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Ethel Puffer Howes papers

Identifier: CA-MS-01031

Content Description

Includes correspondence as an undergraduate at Smith College, Class of 1891; correspondence as faculty member at Smith 1892-1895 (mathematics) and throughout her career; publications from her professional career and other members of her family; family history materials; photographs; research files of Candace Howes related to Ethel Puffer Howes.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1863-1982


Language of Materials

English, French

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that she owns copyright, Howes has assigned the copyright in her works to Smith College; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Howes, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Director of the Institute for the Coordination of Women's Interests at Smith College, Ethel Dench Puffer Howes was born in 1872 to a family that encouraged girls' education; her mother was a schoolteacher, and she and her three sisters all attended Smith College. Ethel Puffer graduated in 1891, but stayed at Smith to teach mathematics for the next three years. In 1895, she travelled to Germany to study psychology under Hugo Müsterberg. They formed a close relationship, and Müsterberg was impressed with Howes's studies on aesthetics and the psychology of beauty. She followed him back to Harvard, where she continued to study under him until earning her doctorate from Radcliffe College in 1902.

Howes spent the next several years working at Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Simmons Colleges, publishing numerous articles and one book, The Psychology of Beauty. Her work came to a halt when she married Benjamin Howes; although he supported her professional career, many moves and the birth of two children kept her out of the workforce.

Frustrated by this professional dead end, Howes turned to feminist activism. She became the Executive Secretary of the National College Equal Suffrage League in 1914, and assisted in organizing the Women's Land Army during World War I. Still frustrated with having to end her academic career to have children, Howes published two artciles in Atlantic Monthly discussing the inability of women to combine marriage and a career. She believed women were being misled about what they could expect from marriage, and rejected the "home-use" theory that women could sufficiently exercise their talents in running a household. She proposed women achieve continuity in their lives by choosing flexible careers that allowed them to work while balancing home life.

As a result of her articles, Howes was appointed director of the Institute for the Coordination of Women's Interests at Smith College in 1925. She continued to experience the difficulties of combining a career and home life, as she was forced to commute weekly from her home near New York City. Despite difficulties, the Institute flourished as a think tank for experts in a variety of fields seeking to influence the social structures that kept women away from careers by surveying Smith alumnae who had successfully integrated home and professional concerns, and working within the cooperative movement to develop a cooperative nursery school and a food service which delivered ready-made hot meals. However, the grant that funded the Institute was not renewed after three years; those providing the grant had expected more theory, and Smith faculty saw the Institute's work as controversial and a divergence from Smith's liberal arts emphasis. On a larger scale, cooperative movements similar to the one Howes built at the Institute were dismantled by the energized manufacturing sector (which promoted buying appliances as the best solution to home labor) and the post-war Red Scare, which targeted cooperatives, labor unions, and feminist organizations. In a sad irony, Howes was forced to return to non-academic pursuits, her life becoming the perfect example of the choices she disagreed with women being forced to make.

Howes and her husband moved to Washington, D.C., following the dissolution of the Institute, and back to Connecticut in the 1940s to live with their son, Benjamin. Howes died in 1950 at the age of 78, survived by her son, daughter Ellen, and husband.


1.313 linear feet (3 containers)


Ethel Dench Puffer Howes (Smith College, Class of 1891) was an educator, physchologist, and active participant in the women's rights movement of the 1910s-1930s. Working as the director of the Institute for the Coordination of Women's Interests at Smith College, she advocated for women's ability to balance marriage and a career. These papers include correspondence, published articles, photographs, and biographical information on Howes and her family, all compiled by granddaughter Candace Howes.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Materials donated by granddaughter, Candace Howes and transported to Smith College via Dorothy Sue Cobble in July 2018.

Related Materials

Other materials related to Ethel Puffer Howes can be found in the Institute for the Coordination of Women's Interests materials (RG 60.GW)

Finding aid to the Ethel Puffer Howes papers
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Repository Details

Part of the Smith College Archives Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063