Making ourselves present: reassessing the collective memory of the New School’s foundation

By Elizabeth Ziff and Mariana Assis

1. Why look at the history of women at the New School?

The New School has an incredibly rich history and dynamic legacy. Those of us fortunate enough to be part of this institution are all here due to some part of that legacy, the New School story. We don’t stumble in here on accident but rather, we come here believing in what this institution stands for, and the academic and social ideals that it puts forth. A place founded by academics whom were struggling with the status quo at their home universities, this school was always intended to be something different, something unusual.

The history of gender at the New School is a fascinating one. On one hand this institution has always had a high number of female students and has always had women on the faculty. But who were these women and why are they largely absent from our founding story? The New School has an interesting history in that we have two identified founding moments: 1918 and 1932. Why do we celebrate both? Why was it constructed so that these two moments are a vivid part of our institutional memory? And where are the memories of the women who made these moments possible? Our relationship to gender and gender studies is molded not only by our current policies and administration but also by the histories that we are both given and choose to remember on a regular basis. This paper will explore these two founding moments, what is particular to each of them, and the women that were key players in making this school stay alive. Why do some stories stay alive and what does it take to make forgotten stories stick to the memory of people in an institution?

2. Founding Moment 1 1918

“The need of a new institution which should be honestly free was actively discussed… Beard and Robinson had resigned from their university [Columbia] in disgust with the oppressive action of the trustees, not actually directed against them but, as they saw it, vitally affecting them. John Dewey was in revolt against academic timidity and futility; Wesley Mitchell, although invulnerable as a statistical economist, was deeply discontented. We had meetings… with one after another of these men. The New School opened with éclat, for the spring term of 1919. Every liberal in the city was excited by the novel venture of an institution headed by two such dynamic figures as Robinson and Beard, self-disfrocked from the conventional academic life.”

This was the way Alvin Johnson, one of the founders of the New School and a very prominent figure in its history, stated its foundational myth. It is a quite acceptable version of the story, except for the fact that Johnson and many other accounts of this same moment completely neglect the powerful and important women without whose work and commitment this school would probably not exist. That is the story we want to tell here.

Among the group of men Johnson proudly refers to there was a woman: Emily James Smith Putnam. Emily Putnam was born on April, 15, 1865. Despite her parents’ wish that she had the standard life expected for girls of her time, Emily was decided to get superior education and pursued this by being taught by tutors to enter college. After graduating “at Bryn Mawr in 1889, she went to England and became one of the first American women to study at Girton College, Cambridge.” (Edward T James et al. 1971, 106) Once she got her degree, she came back to the US, where she first taught at  Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights/NY, and then at the University of Chicago. In 1894, she was appointed as the first dean of Barnard College, the women’s college founded in association with Columbia University. In this position, she struggled against the common pattern of treating women’s college as a less prestigious institution of education and made all the efforts to establish an equal academic relationship between Barnard and Columbia, both for the faculty and the students. Among her achievements during this time we can mention “women’s college representation on the university council, official appointment by Columbia University for its faculty, broader access for women to graduate study at Columbia, and equal privileges in the university library” (Edward T James et al. 1971, 107). After all her great accomplishments, in 1900, Emily was forced to step down by the board of directors when she revealed she was pregnant (Clinton and Lunardini 2000; Rosenberg 2004). They accepted her marriage in 1899, but thought pregnancy would preclude her from keeping the position. She returned to Barnard in 1914 and, in 1920 transferred to the Greek department, where she stayed until her retirement, in 1930. It was during her time at Barnard’s College that Emily met James Harvey Robinson, with whom she established a close friendship. Actually, she helped in his recruitment to teach at Columbia (Rosenberg 2004, 79). This Robinson is the same scholar whom Johnson mentioned is his account of the foundational moment of the New School, with which we started to tell this new history.

Nonetheless, what Johnson did not recall is that “the first record of plans for a new school are in a letter from Emily James Putnam to Robinson dated January 26, 1916” (Rutkoff and Scott 1986, 257). In this letter, Emily exposed her radical ideas about a new school, in opposition of what was the prevailing standard in the American higher education system, insisting that faculty control should be its guiding principle. She signed her letter ‘Yours for Anarchy’. Interestingly enough, by 1918, all the proposals she made in that letter were accepted by the other founders and the project of the New School was, thus, based upon on them. Moreover, she actively integrated the faculty and the board of the school.

In the first New School’s course bulletin, Emily Putnam is there as the only woman integrating the faculty, offering a course on Habitat and History, which not surprisingly addressed, among other issues, the connections between habit and the status of women. Along with Alexander Goldenweiser, she formed “the core of New School’s offerings in anthropology” (Rosenberg 2004, 148). Her engagement with women’s issues is proved not only by her actions to assure equal superior education for women as Barnard’s College’s dean, but also by her topics of research as a brilliant scholar. One of her most important works is The lady: studies of certain significant phases of her history, published in 1910. It is really impressive that in his account Alvin Johnson did not remember Emily Putnam’s engagement in the foundation of the New School. According to some historical review, she “offered vital encouragement and counsel to [him] during [the school's] uncertain early years” (Edward T James et al. 1971, 107). Emily Putnam was, in sum, not only part of the founding group of the New School. She was much more: she was responsible for setting the principles which guided the school and was seriously and fully engaged in the project since its very beginning, pushing it towards a more radical perspective.

Besides Emily, there was also another woman without whom the implementation of those radical principles, to which we hear the school’s administration refer every term’s opening, would not be possible. This woman is Dorothy Straight. Dorothy was born in 1887, in Washington, D.C. As Emily Putnam, she did not fit the standard role women were expected to perform at her time. She could be characterized by her great eagerness for knowledge and independent way of thinking, which were fostered by home education and, later, by attendance to Miss Spence’s and Miss Finch’s schools. When she was 17 years old, she inherited a fortune and, since then, was determined to use this money to do social philanthropy (Levy 1985, 186). Dorothy married Willard Straight in Geneva, 1911. The couple was greatly influenced by The Promise of American Life, a book written by Herbert Croly (Levy 1985, 186). In 1914, during a meeting with them, Croly mentioned that the ambition to turn Harper’s Weekly into the liberal journal the US needed failed. Dorothy, thus, suggested that Herbert should start his own journal and that she would find money for that (Levy 1985, 188) . On the 7th of November, 1914, the first edition of this journal came up: The New Republic.

As we see, from the beginning, Dorothy was actively engaged in the discussions promoted by the group of intellectuals and activists involved in the production of the journal, firstly, and later, in the foundation of the New School. It was during the meetings of The New Republic that Dorothy was introduced to James Robinson, Alvin Johnson and Charles Beard, and their idea about founding a New School in reaction to what they thought to be an unbearable bureaucratic control of academic freedom. In 1918, when the founding group of the New School finally agreed on the principles firstly suggested by Emily Putnam, it was Dorothy Straight who made possible the opening of the school. Despite her husband’s opposition, she decided to fund the idealistic project and pledged $10.000 a year during the period of then years. As we see, the founding group of the New School had a very well established idea about how a progressive educational institution look like, but it did not have the required material resources to turn that idea into reality. In this sense, the fact that Dorothy Straight shared those views with them, since the time of The New Republic, was crucial to guarantee the necessary resources not only to start the school, but also to maintain it for the first decade.

Engagement with women’s groups and associations was a very important part of Dorothy Straight’s life. During the First World War, she raised money for the Women’s Liberty Loan Committee and also assisted the Women’s City Club. Moreover, through the YMCA, she began a program to recruit women to work in military canteens overseas and in 1925 made a donation for the National League of Women Voters. According to an article published in the New York Times, Dorothy was the person who brought Eleanor Roosevelt “to a conference of women trade unionists, where she met and was deeply affected by militant feminists, liberals, radicals, lesbians and the women who made the silk and lace she wore [...]” (Maloff 1979). She was an activist of the Working Women’s Trade Union League and of the suffrage movement (Levy 1985, 186).

In many accounts of the founding of the New School one woman is often remembered as the life of the school, the power behind many of its rebirths. Clara Mayer had a long and rich history with the New School.  She started as a student at the school and was dedicated to the mission of the New School from an early date. “The daughter of a wealthy New York realtor, Mayer had attended Barnard…when Robinson resigned to organize the New School, Mayer enrolled in several evening classes. She became active in the New School Associates, a student organization, and contributed to a variety of the school’s programs. In 1922, when the New School appeared to be on the verge of closing down, Mayer helped organize a committee of students to raise the funds necessary to weather the crisis. For her help, Johnson appointed Mayer to the board and hired her as secretary of the New School, later assistant director, and finally dean of adult education. Mayer recruited her mother and several brothers and sisters of the school’s cause. Over the next fifty years only Alvin Johnson played a more important part in the life in the New School” (Rutkff & Scott) What is fascinating is why this woman who has been acknowledged as important is often only mentioned in passing, if at all.

Mayer is a pivotal figure to the school’s existence yet she is not well known and always took a backseat to Johnson. As Kenneth Craven, both an employee of Mayer’s for some time and a historian of the Village, described it, “Like all male mythology, male knee-jerk tendencies to dismiss feminine contributions tend to coagulate over time” (Craven, 11).  By many accounts this was as she wanted it to be, often taking a step back so Johnson could be in the spotlight, yet those who know of Mayer speculate that something important is lost in not telling this story. She conducted herself with grace and stayed true to her agenda and the larger visions of the school. “They both (Mayer and Johnson) had complementary and overlapping gifts and they were made for each other.  Both believed strongly in the power of intellectual ideas; but each had complementary institutional ideas that enlarged the scope and enhanced the stability of the school. They were both adroit in bailing out of a crisis; while Johnson took deserved bows for imaginative big projects, Clara handled the day-to-day operations with smoothness and aplomb and without ego maintenance” (Craven, 18).

From the few accounts that we have of Mayer she was an “unassuming” woman and those that were fortunate enough to encounter her never fully understood all of the strings that she managed to pull. She never pushed herself on people but asked provocative questions and always pushed for the highest calibour of people in her institution. With Mayer came a large support network of people, specifically members of her family. Her parents contributed significant amounts of money to the school, her brother and uncle contributed to the property acquisition and architectural endeavors of the school.

In 1959 Mayer was asked to leave by Henry David, the schools fifth president. He thought she was too much of a ‘mom and pop’ operation. This proved to be one of the biggest mistakes in New School administrative history for the loss of Clara meant the loss of the institutional support by the rest of her family and much of the loyalty of the faculty. She in many senses was the spirit of the school, constantly pushing for the institution to move in new directions all the while sticking to what she and Johnson believed in. It was Mayer who pushed for the arts to become a core part of the New School community and also her who kept the physical sciences at bay.

Another important woman in the inception of the school is Caroline Bacon. Married to George Bacon, a wealthy member of New York society, Caroline actively participated in women’s and education issues of the time. While much is not in written record about Caroline Bacon she played a pivotal role in both the creation of the New School and setting the path for Alvin Johnson to become the powerful figure that he inevitably did. She was on the board of the New School since its inception. A close friend of Robinson she was part of the intellectual circle that he drew upon when creating the school. Later in the New School history she was the one that asked Johnson to step in and take a more authoritative role when the school faced a crisis in 1922. Johnson identified her as the catalyst for making the New School project come to life, both through her networking abilities, academic thirst and her philanthropy. She taught history at Smith College and was part of the League of Women Voters and she remained on the board of the New School until her death in 1931.

3. Founding Moment 2

The second founding moment of the New School was the creation of the University in Exile.  Until 1933 the New School had primarily been an experimental institution devoted to adult education and modern art (Rutkoff & Scott). In April of that year, Jewish and socialist scholars were expelled from their posts by the Nazis and Johnson, due to his close ties with many German scholars, wanted to do something about this. “To accommodate them he established a self-governing research institute within the New School which he called the University in Exile….at the New school these displaced European scholars found a building and an institution ready-made for their use” (Rutkoff & Scott, 84-85). Johnson was quite shrewd in mobilizing this moment and it was due to his networks and willingness to take risks that this division of the school was even possible.

While there was a larger rescue effort going on by the Western world in the response to the rise of the Nazis, Johnson and his school mobilized their efforts in a way that was unique. Between 1933 and 1944 it is estimated that 1000 to 2000 European intellectuals settled in the United States. Of these 178 had permanent appointments at the New School. No other institution matched these numbers due to funding and willingness to take on as many academic refugees. Johnson worked closely with the Rockefeller foundation as well as the U.S. Government to set up the funding as well as to work out the visa issues that these academics faced. The Rockefeller foundation was committed to the ‘Americanization’ of higher education in the United States and they also were not as consumed with the plight of the Jews as Johnson was. Clara Mayer was an extraordinary help with this endeavor for she was the one that was fluent in German and she spent much time with the scholars getting them settled in their new city.

The University in Exile was a unique moment due its acceptance, and in reality favoring of the European, namely German, model of education. Additionally, Johnson and Mayer still very much held to the ideals of the founding moment of the New School and they wanted to uphold the ideals of academic freedom. “To assure academic freedom, Johnson granted the faculty control over its own organization, the curriculum, and its procedures for appointments and promotion….there was only one self-imposed limitation. All faculty were required to endorse the principles of academic freedom and political democracy…no member of the faculty, read the faculty charter, can be a member of any group of political party which asserts the right to dictate in matters of conscience or scientific opinion” (Rutkoff & Scott, 104).

The experiment of the University in Exile proved to be a very exciting time for the New School and its legacy is quite rich. Now called the New School for Social Research the division has had many renowned scholars come through its doors both in the capacity of professor and student. It is extraordinary that the project came together, and even more so that it continued to thrive. Johnson and Mayer, as well as countless others put in a tremendous effort to keep this legacy alive. In some ways the historical moment and the questions that were being asked at the time about fascism, totalitarianism, religion, etc very much shape the way that this history is thought of. Gender at this moment was irrelevant and was no the life or death issue that other aspects of identity were. It is not necessarily shocking that there wasn’t an effort to extract the stories of the women, quite the contrary difference was not necessarily highlighted as something that should have been important. Rather, the politics of the time was to look at the equality of many instead of the particularity of a few.

Frieda Wunderlich was the only woman in the original University in Exile faculty and she eventually became the first woman Dean of the Social Research division. She was born in Berlin, Germany on November 8, 1884. She received her doctorate in economics from the University of Freiburg in 1919 and became a professor at the Handelshochschule in Berlin shortly after graduation.  While at the New School her interests were in the social problems of her time such as labor conditions and poverty, with a particular interest in how industrial economies influence the lives of women. At this time she was one of the only scholars looking at these issues. In 1939, she became the first woman in the United States to be elected as Dean of a graduate school when she was elected Dean of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New School. She was regarded as an excellent researcher and a personable professor. Dr. Wunderlich wrote a series of books on labor and social problems, eight of which were published in the United States and include: Labor under German Democracy (1940), Arbitration, 1918-1933 (1940), British Labor and the War (1941), German Labor Courts (1946), and Farm Labor in Germany, 1810-1945 (1961).  She remained Dean until she left the New School in 1954.

Dr. Wunderlich had a rich history of involvement in social issues before she left Germany.  During World War I she left her studies for the National Women’s Service with dealt with issues of public and private welfare work. She later was a judge in the German Supreme Court for Social Insurance. From 1923 to 1933, she edited the political journal Soziale Praxis and published numerous books and articles on social policy and economic theory. Elected on the German Democratic Party ticket, she served as a member of the Berlin City Council for eight years and in the Prussian Diet from 1930 to 1932. She was also involved in the Commission for Women’s Work of the International Labor Office. In 1933, having been dismissed from her academic position as both a Jew and a woman, Wunderlich decided to go into exile, resigning from the City Council upon her departure. One of the ways that the school honors the memory of Dr. Wunderlich is a scholarship was set up in her name for foreign students to assist them in their studies at the New School for Social Research.

Agnes de Lima is mentioned by Rutkoff and Scott. According to them, she was Alvin Johnson’s confident at this period (Rutkoff and Scott 1986, 92). Reading these lines, one could think that she was only a friend of Alvin Johnson, someone without any type of intervention either in the politics of education in the US or in the history of the New School. Nonetheless, when one starts looking at the life of this impressive woman and her involvement with the New School, one finds a story full of political activism, engagement to women’s issues and desire to spread out the project the New School represented. Born in 1887, in a conservative banking family, Agnes de Lima received her major in English from Vassar College. There, she had the opportunity to be taught by feminists such as Lucy Salmon and also to be introduced to the liberal reformist framework of the Progressive period. This experience allowed her to question and criticize her conservative family values, while moving towards a political active life marked by an involvement with feminist, educational, socialist and labor reform movements (Wallace; Wallace 1991).

After graduating from Vassar, in 1908, Agnes moved to New York, where she received her master’s degree in Social Work in 1912 and worked with “such progressive groups such as the Bureau of Municipal Research, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Public Education Association, and the Women’s Municipal League” (Wallace 1991, 73). All these activities deepened her involvement with issues of education and, in 1922, she started her career as a liberal journalist, writing for The Nation and The New Republic. She contributed to The New Republic during five years and it was probably in this period that she became connected to the group which had just founded the New School.

Agnes de Lima was, for sure, one of the most prominent figures in the field of Progressive education, exhibiting a long list of academic production in her curriculum. Among her published works, one can mention Democracy’s high school; Our enemy the child; The Little red school house; South of the Rio Grande; an experiment in international understanding; Modern schools for New York City, a report of the Education committee of the Woman’s municipal league of the City of New York and Night-working mothers in textile mills: Passaic, New Jersey. This last one was a report written by her, as the Research Secretary of the National Consumer’s League, condemning the textile manufacturers of Passiac, New Jersey, for employing mothers on the night shift, among other rights’ violations (Anon. 1920).

Despite the fact that Agnes was involved was the group which founded the New School since 1922 due to her contributions on the issue of progressive education to The New Republic, it was only in 1940 that she joined this institution, where she stayed until 1960. She worked here as director of public relations and made a great job in publicizing the school’s innovative programs and activities, contributing to its success and reputation (Wallace). Agnes de Lima was the great publicist of the New School. During the twenty years she devoted to the institution, she was writing and publishing the history of the school. If it was not for her great work, this history would not exist. She retired in 1960 and lived quietly in Greenwich Village until her death in 1974.

The women that we have described should be revered in the same manner of the men who are dominant in our founding stories. It is not a stretch to say that without the participation and support of these women, our school would not have enjoyed the longevity and prominence that it has since experienced. We want to open up the conversation about these women and explore how they can be incorporated into the story of this place in a symbolic and significant manner. We are now the storytellers.


Anon. 1920. Assail conditions in Passaic Mills. New York Times, December 16.
Rutkoff, Peter M., and William B. Scott. 1986. New School: A History of the New School for Social Research. Free Pr, May.
Wallace, James. Agnes de Lima (1887-1974). In Education Encyclopedia.
Wallace, James M. 1991. Liberal Journalism and American Education: 1914-1941. Rutgers University Press, July 1.

Clinton, Catherine, and Christine Lunardini. 2000. The Columbia Guide to American Women in the Nineteenth Century. 0th ed. Columbia University Press, June 15.
James, Edward T, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, and Radcliffe College. 1971. Notable American women, 1607-1950 : a biographical dictionary. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Levy, David W. 1985. Herbert Croly of the New Republic: The Life and Thought of an American Progressive. Princeton Univ Pr, February.
Maloff, Saul. 1979. History used and abused. New York Times, May 20.
Rosenberg, Rosalind. 2004. Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think about Sex and Politics. Columbia University Press, December.
Rutkoff, Peter M., and William B. Scott. 1986. New School: A History of the New School for Social Research. Free Pr, May.
Wallace, James. Agnes de Lima (1887-1974). In Education Encyclopedia.

M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives.  University Libraries / University at Albany / State University of New York.1400 Washington Avenue / Albany, New York 12222 / (518) 437-3935.
Jewish Women’s Archive.

A detailed account on Dorothy Straight’s support for the New Republic can be found in Hebert Croly of the new Republic: The life and though of an American progressive, by David W. Levy.

Information from the M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives

Information can be found in the Jewish Women’s Archive.