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Swoboda, Marian J.; Roberts, Audrey J. / They came to learn, they came to teach, they came to stay

Roberts, Audrey
Chapter 6: Helen C. White remembered,   pp. 43-47 ff.

Page 43

6. Helen C. White Remembered
by Audrey Roberts
Helen C. White was a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-
Madison from 1919 to 1956. She progressed from instructor to full professor
and was head of the English department for two terms. She was president of
the American Association of University Women for three terms, the first
woman president of the American Association of University Professors, a
novelist of reputation, a world renowned scholar, a fine teacher, a model
a myth to students and faculty.
In an effort to measure her effect, particularly on women students, I wrote
to twenty-four of her doctoral students. Half responded; some sent names
others to contact. These letters, almost all as reverential as the oral tradition
in Madison, attest to the woman's charisma. The question that I was most
terested in - how did being a woman affect her career - was integral in all
the responses, whether she was a feminist was often answered only obliquely,
but there was consensus that she would not have marched waving banners.
It is difficult to get beneath the surface to understand Helen White. As
one correspondent wrote, it is highly unlikely that graduate students saw
real Helen White. As Madeline Doran, her colleague, remarked, White had
different voices for the hats she wore: the voice of teacher was kind, gentle,
interested and tactful; the voice of colleague was sharp, concise and in-
tellectual; in committees, she was practical and concrete. Whatever voice
used, it is clear that she was a high achiever from her earliest days.
Helen White began life in New Haven, Connecticut, on 26 November
1896 as one of four children born to John and Mary (King) White. She
walked at ten months and talked at twelve months, giving early evidence of
precociousness and abundant energy. When she entered grammar school in
1902 she was already an avid reader. In 1909 she enrolled at Girls High
School in Boston where she was active in debate and could take any side of
question with equal vigor.' A photograph in the University of Wisconsin
Archives pictures her at this age, a tall slender girl with large serious
eyes and
long pigtails. Her intellectual brilliance sped her through Radcliffe College
three years - graduated with a B.A. in English, summa cum laude, Phi Beta
Kappa, and with the George B. Sohier prize for her bachelor's thesis.
Helen White arrived in Madison in 1919 as an instructor in the English
department. One former student recalls that William Ellery Leonard talked
how she had come to the university with her pale golden hair and china blue
eyes and charmed everyone with her intelligence and ability. In her second
year she was given the advanced composition course to teach and a
Shakespeare course, and she wrote to her mother that her students "tigered"
her (a sign of approval) at the end of her recitations. Her first major paper
Blake was delivered at the MLA in 1920 and she selected the poetry of Blake
as her dissertation topic. She completed her Ph.D. in 1924. In the eleven
years between 1925 and 1936 she rose from assistant professor to professor,
becoming the first woman to hold a full professorship in the College of Let-
ters and Science at the University of Wisconsin.

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