May Lansfield Keller is one of those amazing women who were born before the invention of most things that today’s college women take for granted. From her successful attempt to earn a German Ph.D., to her insistence that Westhampton College be more than a finishing school, she dedicated her life to providing equal educational opportunities for women. She fought for what she believed in. As a soldier in the field, she did not seek the limelight. Few outside of Richmond, Virginia, know of her. Yet, her story is a fascinating one.
In 1904, she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg and was the first American woman to earn a doctorate in German philology from that institution. After her return from Germany she taught at Wells College and Goucher College. She was tapped to be the founding dean at Westhampton College when it opened in 1914 as the female coordinate of the University of Richmond. She was adamant about providing her students with the highest of academic standards. She was nicknamed the “Iron Dean.”
Miss Keller, as she preferred to be called, was well aware of the findings of the Southern Association of College Women (SACW), an organization founded in Knoxville, Tennessee in the summer of 1903. At that time there were more than 140 institutions in the south that considered themselves colleges for women, but only two offered four years of academic work.
She served as president of the SACW from 1910-14. In discussing the history of the organization, which in 1921 merged with the Association of Collegiate Alumnae and became the American Association of University Women, she said “We did nothing spectacular. It was hard, often unpleasant work, this standing up for high standards against local prejudice and even pressure from unexpected places, but there was…the determination to improve the secondary school and to further in every way possible the higher education for women in the South. To this we pledged ourselves and for this we worked, shoulder to shoulder, for the cause of the educational policy in which we believed.”*
Miss Keller remained loyal to Goucher College and Pi Beta Phi; she was a charter member of its Maryland Alpha Chapter. She served as Pi Beta Phi’s Grand President for 10 years and after her term was over she was elected Grand President Emerita. To read more about Dr. May Lansfield Keller, please visit the Pi Beta Phi blog and read the post I wrote about her life as a Pi Phi.
* Talbot and Rosenberry. History of AAUW, 1931, p. 62.
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