Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mabel Pollitzer, September 19, 1973. Interview G-0047-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Teaching at an all-girls' school

Pollitzer describes how she acquired her teaching job at her alma mater, Memminger High School. Pollitzer graduated from Memminger during the early twentieth century and went to study biology and education at Columbia University. At the time, the principal at Memminger told her a teaching job would be waiting for her if she wanted it when she finished college. Pollitzer returned to Memminger in 1906, after turning down several job offers, with the goal to broaden horizons of her new female pupils. Although she argues that she was not yet interested in women's rights, nor did she necessarily link her teaching to her impending social activism, she did see it as her mission to encourage her female students to want and expect more from life.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mabel Pollitzer, September 19, 1973. Interview G-0047-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

CONSTANCE MYERS:
Were you already teaching when you became active in the suffrage movement?
MABEL POLLITZER:
I graduated from Columbia University in 1906. Before I graduated I had this precious letter from my principal, whom I adored, I venerated, I venerate his memory. Maybe I told you that I was still a senior in high school——or then it was high and normal. So I was a senior really in the second year of the normal school when he said to me "Miss Mabel, no biology is taught in South Carolina. When you graduate I want you to come back here and I want you to be on my faculty." His name was William Knox Tate, one of the grandest men that ever lived. Six feet four. Beautifully proportioned. And as he stood in front of me, maybe about two months before I graduated, his first question was "Miss Mabel, are you sure you're going to college?" I said "Definitely." "Where?" "Columbia University. I'm going to register at Teachers College." He said "Then I appoint you right now to be on our faculty." I said "Mr. Tate, that is a wonderful thing. I know you mean it and I'm happy to accept." Then he said "Now you will have very big offers before you graduate from Columbia. Don't feel because I've asked you that you will be impelled to return to Memminger. But I want you." I did have very big offers. The first position for which I was asked was to teach laboratory work at the University of Pennsylvania. It wasn't a temptation for me. No. I knew Mr. Tate. I really revered him. He was so wonderful. I cannot tell you just all in all what he was to me. But such an ideal teacher. So understanding. Well, I turned to Dr. Henry Crampton, a professor who asked me . . . I was also going to Barnard College . . . and he said "Miss Mabel, you don't mean you are refusing this position where they will need you at the University of Pennsylvania?" I said "I thank you, Dr. Crampton, I prefer to teach at Memminger High and Normal School." He said "And where is that?" I told him in Charleston, South Carolina. "I've never heard of it." I said "But you will hear of it. We have a great teacher, Professor Tate, who invited me to teach when I was still a senior. I want that position." He said "And you're sure of it?" "Definitely." I had other positions offered to me. Everything was turned down for the sake of Memminger. And in the final letter that Mr. Tate wrote to me, he said "Remember, we're going to give you the top salary in Charleston. As a beginner, it can not be anymore than $500 a year. If he had said five cents a year, I would have said all right. It was to be associated with him. It was so wonderful. I know he thought much of me, I know that. But it was just so wonderful to have his guidance. So of course, when you asked about my beginning my work as a teacher, it was in the autumn of 1906. The first class that graduated . . . to that class I would say I had taught nature study. Because these girls would grow up and not know a thing. They didn't know an oak from an elm. They didn't know anything about birds. They didn't know anything about the germination of seeds or plants. And being a normal school at that time, many of them were going to be teachers. Some of the girls were older than I.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
You taught a combination of botany and biology and . . .
MABEL POLLITZER:
Botany was in the lowest class. Zoology was in the third year. Zoology and physiology.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
And you taught them all?
MABEL POLLITZER:
My classes were very large. The first year we had no laboratory. Mr. Tate the Principal wanted me to plan my laboratory. He was so wonderfully understanding. He realized that the greater responsibility a person had, if he had any brains at all, he would rise to the occasion and act in a worthwhile way. So he said "Miss Mabel, for the first year you are teaching, it will be in a small classroom." Well, we had long tables and many chairs. The teaching was under the most adverse conditions. But I was there to inspire the girls to want more. He had always said a teacher's work could end if the girls were so interested that they would get for themselves more and more. Then you can not stop them. And I felt that was my mission. To get them to say they wanted more and more.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
I wonder if you became interested in the position of women as a result of being mentor to so many young women. If you became eager for the cause of their betterment.
MABEL POLLITZER:
At that time . . . you see, this was 1906 as I say, I started teaching at high school and normal school. I don't believe I ever gave it a thought really. My thought was on my girls.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
But don't you think your experiences with them were planting little seeds that would later germinate?
MABEL POLLITZER:
I can't say, really. I was terribly involved in many things. I had wonderful notebooks. The drawing was perfectly marvelous that these girls did. Their sketches, their desire to excell. And later on I became president of our Memminger teacher's association. Later on I was president of the county teachers association. I wrote more than the equivalent of a chapter in a manual published by the State Department of Education. It was a syllubus for the teaching of the various subjects in South Carolina high schools. I was so deeply involved in everything, I really at that time don't believe I ever thought of Woman's Rights.