College of Wooster Winter 2012 : Page 28

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Reconstructing Annie

ON January 28, 1886, Professor Annie B. Irish canceled her German classes in order to care for her younger sister, Mamie, who had suddenly fallen ill with scarlet fever. It was the last her students would see her. Two weeks later, Annie was dead, a victim of the disease that soon also claimed Mamie.<br /> <br /> In Annie, Wooster lost its first female faculty member, first Ph.D. recipient, and one of its most dynamic advocates for equal education for women. The world was also robbed of Annie’s unpublished dissertation, lost in a fire that destroyed the Irish home after the sisters’ deaths. Annie was 28 years old.<br /> <br /> Annie’s death sparked an outpouring of emotion from the College community. Remembrances mourned the loss of Annie’s sweet and unassuming presence. In his chapel speech, President Scovel emphasized her “exquisite sense of propriety,” her “constancy in self-control,” and her “nature so refined by grace that the sources of disagreeable words…seemed to have been eliminated.” One faculty member wrote, “Her presence and counsel among the young women in our halls produced imperishable impression for good.”<br /> <br /> This was the Annie remembered by those who knew her then—a kind, caring and compliant young woman who worked tirelessly to pursue her dreams, yet never dared overstep the boundaries of propriety. But this perception of her enigmatic character only scratches the surface of who she really was. Glimpses of a more complex Annie Irish would not come until much later.<br /> <br /> THE SEARCH FOR ANNIE<br /> <br /> IN the early 1990s,Wendy Barlow ’74 set out to uncover the history of theWomen’s Advisory Board at the College. Through her search, she stumbled across a diary Annie kept during the years just prior to her arrival atWooster. Finally, we had access to the girl behind the humble façade. The Annie we find in her diary was witty, critical, and sometimes downright sarcastic. She was at times bored by her work, frustrated with her family, and fatigued by her constant stream of obligatory social engagements.<br /> <br /> She was human. Annie’s diary provides us with a more textured view of her personality, one that questioned the status quo of the day and the very institutions she served.<br /> <br /> Annie was born in 1857 in Nebraska City, Neb. Her father, O. H. Irish, was a diplomat, and his work took the family overseas, where they lived in Germany and France. These were Annie’s early teenage years, and they proved to be a formative time. Annie returned to America fluent in both German and French and determined to master both of their literatures. But the need to help support her family led her to work rather than study. The family moved toWashington, D.C., where Annie found work as personal secretary to Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, a position that had previously been held only by men (she brushed off rumors of a love affair between herself and the Secretary). Annie’s talents allowed her to stretch the boundaries of her first position; she was soon translating state documents and Rubbing shoulders withWashington’s elite.<br /> <br /> During this period, Annie began her diary—a gift from her father—that reveals the woman behind the diligent secretary and the dutiful daughter. Annie’s occupation meant that she was often in contact with current and former U.S. presidents, high-ranking government officials, and foreign correspondents (with whom, of course, she could converse in their native tongues). Yet the soft-spoken girl from Nebraska was far from star-struck by these engagements. Annie’s diary wearily chronicles her endless social responsibilities. “Still they came,” she writes, “short men, tall men, thin men, fat men, men with brains and men without— Army and Navy officers, Justices of the court, senators, House members, officials, lawyers, and citizens without a shadow of a title . . . The weather seems to be the most fertile topic of conversation, and is murdered often.” She writes in exasperation at the “supremely ludicrous” fashion statements made by her peers, the obligation to offer false praise for another’s dreadful paintings (“landscapes in every degree of badness”), and even glimpses into personal quarrels in Congress. Annie may have had an “exquisite sense of propriety” on the outside, but when no one was listening, she showed how she really felt.<br /> <br /> AN ADVOCATE FORWOOSTER’SWOMEN<br /> <br /> IN 1881, University ofWooster president Archibald Taylor invited Annie to campus to give a lecture on French literature. Interestingly, Annie’s diary reveals that it was during this 10-day visit that she first recognizedWooster’s need to increase its support for women, relating a conversation she had with a female student: “She lamented that there was no one here to advise the girls, to tell them kindly when they were doing unwise things and set them straight. I don’t know just what to think of the situation here. Something is needed to make co-education a success.”<br /> <br /> It wouldn’t be long before Annie became a leader in these efforts. After returning to Washington, she was admitted to Johns Hopkins University as a “special student” (at the time, the university didn’t enroll women). That summer, at age 24, she accepted a position as professor of German language and literature at the University of Wooster. Persistent illness dampened Annie’s excitement about the honor (“I look upon it with fear and trembling,” her diary read the following week), but Dr. Taylor seemed highly confident that Annie was right for Wooster.<br /> <br /> Here, the window into Annie’s inner musings is closed to us, as she threw herself into her work. Her last diary entry was written the fall before she began teaching at Wooster. She completed her studies in German and Anglo-Saxon the following year and was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Wooster, making her the first student to receive the honor (although no one ever called her “Dr. Irish”). Annie’s German classes became some of the most popular at the College and she soon was named chair of the modern languages department.<br /> <br /> Annie continued to advocate for female students at Wooster. In 1883, she published an “Appeal to the Presbyterian Women of Ohio,” calling for funding for the creation of “cottages” to house university women. “Gathered into cottage families,” Annie wrote, “our young women would find themselves surrounded by the essential elements of home.” Annie and other early members of the Women’s Educational Association (predecessor of the Women’s Advisory Board) worked tirelessly to raise money for the fund, even setting up a lemonade stand one year during commencement. But Annie would never see women’s cottages become a Reality; the doors of Hoover Cottage did not open until 10 years after her death.<br /> <br /> A SPIRITTHATLIVESON<br /> <br /> Her personality and life are so intriguing that it’s no surprise we keep trying, more than a century later, to make sense of Annie. Christen Campbell Hall ’87 transcribed Annie’s diary for her Independent Study, bringing Annie’s sometimes-illegible writings to light.Wendy Barlow’s in-depth pursuit of Annie gave us the original diary, and Barlow later wrote a play honoring Annie and other “spirits” of theWomen’s Advisory Board’s past. Annie’s portrait, painted to hang in Hoover Cottage, was discovered in storage in Severance Gymnasium. It now watches over students in the entryway of Timken Science Library. Barlow and Professor of History Karen Taylor wrote a piece for Wooster magazine in 1992 discussing the way Annie defied 19th-century’s conceptions of womanhood.<br /> <br /> We have mythologized her character, interpreted, and reinterpreted her life and work. Yet each of these reconstructions is incomplete. As her diary shows us, Annie was not always the person she outwardly seemed to be. The diary gives us a fleeting glimpse, but it, too, is fragmentary. The true Annie we will never fully know.

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