Sociology Department History

Early Sociologist at Grinnell Was a Radical Socialist

by Susan J. Ferguson and Katie Mears '13

The Sociology Department at Grinnell College has a fascinating history that parallels the development of the discipline across the United States. The early history of sociology at Grinnell also is significant because of a very intriguing scholar and social activist, Laetitia Moon Conard.

Like many small liberal arts colleges, Grinnell developed the discipline of sociology as a subset of courses in another department. On many campuses, sociology and anthropology were joined, or sociology was a sub-discipline of economics, sometimes referred to as social economics. The first sociology courses at Grinnell were taught in the fall of 1913 when the Economics Department began to offer courses in sociology. By 1919, the Economics Department offered a sociology minor which included the following courses: Outlines of Sociology, Social Development of England and the United States, Problems of Social Work, Charities and Correction, Rural Sociology, Labor Problems, Statistics, Social Reform, Social Origins and Evolution, Social Forces, and some Applied Christianity courses. The impetus for this curricular change in economics is unclear, but we do know that the first courses in sociology were often taught by women, including Laetitia Moon Conard. In the fall of 1935, sociology became a major separate from the Economics Department. The College hired one professor, William Boorman, to lead the new department, but many of the classes were still taught by Dr. Conard, who had the status as a “special lecturer” and she taught the two courses “Social Control” and “Social Origins.” At this time the sociology major required the following courses:  Introduction to Sociology, Personality and Social Adjustment, Community Organization, Utilization of Leisure Time, Social Origins, Social Control, Urban and Rural Sociology, The Family, Delinquency and Crime, and Contemporary Sociological Theory.

Who was Laetitia Conard? Who was this woman who began teaching sociology courses when she was nearly 60 years old even though her academic training was in comparative religions? Who was this woman, raised as a Quaker, who later ran for Iowa governor on the Socialist Party ticket in 1932, the only woman on the ballot? Conard clearly was a unique woman for her time not only because of her advanced education and her political beliefs, but because she came to embrace a new academic discipline late in her life, sociology, and she worked to ensure that a sociology major and department were established at Grinnell College. Conard also stood out at a particular moment in the College’s history when most faculty and trustees had turned away from Grinnell’s social gospel progressive past. As Professor Emeritus of History Al Jones said in an interview, Conard was that time period’s only “real radical faculty member.”1  Thus, Conard may not have been hired to be the first professor of Grinnell’s Sociology Department, but she was the first sociologist committed to social justice to teach here.

Elizabeth Laetitia Moon (Conard) was born on May 9, 1871 in Fallsington, Pennsylvania, five miles west of Trenton, New Jersey, to devoutly Quaker parents. She grew up in an isolated environment in which education was valued highly, even for women, and as a teenager, she attended an all-girls boarding school outside Philadelphia, the Westtown Friends Boarding School. She then attended Smith College, earning both a bachelor's and a master's degree. Those who met Conard at Smith knew her as a very "sweet, demure" young woman, one who came to college in a Quaker bonnet and used the Quaker "thee" and "thou" in her speech.2

Immediately after graduating from Smith with her master’s degree in 1897, Conard left for Paris to study at the Sorbonne. During her year there, she began work on a dissertation in Comparative Religions from the University of Chicago that examined the ideas of God and a future life among the Algonquians. After returning to Chicago, she finished the doctoral program in 1899, one of only 25 students or so that received their doctoral degrees from the school that year. The Ph.D. requirements included extensive research and the candidate had to speak French, German, and English. It is impossible to find out what exactly Conard did while living in Chicago, but at the turn of the century, the city was at the forefront of progressive social reform. Chicago's universities relied heavily on the social programs based in the city, such as its settlement houses, for their curricular work, especially in "women's" fields, like social work. Moreover, the University of Chicago also was the home of the Chicago School, the distinguished sociology program of the time that emphasized ethnographic field work studying the lives of immigrants and the poor in their own environments. Based on her later work, it appears that Conard must have been influenced by these social forces, and she possibly met many of the women leading these progressive social movements in Chicago and the clientele that they served.

After her graduation, Conard moved back to Philadelphia where she had attended high school. In April 1900, she married Henry S. Conard, a graduate student in botany at the University of Pennsylvania. Henry, a studious young man three years her junior, was in the midst of a decade long study of water lilies. His family members also were Quakers from Philadelphia, and it seems likely that the couple met there. The Conards lived in Philadelphia for almost five years remaining childless and working on their own projects: Henry worked on another book about water lilies, and Laetitia worked on social projects with the Charity Organization Society and the Association of College Alumnae.

The graduate education that Laetitia Conard attained placed her in a very unique position for a woman at the turn of the century. Only 3.5 percent of U.S. women graduated from high school in 1890, let alone earned college or post-graduate degrees.3 Since so few women had received graduate degrees when Conard was going through school, the men running the institutions did not yet know that one result of higher education for women would be delayed marriage and childbearing. This demographic shift conflicted with the Social Darwinistic notions that elite women needed to reproduce in order to perpetuate the "better class,” so the delayed and limited reproduction of these highly educated women became worrisome to the establishment. Conard, in many ways, was doing exactly what these men feared: She waited to marry until she was nearly 30 years old, and it was not until four years after her marriage that she had her first child. As more women in her generation delayed beginning families, institutions soon began to impede women's higher education in the early part of the 20th century, channeling women instead into certain "acceptable" fields and encouraging most middle class white women to stay home and care for their children.

In contrast, Conard did not fully give up her working role after marriage and having children. Her first child, Elizabeth Moon was born in 1904, and Conard continued to teach. She was a correspondence professor for the University of Chicago in comparative religions through the 1905-1906 school year when Elizabeth was an infant and Conard was pregnant with her second child. The daughter born in 1906 only survived a matter of days, but the incident illustrates Conard's tenacious desire to continue working despite her growing familial responsibilities. Moreover, Henry often mentions in his personal correspondence that Laetitia helped him greatly with his botanical research. On one occasion he writes:  “We went west in the summer of 1902:  three days in New Mexico, part of a day in Los Angeles and part among the big S. sempervirens at Santa Cruz, and three weeks on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, collecting plants eagerly.”4

The family moved to Iowa in 1906 when Henry began teaching botany at Grinnell College, and in 1909, the family settled into a big brown house on Elm Street just a few blocks east of the new women's dorms. The Conard family had domestic help in the form of two young women students who, in exchange for room and board, assisted Laetitia with household chores. In the meantime, Laetitia and Henry continued to have children:  Rebecca Shoemaker in 1910 and Alfred Fletcher in 1911.

During the children's toddler years, Conard appears to have primarily stayed at home to care for them, limiting some of her involvement in community activities. However, in the early 1920s, her activity in the community increased rapidly, concentrated in three broad areas:  religion, politics, and poverty relief. Her religious work took the form of both helping to found the First Friends Church in Grinnell as well as teaching Sunday school at Uncle Sam's Club, a children's club in the poorer part of town. Politically, Conard was most involved during this period with the League of Women Voters, forming the club not once, but twice after it lapsed when the family left for a year on sabbatical. Both of these first two areas of work overlapped highly with the third: poverty relief. Conard was a board member of the Grinnell Social Services committee throughout the 20s and 30s, and she and Henry donated a significant portion of their earnings to the group, giving the first or second highest individual donation for many years in the late 1920s. It was for this community work that she was eulogized as having "personal loyalty to the inner light [of God. . . ] matched only by a vivid social consciousness, an ever ready eagerness to spend herself in the service of the poor and needy."5 It was said that she knew what every poor person on the south side of town ate for breakfast, if they ate anything at all. She was deeply involved in the lives of the poor, to the point that her daughter Rebecca "felt put upon" by the long walks across town to the Uncle Sam's Club where her mother ministered to the town's poorest children.6

In 1924, Laetitia Conard was 53 years old, married to a Grinnell College botany professor, with three teenaged children. Conard had spent the previous 20 years taking care of her family and helping her husband establish and maintain a very successful and travel-filled academic career. She also worked for various local community organizations toward social change. In addition, Conard was committed to political change. At the height of her political activity during the 1920s, she could be found all over the Iowa countryside relentlessly campaigning for the Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette — a radical Wisconsin senator whose nomination for president was supported by the AFL and the American Socialist Party. Fellow Grinnell resident Ina Payne said that Conard ". . . was then driving a T-model Ford, somewhat uncertainly at times her friends thought, going all over the country side tacking up posters for La Follette for President and making speeches for him in school houses and meeting places `round about.  She was then, no doubt, at the height of her activity, and they were indeed stirring times for one of her mental outlook."7

By the late 1920s, Conard entered a new phase of her life. Her daughter Elizabeth graduated from Grinnell College in 1925, with Rebecca and Alfred following soon after. Since her children were grown and her husband was preoccupied with his own career, Conard decided to return to college herself. Despite already having two post-graduate degrees, including a master’s degree from Smith College and a doctorate in comparative religions from the University of Chicago, Conard went to Columbia University in 1925-26 for graduate work in economics and sociology. Upon her return to Grinnell, Conard began her work as a member of the college faculty, first teaching in the Department of Economics, then as a Lecturer in Sociology, teaching Introduction to Sociology, Social Origins, and Social Control. It is unclear why precisely she switched her academic focus from comparative religions to economics and sociology, but by the early 1930s, she was a member of various national sociological associations, including the American Sociological Society and the National Council of Family Relations, indicating her commitment to the field of sociology. Conard also was a life-long advocate of the poor, and she was a member of the Iowa Association for Public Welfare. By now Conard was in her sixties, but her energy toward sociology continued unabated during the 1930s with Conard publishing two articles in top sociological journals related to her research on the effects of depression on family life and on people from different social classes.8

In the documents surrounding her life, there is very little evidence of Conard's political beliefs until the 1920s when she campaigned for La Follette on the Progressive ticket. By the 1930s, however, it is very clear that she is a socialist. She ran for governor on the Socialist Party ticket in 1932 — the only woman on the ballot. In a speech she gave at the Workers Cooperative College in December, 1932, Conard argues that war and unemployment are inevitable under the capitalist system. The Scarlet & Black interviewed Conard in January, 1933 and asked her what drew her to socialism. Conard answered it was her welfare work, the war, and women’s suffrage. Conard also traveled extensively in Russia during the early 1930s, and she wrote an article upon her return describing her admiration of the new nation. One friend described her beliefs as her "isms": internationalism, pacifism, socialism, humanitarianism. Though these beliefs impelled Conard to work hard in the community, they must have driven many townspeople away who were fearful of her and of one of her other "isms," her radicalism. This apparent discomfort with the radical in their midst seems to have led to a lack of reporting regarding Conard's socialist political career; neither Grinnell newspaper at the time covered her run for the governorship, and the campus newspaper only covered it after the fact.

Conard’s radical political beliefs also affected her teaching. A student from one of Conard's sociology classes recalled: "We were to do some field work. And I remember interviewing a man who belonged to the railroad union. And I was given a home to visit down in the south part of Grinnell and I was appalled when I walked in. There was absolutely no furniture except a bed, the kids were playing on the floor with lumps of coal, and I was so naive that I asked the woman if she went to PTA meetings at Davis school."9 This student credits her experiences in Conard's class as opening her eyes to the poverty present in rural Iowa.

Conard continued to teach sociology courses for 15 years at Grinnell College, retiring as a Lecturer in Sociology in 1941 at the age of 70 years old. During those 15 years, Conard was considered to be the faculty radical, attempting to expose her students to poverty and other types of social inequality in the local community. Even though rigid gender roles had kept her out of professional academia until she was nearly 60 years old, Conard continued to work toward social and political change in the local community and in the state of Iowa during her adult life. Her commitment to social change also led her to return to academia late in life to help start a Sociology Department at Grinnell College. Gender inequality was still a barrier, however, because although Conard had a doctoral degree in comparative religions and graduate training in both sociology and economics, the College never hired her as a professor. Instead, Conard worked under a special status as a lecturer. Even more remarkably, during her 15 years on the college faculty, Conard was never paid a regular salary by the College! In the campus newspaper article announcing her retirement, the Scarlet and Black reports, “. . . [Conard] voluntarily contributed her services to the equivalent of a half-time teacher, and has added an incisive, critical mind and a mature experience to the faculty in her fields of interest.”10 In addition to teaching at the College, Conard remained active in public life and social welfare work. A few years after retiring from teaching, Laetitia and Henry moved to Florida in 1944. Laetitia Conard died on November 29, 1946, at 75 years of age, and she is buried at Westfield Cemetery, just south of Grinnell.

Significant Publications:

1901.  “Les idees des Indiens algonquins relatives a la vie d'outre-tombe," published in Paris.

1905.   “A Visit to Quinault Indian Graves" was published in Chicago, v. 6, no. 1.

October 1936.  "Some Effects of the Depression on Family Life" was published in Social Forces. January 1939.  "Differential Depression Effects on Families of Laborers, Farmers, and the Business Class:  A Survey of an Iowa Town" is published in The American Journal of Sociology.

3.  Nancy Woloch, Women and the American Experience. New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1999. Appendix, Table 5.

6.  Unabridged copy of the Grinnell Herald Register article from the "Old Grinnell Series" about the Uncle Sam's Club. May 8, 1995, from the Grinnell Historical Museum.

8.  October, 1936.  "Some Effects of the Depression on Family Life" was published in Social Forces; and in January, 1939, "Differential Depression Effects on Families of Laborers, Farmers, and the Business Class:  A Survey of an Iowa Town" was published in The American Journal of Sociology.

10.  From the Scarlet and Black, “Mrs. Conard Will Retire From Faculty,” March 26, 1941.


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