Margaret Haughawout

Radio essay: 

"Femina ad FInitum" or "Woman to the End," from Haughawout's book, Sheep's Clothing. (1929)

In Margaret Haughawout’s poem “Echoes,” the speaker accuses a figure (probably a lover) of trying to come back from the past in order to “rob me of this peace / Ingrown, that makes of me a tame / Gray woman whom they pity thinking she / Has never lived.” In another poem, “Femina Ad Finitum,” the speaker complains that, “At times some catty dame / Suspects my virgin past.” Later in the same poem, however, she says, “Were it but known / I’ve lived too gay.”


Like the title of the book in which these poems appear—Sheep’s Clothing—much of the writing within contrasts external impressions with lived reality. Though the “tame gray woman” may not be Haughawout herself, the author’s preoccupation with this theme speaks to her deep-seated need to be perceived by others in the way she thought of herself: someone who lives life to the fullest.

It would have been easy for people who didn’t really know Margaret Haughawout to make snap judgments about her. She was a lifelong teacher, a career that for a woman often connoted dowdy sexlessness (many female teachers of the first part of the 20th century stopped teaching when they married); she probably didn’t help her cause by continually referring to herself, semi-ironically, as an “old maid.”

The basic outline of her life story, furthermore, isn’t exceptional. Born in 1874 in Fairmont, Nebraska, Haughawout attended Hastings College and got a master’s degree in English from the University of Nebraska. She then taught English at Alma College in Michigan and headed up a boarding school in suburban New York, returning to Nebraska for family obligations in 1919.

She was elected to be the County Superintendent of Schools before she made the final move of her career, to Pittsburg, Kansas, in 1923, to join the English faculty at what was then the Kansas State Teacher’s College.[1] ] Though Haughawout was ambitious in her career aspirations and highly educated for a woman of her time, by the time Sheep’s Clothing was published in 1929 she had settled enough into the rhythms of Midwestern college teaching to worry she was being underestimated.

Haughawout needn’t have been concerned, however, as most who had more than a passing acquaintance with her would hardly have called her conventional. At a time when several of the Pitt College administration were avowed Klan Members, she proudly joined the school’s Interracial Society and hosted its members at her house. Inspired by Gandhi’s feminist notion that women shouldn’t dress to please men, she had a men’s suit tailored to fit her and started wearing it to teach.[2] She had her students read contemporary modernist literature while the rest of the faculty stayed in the 19th century. Her insistence that James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence were worthy of study shocked some students and rankled the administration. When, after a 1933 sabbatical year, she returned to campus to find that she no longer had a job, she professed to not being surprised.[3] The Depression economy had made cutbacks at the Teachers College necessary, and the administration couldn’t afford to keep an eccentric, radical woman on the faculty, no matter how admired she was.

Her reputation as a teacher had in fact been substantial. “Maybe once in a student’s career…a teacher of the caliber of Miss Margaret E. Haughawout appears in the classroom, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, making the acquisition of knowledge a stimulating experience,” writes Patty Farris Kuhel.[4] Haughawout was known for demanding that students produce their best work, and she was a tireless champion of those seeking to make their way in the literary world. Her letters document her efforts to connect students with potential publishers and her delight upon their acceptance. She conceived of her students as characters and took great joy in harnessing their potential. “She’s so young and frank and has such possibilities and is so undeveloped,” Haughawout wrote to a friend of a student she described as “a fat, pugnacious Amy Lowell-like girl who is my greatest delight.”[5] In another letter, she confessed that, “I am never really bored in the classroom.”[6]

Carney Hall at Pittsburg State Teachers College

It is a testament to Haughawout’s charisma that her ability to bond with and inspire undergraduates didn’t diminish during the decade she was forced away from the classroom, subsisting instead on savings and the odd payment for publication. This was in large part because Haughawout had always conceived of education as extending beyond the college’s walls.
 

Years before creative writing workshops had become institutionalized at colleges across the country, Haughawout founded a weekly writing critique group she called the Monday Nighters. For decades current undergraduates, Pitt College alumni and other members of the community from truck drivers to homemakers would show up at 7:30 on Monday evenings to the gray house with the green lantern swinging on the porch. Over cucumber sandwiches, cheese and nuts the group would read their writing out loud and give each other feedback. Haughawout liked to be in charge, but she also believed students learned best from each other and that she, too, could learn from the many of those she regularly claimed were better thinkers than she.[7]

Feb. 10, 1926 letter to a former student explaining a woman's mind.

She kept in touch with her students who moved away from Kansas, once demanding a stalled poet, John Reinecke, mail her an original poem every week to keep in the habit of writing.[8] She took special delight in being published in the same issues of literary journals as her students. Haughawout’s poem, “Hattie in Greenwich Village” appeared in the same issue of Prairie Schooner (Winter 1931) as a poem from a regular Monday Nighter, Ruth Estelle Shriver. Haughawout’s poem is a withering character sketch of a woman trying to be the Bohemian she is not, while Shriver’s poem “Mutant” comprises two ethereal, moody stanzas ending with the image of a dead boy floating in a swamp.
 

“One of the best ways of condensing a story…is by seeing it through a lyrical moment or a moment of strong feeling,” Haughawout wrote.[9] Many of her best poems do just that, extending an image or idea along the rigid structure of a sonnet or set of quatrains, only switch tonal courses towards the end of the poem. In “Spiderwort,” for example, the speaker reminiscences about her father: “He left us hungry, chased some wan, wild goose; / But told me names of shepherd’s purse in spring…” (Sheep's Clothing, 26)

Pittsburg State yearbook photo of Haughawout in her suit, 1931.

Haughawout went back to teaching on a former student's (now department faculty member) recommendation in 1945 at age 71, then retired for good in 1951. She wrote feminist stories and essays under pseudonyms but never published another book.
 

It’s probable that Haughawout was onto something when she talked about being underestimated, but it wasn’t because others thought her conventional. Rather, like so many women teachers, her nurturing affect overtook her intellectual reputation. Even in the years directly before her death in 1964 she was receiving as many as a dozen visitors a day.[10]

She never ceased finding the excitement in her Midwestern, settled, “old maid” life. As she wrote to John Reinecke after they had both complained of having nothing to do, “Everything is interesting. So is it to you. We both bluff as usual.”[11]

 


References


[1] MEH: Blazing trails in an era when few women dared," Pittsburg Morning Sun, March 24, 2001: 1.

[2] Patty Farris Kuhel, “No Prissy Saint…No Vamp: The Diaries and Correspondence of Margaret E. haughawout,” The Little Balkans Review, (Spring 1984) 1-12.

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Letter from Margaret Haughawout to John Reinecke, June 14, 1926. Margaret E. Haughawout Collection, Leonard H. Axe Library, Pittsburg State University.

[6] Undated, Letter from Margaret Haughawout to recipient unknown. MEH Collection.

[7] Randy Kyle Peterson, “Margaret E. Haughawout and the Monday Nighters,” November 11, 1975. Self-published article, MEH Collection.

[8] Letter from Margaret Haughawout to John Reinecke, June 1926. MEH Collection.

[9] Margaret Haughawout, A Writer's Supplement to Pittsburg College Verse, 1924-1930 (Pittsburg, KS: College Inn Book Store, [n.d.]): 40.

[10] Pittsburg Morning Sun, March 24, 2001.

[11] Letter from Margaret Haughawout to John Reinecke, 1928. MEH Collection.