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A Purposeful Vision: Margaret Bailey Speer and Yenching University

A Woman's Place Abroad: Coming Into Her Own

Entering initially as Instructor of English, MBS did not realize how much opportunity she would have to ascend as her skills in various areas developed and came to be recognized by her colleagues. She was beloved by her students from early on,1 and actively tried to foster close contact between students and faculty members. However, she also found herself drawn to the administrative side of education—an unsurprising proclivity considering the history of leadership that she had already established in her early life. While she regretted that her new duties inevitably detracted from her teaching schedule, she found participation in various governing committees to be rewarding and she quickly gained the respect of her peers. So much so, in fact, that by the early thirties there was already talk amongst the faculty of tapping her to be the next dean of the women’s college.

MBS felt strongly that this would not be the right match, either for her or for the school.2 She was loath to give up the English classes that she so enjoyed, and she was also convinced that Yenching would be better served by a Chinese dean. For several years the topic comes up regularly in her letters: first with the impending departure of Alice B. Frame (dean at the time of her arrival), and then again after the unsuccessful installation of Miss Nettie Soo-Hoo, whose reluctance to stir conflict of any kind made her a completely ineffective leader.3 MBS took on the role hesitantly, first as acting dean,4 and then (when it became clear that no Chinese dean could be found) as full dean. Despite being thwarted by her own charismatic leadership skills and effective decision-making, she grew to be comfortable in her new capacity and occupied it until her departure from the school.5

Her success as leader of the Women’s College led to an offer of a position as Headmistress at the Shipley School,6 which she accepted shortly after her return to the United States.7

 

1. To get a sense of MBS’s students’ attachment to her, see the letter featured below from February 21, 1927.
2
. 2. “To my horror and in spite of my protests, instead of voting to continue with a committee for next year, they invited me to be dean.” June 5 1932

3. As explored on the previous page, MBS had trouble accepting the obsequious role that women were traditionally expected to occupy in Chinese society. She also noted that this cultural fixture was probably the main impediment to the search for a female Chinese dean, as native women who was comfortable in an authoritative position were hard to come by. For MBS’s thoughts on the topic, see the letter from August 7 1934 below.
4. “Well, the blow has fallen. I have to be acting dean of the women’s college for the next year at least.” May 20 1934
5. Years after her departure, the remaining Women’s College faculty sent MBS a letter begging for her return which demonstrates the strength of her leadership and the impact she had on the community. See the letter, dated January 18, 1947, featured on this page.
6
. The Shipley School is a prestigious coeducational day school located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, directly across the street from the campus of the College.

7
. Featured on this page find a letter from Katharine McBride, President of Bryn Mawr from 1942 – 1970, congratulating MBS on her new appointment.