Newsletter #19 (Fall 1998)

Claverack College

Since we discussed Margaret Sanger's informal, adult education in the preceding article on the Modern School, it seemed relevant to briefly describe her formal education, completed just about 100 years ago.

In 1895, at the age of 16, Margaret Higgins left her home in Corning, NY, to begin a three-year term at Claverack College and Hudson River Institute located in the Catskill mountains near the town of Hudson, NY. She had expressed an interest in medicine, and a good preparatory school presented the best means of completing the first step toward a goal of attending Cornell University and possibly the medical school. Founded in 1854, Claverack College was a respected coeducational institution and successful stepping stone to a university education. Its 1889 brochure read: "The design of this institution is to afford facilities for thorough and systematic education to young men and women, and at the same time furnish them a comfortable, cultured christian home." (Sanger Papers – Unfilmed Portion – Sophia Smith Collection, Box 17, Folder 8)

It was, however, unusual for those with limited means such as the Higgins' to send a daughter to a preparatory school; most Corning families supplied the Corning Glass Works with factory workers and wives of factory workers. But Margaret's older sisters, Anna and Mary, working as a secretary and domestic worker respectively, were able to save enough money to pay Margaret's tuition. Claverack gave Sanger her only formal education and proved to be a socially and intellectually liberating experience.

Sanger quickly formed some close friendships at Claverack and became particularly fond of an elegant New York City girl, Esther Farquharson, who aspired to be an actress and left after a year to pursue her dreams. Following Esther's lead, Sanger briefly considered leaving Claverack to become an actress – even preparing an application and photographs for an acting school in New York City and then dismissing the idea upon receiving a request for her measurements. (Autobiography, pp.37- 38.) While at Claverack, Margaret also met and entered into a secret engagement with fellow student Corey Albertson, who outmaneuvered other suitors until William Sanger came into the picture in 1902.

Amelia Stewart Michell, another fellow student who followed Sanger from Claverack to nursing school, remembered Margaret as "one of the most popular girls in school; I would be inclined to say the most popular with both the girls and the boys . . . How proficient she was. She could sew as well as cook . . . dance divinely; excel in her classes without becoming a bookworm." She added that Sanger was a voracious reader but showed no signs of interest in "radical ideas." (quoted in Hersey, p. 61) Sanger recalled herself in those years as a bit of a rabble-rouser and a burgeoning suffragist, writing an essay on women's rights and taking a strong stand for suffrage in discussions and formal debates. (Autobiography, p. 38)

Unfortunately, her sisters were only able to pay the Claverack tuition for two years, forcing Margaret to try a vocation. In 1898, she took a position in a southern New Jersey public school teaching English to foreign-born first graders. By her own admission she was not "suited by temperament" to the teaching profession, and family circumstances soon intervened to disrupt any thoughts she may have had of remaining at the school. With the news that her mother's consumption had worsened, Margaret Sanger returned to Corning to nurse her mother and attend to household duties. Following her mother's death in 1899, Sanger arranged through the family of Esther Farquharson to be admitted as a probationer into the newly established nurse's training program at the White Plains Hospital in White Plains, NY. Margaret Sanger never graduated from Claverack, but she later wrote that "Going away to school was epochal in my life." (Autobiography, p. 35)