A conversation with Silvia Pettem
author of
Separate Lives: The Story of Mary Rippon

Q. What's so special about Mary Rippon?
A. She was one of the nation's first women professors and an exemplary pioneer in her field, but that was only part of her life. She had a secret personal life, and I find the contrast intriguing.

Q. Is this what you mean by her "separate lives?"
A. Yes. In her public life, Mary was known as a "spinster" and was respected and revered as a German professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In her private life, she had a romantic relationship with a male student, 12 years her junior, got pregnant, and secretly married.

Q. Why would today's readers be interested in Mary Rippon's story?
A. Combining work and family is a timely subject. Mary chose an extreme solution, but the mores of her times gave her no choice. In addition, sexual relationships between teacher and student are now out in the open, but they usually involve an older man and a younger woman. This story confronts two main contemporary issues but each has a unique twist.

Q. How did Mary get her position at the University?
A. The University's first president, Joseph Sewall, had been one of her teachers at her high school in Normal, Illinois. He invited her to join him on the faculty during the University's first academic year, 1877-1878.

Q. How did you get interested in Mary?
A. A librarian told me she had come across some letters, diaries, and photographs that she thought would interest me. They did.

Q. Who was the student she secretly married?
A. His name was Will Housel, a member of an early prominent Boulder family. His father, Peter Housel, was Boulder County's first judge and an elder in the Presbyterian Church. Will was also quite handsome and wrote poetry.

Q. What about the child?
A. Mary took a sabbatical in Germany where her daughter Miriam was born in January, 1889. No one in Boulder knew she had married or had a child.

Q. What happened to Miriam?
A. Mary temporarily left her in an orphanage in Germany and enrolled Will in a nearby graduate school. She paid for them both, returned to Boulder, and continued to teach as if nothing had changed.

Q. How did Mary feel about leaving her baby?
A. That's one question that will always remained unanswered. She chose her career over Miriam, but at a great cost to them both.

Q. Weren't they ever together?
A. Mary visited Miriam when she could (usually in the summer) and paid child support which even extended to her ex-husband, his second wife, and their four children.

Q. So Mary and Will's marriage didn't last?
A. It did for five or six years, but they never lived together for any length of time. For about two of those years, while Miriam was still overseas, Mary and Will lived separately in Boulder and saw each other several times a week. Their relationship was like an affair.

Q. How do you know this?
A. I've read, and incorporated into the story, both of their diaries which overlapped during this time period.

Q. How did you find these diaries?
A. Mary's were donated to the archives at the University of Colorado. Will's were kept by a grandson from a second marriage whom I traced through genealogical records.

Q. Why didn't Mary just combine teaching and motherhood?
A. The double standard of the Victorian era made it culturally impossible. Women were expected to stay home, bear children, and be supported by their husbands. If a married woman held a professional job it would have been considered taking a job away from a man.

Q. But you said she was financially supporting her child. So why wasn't this different in her case?
A. Mary was trapped by the mores of the Victorian era. If she had admitted her illicit relationship, she would have lost her job which she needed to continue so she could pay child support. Plus, she was a role model to her female students who knew nothing of her personal life.

Q. Why didn't Will support their child?
A. For whatever reason, Will was what we would call today a "professional student." He went from graduate school to graduate school, then never earned enough to support his family.

Q. Do you agree with Mary's philosophy of motherhood?
A. As a mother myself, I never could have left my own child. But I admire Mary's determination, and I've kept my own feelings out of her story.

Q. Did Miriam stay in Europe?
A. No, in 1893, at the age of four, she was brought to America and reunited with Mary at the Chicago World's Fair. Miriam got passed around from relative to relative and finally was raised by Will after he remarried. She knew Mary only as an "aunt." When Miriam grew up, she moved to Boulder and also became a language professor. The public knew them only as "close friends."

Q. Did Miriam ever find out that Mary was really her mother?
A. Yes, but not until Miriam was an adult. Separate Lives in the title also relates to the separation of Mary and Miriam's lives.

Q. You're known as a local history writer. Is Separate Lives another local history book?
A. No. Much of it takes place in Boulder and uncovers some early history of the University, but this is a biography, not a regional history. It's about the person rather than the place.

Q. Weren't there other female professors you could have written about?
A. I never set out to write about a female professor. This is a story of one woman's conflict between career and motherhood.

Q. Who is your intended audience?
A. The book was written for the general reader who, I hope, will get caught up in Mary's story. But there are plenty of unobtrusive endnotes for those who want more information.

Q. How long did it take you to write this book?
A. The research was a major part of the book, but I also went through several drafts as I approached the material in different ways. Combining the research and writing, and a few dry spells, I spent over five years on Separate Lives.

Q. Have any other books been written on Mary Rippon?
A. No, this is the only one.

Q. You've been published by the University Press of Colorado. Why aren't they publishing Separate Lives?
A. Like other university presses all over the country, University Press of Colorado's focus now is on fiction, and Separate Lives is non-fiction.

Q. Are you working on another book?
A. Not yet. I was consumed by the in-depth research I did for Separate Lives, and would love to submerge myself into the life of another Victorian-era woman. I just need to find the right one.

Q. You mentioned reading diaries. What other research did you do?
A. Whenever possible, I went to primary sources. These included passport, ship passenger lists, and property records from the National Archives; federal census records; archived letters and documents from the University; photos, letters, and correspondence from family members; original newspaper references; courthouse records of property transactions; and correspondence with former students of Mary's daughter Miriam.

Q. Could you do all this in Colorado?
A. I did most of the out-of-town research by mail and phone, but last summer I traveled to Mary's home town in Illinois and spent a few days going through courthouse records there so that I could pinpoint her birthplace.

Q. Is there more research to be done?
A. Yes, I'd like to know more about her university studies overseas, in Germany, France, and Switzerland, and I'd like to trace her travels in Europe.

Q. Is Separate Lives happy or tragic?
A. Different readers have come away with different impressions, but I feel that she was at peace with herself when she died.

[Mary Rippon Home Page] [Book Reviews & Ordering info]
[Mary Rippon's Profile] [Time Line of Mary's Life] [Poetry]

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If you have comments or questions, please e-mail Silvia Pettem.

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