Emily James Smith Putnam


Emily James Smith Putnam (née Smith) was a historian, author and educator who served as the first dean of Barnard College in New York City. Born in 1865 in Canandaigua, New York, Putnam graduated from Bryn Mawr College as part of the first class of 1889. She then attended Girton College, Cambridge, for two years – the first American woman to do so. From 1891 to 1893, she taught at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and followed this appointment with a yearlong fellowship in Greek at the University of Chicago.

In 1894, at just 29 years old, Putnam was appointed first dean of the recently established Barnard College. At that time, Barnard was considered the “women’s annex” of Columbia University. Her tenure was marked by a more equitable relationship with Columbia: Columbia professors were made more accessible to Barnard students, as were Columbia graduate courses, libraries and facilities. [1] During her deanship, Putnam also taught courses in Greek literature and philosophy.

In 1899 she married the publisher George H. Putnam. There was some debate among Barnard’s trustees about the novelty of a married female dean, though it was eventually accepted. [2] However, she offered her resignation a year later when she became pregnant.

Despite her resignation, Putnam remained active as an educator and scholar. From 1901 to 1904 Putnam served as president of the League for Political Education, and from 1901 to 1905 she was a trustee of Barnard. In 1910 she published her most notable work The Lady: Studies of Certain Significant Phases of Her History. The Lady was a major historical study of women in society, analyzing the figure of the lady of the ancient world to the mistresses of the American south. She resumed part-time lecturing at Barnard in 1914 in the history department and from 1920 taught in the department of Greek.

Putnam continued to publish her own research and translations while at Barnard. In 1926 she published Candaules’ Wife and Other Old Stories, a study of Herodotus. She also published translations of Selections from Lucian (1892), Émile Fauget’s Dread of Responsibility (1914), Marcel Berger’s The Secret of the Marne (1918), and Raymond Escholier’s The Illusion (1921). She retired from Barnard in 1930, the year her husband died.

Alongside her teaching and research commitments at Barnard, Putnam helped establish the New School for Social Research in 1919. Her involvement was perhaps due to the friendship she enjoyed with Columbia historian James Harvey Robinson, [3] who resigned from that university to join the New School’s founding faculty. Both Putnam and Robinson delivered two of the first seven lecture courses offered by the School. Putnam’s “Habit and History” was a course of twelve lectures offered Wednesday afternoons, from February through May 1919. The course description read:

The long predominance of habitual conduct over individual initiative in primitive society and in the early empires; the biological and social limitations which tend to foster habit and develop it beyond its proper sphere; the technique of habit-breaking inaugurated by the Greeks and becoming a characteristic of western society; an effort to appraise the amount of excessive and undesirable habit in thought and action generally connected with such concepts as nationalism, religion, the status of women, etc.

This lecture course was revisited in 2001 on the occasion of welcoming the New School’s new president Bob Kerrey. The Vera List Center organized a lecture series designed to revisit the School’s seven founding lecture courses, and reframe them for a new millennium. Robert Bellah, Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, said of Putnam’s lecture course [4]:

It is an interesting challenge, eighty-two years later, to try to understand what Mrs. James meant by that description and how to think about those issues today… Without being able to peruse her lectures in detail, I cannot be sure of all that she is implying. One might note that in her contrast between habit and individual initiative she privileges, as until recently we have been wont to do, the West as against the rest. This contrast, with its whiff of Orientalism, might serve to warn us that, although the contrast at the heart of her lecture series is still part of our common sense today, it, like the contrast between the West and the non-West, ought not be affirmed until subjected to a degree of critical suspicion.

Putnam went on to become a member of the New School’s board and is said to have “offered vital encouragement and counsel to its director, Alvin S. Johnson, during its uncertain early years.” [5] She continued to regularly lecture at the School between 1920 and 1932, details of which may be found in the New School’s catalogs.

Upon her retirement from higher education, Putnam lived with her sister in Spain until the Civil War forced them to leave in the mid-1930s. Both sisters then settled in Kingston Jamaica, where Putnam died in 1944.


[1] Turner, Edward T., Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds. Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 107.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bellah, Robert N., Habit and History, Ethical Perspectives, vol. 8, no. 3, 2001, p. 156.

[5] Turner, p. 107.


Barnard College. Web. 09 Nov 2014.