Clara B. Spence: Ahead of Her Time

This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.

Educator, women’s and civil rights advocate, adoption pioneer and civic leader Clara B. Spence (1862-1923) is an important, overlooked woman who was a major player in the political, educational, business and social arenas in Gilded Age New York. She was a contemporary of some of the most famous women in American history, including Helen Keller and Edith Wharton, both of whom she knew personally. Yet, it is rare for Clara to show up on lists of notable American women.

Even more surprising is the fact that Clara lived her life as she chose: an unmarried woman who lived openly with another woman and their children for her entire adult life. Clara and her partner and fellow educator, Charlotte Baker, adopted four children, making them a century ago one of the first single-sex adoptive families. But only recently, for Women’s History Month in March 2014, did the adoption agency that Clara founded issue a press release describing Clara and Charlotte as “partners” in a “single-sex adoption family”:

In January 1909, the White House Conference on Dependent Children adopted 14 resolutions all aimed at replacing the institutional method of child care with home care. The next month Clara personally adopted a one-year-old girl from the Children’s Aid Society. The judge had no objection to her application even though she was a single parent nearing the age of 50. Six years later in 1915, Clara adopted a little boy. Her partner, Charlotte Baker, adopted a girl in 1911 and a boy in 1914, completing what was one of the first single-sex adoption families.

It is through this highly regarded, century-old agency, now called Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children, that my late husband Gregory Clement and I adopted a baby girl in China in December 1994, so Clara has a special place in my heart.

Clara was indeed a woman ahead of her time. Born into a middle-class family in Albany, New York in 1862, by the time she was 30 she had gotten a degree in oratory from Boston University, gone to London to study Shakespeare, played leading ladies at the Madison Square Theater in New York City, and started the school for girls on East 91st Street in New York City that still bears her name.

Clara was also subject to many of the constraints society placed on women. According to Lillian Faderman in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, between 1880 and 1900, about 50 percent of American college-educated women chose not to marry, while only 10 percent of American women in general remained single. Women like Clara didn’t marry because most men at that time were afraid of educated women. These women preferred to find “kindred spirits,” as Clara found in Charlotte, other women who shared their dreams of careers, often as teachers, one of the few respected professions open to women. Married women were expected to devote their lives to being wives and mothers.

Same-sex households such as the one Clara shared with Charlotte were often called “Boston marriages” in the East where they were quite common. (This term is taken from Henry James’s 1886 novel, The Bostonians.) No one knows if these relationships were sexual, but they were surely love relationships. In Clara’s era, they were called “romantic friendships.”

Ruth Baker Gamble, the adopted daughter of Charlotte, recalled the day in May 1897 that Charlotte and Clara first met:

This meeting was remembered with great vividness by Miss Baker as Miss Spence came forth to meet her carrying a large armful of American Beauty roses. Her penetrating and sparkling blue eyes and a purposeful walk dramatically impressed Miss Baker, and so these two remarkable ladies met.

Together, Clara and Charlotte ran the Spence School, living with their children in an apartment on the fifth floor of the school’s building at 26 West 55th starting in 1900. Clara spent summers at The Willows in Bar Harbor, Maine, the home that Charlotte built in 1913.

Clara and Charlotte shared a passion for progressive education for women in a period when women’s education lagged behind men’s. They developed a challenging and comprehensive curriculum that stressed the importance of civic responsibility. She told her students, “It is for you to make it your glory to prove that women are as capable of these public virtues as men.”

As Clara’s reputation as an educator grew, so, too, did her influence. She served on many boards (often one of just a handful of women), including the American Museum of Natural History, Barnard College, the Oratorio Society and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Firmly committed to women’s rights, she marched with her friend Harriot Stanton Blatch in the suffrage parade down Fifth Avenue in 1913 to promote equal opportunity for women.

Clara believed in exposing her students to the major artists, writers, leaders and thinkers of the era, especially the women. She hired Isadora Duncan, a bisexual and a communist, to teach interpretive dance to her students, had her friend Edith Wharton lecture and invited Helen Keller to talk through her interpreter, Anne Sullivan. Ruth Draper, who attended Spence for a year, was Clara’s good friend, and she gave her pioneering monologues at the school.

When Booker T. Washington came to New York City to raise money for the Tuskegee Institute, which he founded in 1881 in Tuskegee, Alabama, to educate black teachers, he spoke at his friend Clara’s school and stuck around to dine with the girls. The young writer Aldous Huxley and his evolutionary biologist brother Julius came to dinner when they were visiting New York City.

Called “frighteningly adorable” by one of her students, Clara was known to kick up her heels and dance the Highland Fling of her native Scotland. At her funeral at Town Hall in New York City on November 22, 1923, steel magnate Charles Schwab, who had served on several boards with Clara, stated that “industry and finance have missed a great character in our beloved Miss Spence,” and admitted that of all the people he had known on boards, it was Clara whose judgment he valued the most, because her “motive was so whole-souled and unprejudiced and so for the good of the organizations.” He concluded with these words: “She was a noble woman. She was a splendid woman.”

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Photo courtesy of Spence-Chapin Adoption Services


Elizabeth Titus has been a journalist, an English teacher, an advertising executive, a communications director (15 years at American Express in New York City), and a freelance writer and communications consultant. Her work has appeared in publications including Narrative, The Humanist, and Women’s Voices Now. She volunteers with groups that support the education of Afghan and Indian girls and women and has sponsored an Afghan woman in the U.S. through high school and college. She is also an active volunteer with PennPAC, working with other graduates of the University of Pennsylvania who donate their time to nonprofits. She was connected with Days for Girls via Catchafire, a digital platform that "strengthens the social good sector by matching professionals who want to donate their time with nonprofits who need their skills.