accept me as a full student, I simply will not attend.”


Or,


“If Bryn Mawr College will only let me teach one course in geology, then I will look for work elsewhere.”


Instead, she was willing to sit behind a screen in the corner of a classroom in order to begin her course work at Johns Hopkins. However, that was not the end of it. She continued to pursue admission and eventually obtained full-time student status.


Similarly, she accepted the position at Bryn Mawr College that only allowed for the one course. But she proved the value of her teaching and the science behind her work. She soon had an entire department of geology that she oversaw.


Good for her.

I have to admit that was never my approach. I remember one particular time when I was offered a plum position at a major university. (The Stanford Center for Research on Women) However, I was informed I would not have the ability to sign for government grants or contracts as the principal investigator. Someone on the regular faculty would have to sign.

I refused that position. I wanted a fully credentialed appointment. If I had the wisdom of Florence Bascom, I would have accepted the job and then worked to get the one element that I considered missing.


I wasn’t (that wise).


I didn’t (accept).


Now all turned out well. I soon had an offer from another research institution for a wonderful position that allowed me to have a great deal of independence and decision making. I probably learned more in the accepted leadership position than I would have in the refused one. But who knows?


Besides, it was this second offer that let me meet Kendra. We have known each other as friends and have worked together for these many years.


I think learning about Florence Bascom now enables me to be more open and to understand that a foot in the door is a remarkable opportunity.


We hope that’s what you’ll take away from this RosieCentral blog Discover Amazing Women.



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RosieCentral's PROMPTS FOR WRITING AND ACTION

With most of our blogs, we include a prompt for writing and/or action. Why? It is easy to scan an article, feel inspiration or encouragement, and then promptly forget about it. We know you are busy, so our prompts are designed to just give you enough time to focus on writing or action you can take to help you incorporate the week's inspiration into your life.


This week, take 5 or 10 minutes and write about a:

  • Time when you refused an opportunity because it did not completely match your ideal situation. This might have been related to employment OR a friendship OR an invitation to a party OR any other situation. When you write, include when this happened, who was involved, what was the opportunity, why you refused, and what might have been the outcome if you had accepted and then worked to make it a better fit for you.

  • <<In the text above, I already shared with you an example of when I refused a less than perfect job offer and how I now see, thanks to Florence Bascom, that I could have turned it into a wonderful opportunity.>>

  • OR, write about a time when you accepted an opportunity and were eventually able to shape it in a way that made it a good fit for you, even if you didn't think that would happen. Write about how you already had the wisdom to "accept what you were allowed and then worked to expand on that." Then remember to be inspired by your own life as you move forward.


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