Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"All Women's Colleges Should Be Burned"

by Stephen J. Gertz

Alonzo B. See, elevator manufacturer and outspoken foe of higher education for women, who retired in 1930 as president of the A. B. See Elevator Company, which he founded in 1883, died last night at his home, 373 Clinton Avenue, Brooklyn, at the age of 94. Unknown to the general public, except that his name had been read by many elevator passengers, Mr. See became 'suddenly famous' to use the phrase of a New York Times editorial, when in 1922, in reply to a request from Adelphi College for funds, he replied that 'all women's colleges should be burned'" (New York Times, December 17, 1941).

That statement sparked a national controversy, causing many readers of The New York Times to “hit the ceiling faster than they ever ascended in one of the See elevators,” as the Times afterward quipped.

A collection of letters by Alonzo B. See, in his time America's most notorious misogynist-provocateur,  has come to market.

His original 1922 letter (leaked to the NY Times, and his copy included in the collection) to Adelphi College, a women's school in Brooklyn, NY, reads in part:

"If I had my way I would burn all the women's colleges in the country...of all the fool things in the world I think the college for women is the worst. When they graduate from the colleges they cannot write a decent hand. They know nothing about the English language. They cannot spell. They are utterly ignorant of the things they should know, and they have their brains twisted by studying psychology, logic and philosophy and a lot of other stuff not only useless but positively harmful - a lot of stuff which could have been concocted only in the diseased brains of college professors...nothing would be better for the girls that are now in colleges than to be taken out of the colleges and put to hard manual labor for at least a year, so that there might be put into their heads some little trace of sense..."

In the Foreword to Schools (NY: Privately Printed, 1928), See's out-of-this-world thesis on education in general and female education in particular, he declares: "We have a nation to save. To save the nation the children must be rescued from their mothers and from pedagogues, the women must be rescued from themselves, and men must rule their homes again."

Misogyny was as easy as A.B. See. 
Photo credit:

Moreover, "there should be an end to all this talk about the goodness of women. It does no good, and it is not true. Men are better than women. Men are more truthful than women. Men are not deceitful like women. Men are more honest than women. Men are not quarrelsome like women."

Furthermore, "fathers should watch over their girls, make them obey absolutely and make the girls wait on them in every particular - that is, bring them their slippers, get their hats and coats and wait on them in every other way."

This was red meat and carnivores of both sexes of all ages ate it up and spit it out in letters to the editor appearing in newspapers throughout the country.

At least one woman challenged him to a debate but he gave her the bum's rush, asserting that "I never discuss anything logical with women. They can talk straight for about five minutes and then they go off the handle. They haven't got the reasoning power a man has, and I wouldn't think of debating with any woman on any subject."

He was himself a compulsive writer of letters to the editor or anybody who'd listen. As an example, on November, 1926, according to the Times' obit, he was on the attack: "The schools injure the eyes, the nerves and the whole physical natures of the children, causing some to succumb to diseases they could have withstood if their health had not been undermined in the schools."

In a December 1922 letter to the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, See wrote, "women average about five ounces less less brain matter than the men, and the part they lack is the reasoning capacity."

In a 1925 letter to an admirer he stated, "A feminist is a woman with a feeble mind, whose brain cracked when she tried reason."

A dire influence upon The Little Rascals.

[Note to female readers: please holster your side-arms].

Newspaper readers who had come to enjoy See's over-the-top pronouncements even as they denounced them must have felt chagrined when they read in April, 1936 that See had "changed his mind about women."

What happened?

It seems that he held a dinner in his home to entertain fifteen women who had achieved prominence outside the house, husband, and children. To a goading Times reporter who cued him on the animosity he had aroused among women in the past, See replied:

"Well, that is all changed now. Up to tonight I still had that same opinion. But I changed it tonight."

For all the hoopla that accompanied his earlier declarations, this one was ignored by the media. As the Times wryly noted, "the attention given to this astonishing about-face was microscopic."

See's copies of the letters cited above are included in the collection along with many more. Some have been published or are publicly known; the majority have yet to be examined by scholars. This archive - over 100 letters -  is being offered for $4,500. It's a small price to pay for the fevered correspondence of a proto-cable TV bloviator whose targets also included trade unions, public education in general, immoral and degenerate Jazz age culture, the New York Chamber of Commerce, you name it. The hits just keep on comin'.

Photo credit: Chester Burger.

Alonzo B. See rests in Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, where the Virgin Mary keeps an eye on him with leg poised to kick him upside the head should he open his mouth in the great beyond and disrespect the women in charge.

Unless noted otherwise, images courtesy of Lorne Bair Rare Books, currently offering this collection, with our thanks.

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