Mary Rippon - Notable Women Ancestors
Mary Rippon
Mary Rippon

The tinted cover photo of Mary Rippon was taken in 1899.
Courtesy Heritage Center, University of Colorado.

Separate Lives: The Story of Mary Rippon

Copyright © 1999 by Silvia Pettem

My interest in Mary Rippon began in late 1993 in the small basement room in Norlin Library on the Boulder campus that houses the archives of the University of Colorado. Because I had expressed an interest in the Victorian era and in women's history, the librarian suggested that I might wish to look at some unusual information about Mary Rippon. To Boulder residents, Mary Rippon is the familiar name of the university's outdoor theater where Shakespeare's plays are performed every summer. Despite the widespread use of her name, however, few people know that Mary Rippon chaired the German department as the university's first woman professor. And even those who knew of her position assumed until fairly recently that before her death in 1935, she had led a quiet, scholarly spinster's life.

When I studied her photographs in old yearbooks, a plain gentle-looking woman stared back at me, but I soon discovered that "Miss Rippon," as she was called, took extraordinary steps to clothe part of her life in secrecy. Because of her scandalous private life, she kept a low profile during her distinguished thirty-one-year career - never involved in controversy, always praised in the local press.

The historical view of the perfect Miss Rippon was altered suddenly in 1976 when an elderly man from the East Coast made his way down the steps to the archives and donated two photographs to the university. The man identified himself in an alumni publication as Wilfred Rieder, "a descendant of Mary Rippon."1 The article caused a minor uproar among librarians, faculty, and long-time Boulder residents. How could the never-married "Miss Rippon" have a descendant? At that time there were no known records, no documentation of a secret life.

In 1987, Mr. Rieder announced in another alumni publication that he was Mary Rippon's grandson,2 explaining to a reporter that nearly a century before in 1888, Mary had entered into a romantic relationship with one of her students and had become pregnant. She married secretly, gave birth to the child during a year's sabbatical in Germany, then returned to Colorado and resumed her teaching as if nothing had changed.

Mary's grandson died a few years after his disclosure, but he left some of her small plain leather diaries and account books to the archives. The diaries are cryptic, with only a sentence or two for each day. The entries are written in delicate handwriting and often consist of a phrase such as "Went to Mrs. Bell's" or a brief notation on the weather. Rarely did Mary state her feelings, but the few times she did were revealing. Mary's account books left much more detailed information. For many years Mary itemized all of her expenses, leaving clues about her day-to-day lifestyle, her priorities, and her heavy financial responsibilities.

Mary listed in her journals the letters she wrote and received. Most of the letters and several years' worth of the diaries are missing. Perhaps Mary destroyed them to protect her privacy. If she did keep them, the missing volumes may have been destroyed by her family. Until her grandson's revelation, the family tightly guarded her secret.

The sharp contrast between the difficulties and failures in Mary's private life and her achievements in public life drew me into the mystery of her story. A few months of historical detective work turned into a five-year compulsion. The resulting Separate Lives: The Story of Mary Rippon became an all-consuming research project that nagged at me month after month and year after year until it pushed all other projects aside.

During this time I expanded my search to property and guardianship records. I read brittle newspapers from the nineteenth century, collected old photographs and legal documents, and carefully dissected the phrases in Mary's diaries. I spent hours and hours tracking anyone and everyone who had a connection to her story. The more I discovered, the more fascinated I became.

Mary did not fit into the narrowly defined role assigned to women in Victorian society. She excelled in the male world of academia without blemishing her feminine image. A state legislator praised both Mary's knowledge and her teaching ability. She was venerated by her students who equated her with German playwright Goethe's vision of the "woman eternal."

In her private life, Mary rejected what was known in Victorian times as the "woman's sphere." She did not stay at home with her family, although, in her own way, she became involved in her family's affairs. In order to keep her job, she hid her husband and child behind a curtain of secrecy throughout her lifetime.

No other books have been published about Mary Rippon. Separate Lives interweaves her private life with her professional career and tells the whole story for the first time. My purpose is not to tarnish her well-deserved reputation, but rather to uncover the human side of a woman whose circumstances clashed with the mores of her times. Her life was her own, as free as her wildflower garden, an anomaly in an otherwise structured world.

Since the letters and diaries which might have detailed the beginnings of Mary's love affair and her feelings about them and the subsequent pregnancy and marriage are not available, it is tempting to imagine events and feelings. However, the evidence in the account books of Mary's lifelong acceptance of her responsibility toward her husband and their child, and the few poignant verses tucked into other diaries, are more eloquent than anything one might imagine.

Often I am asked if Mary's life was fulfilling or tragic. Was she happy with her accomplishments or did she consider herself a victim? Readers have their own opinions about motherhood, career, and achievement and will have to form their own conclusions. Balancing a family and a career is still difficult, but it is acceptable, and often applauded, in the United States. However, sexual relationships between a professor and a student are not applauded and currently require full disclosure. Perhaps Mary's love affair never would have happened. If her marriage could have been publicly revealed, Mary might have been acknowledged as a mother as well as a teacher. However, such speculations are not to the point. For Mary Rippon, combining a family and a career was impossible.

A researcher usually starts with the latest information about a life and traces that life backwards in time. When I had found as much as I could about Mary's adult life, I set out to learn what I could of her childhood. I wanted to find out what events in her past had shaped her future. I needed to start at the beginning, so I flew from Colorado to Chicago and drove southwest to Kendall County, Illinois.

Before I left, I had practically memorized the county road map. On the plane I kept it and a state map open in front of me. As the plane neared Chicago, I followed rivers and highways to get my bearings. After crossing the Illinois River, the plane flew quite low. Suddenly, I recognized roads, communities, and even the Lisbon Cemetery where I hoped I would find Mary's relatives. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw cornfields, and not shopping centers, in the rural countryside.

After a search of Mary's family's property records in the county courthouse, I discovered the location of her father's farm. It was there, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that Mary Rippon was born.

1 "Alum Donates Brackett Originals," Colorado Alumnus, Volume 66 #7, Feburary 1976, 3.

2 Kathy McClurg, "Mary, Mary, Extraordinary," Summit Magazine, Winter, 1987, 13.

[Book Reviews & Ordering info] [Mary Rippon's Profile]
[Time Line of Mary's Life] [Poetry]
[Author's Questions & Answers]

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