Episode Eight: Clara Conway & the Clara Conway Institute

Clara Conway was born in New Orleans, LA, August 14, 1844, to poor Irish immigrants, Margaret Riordan Conway and Thomas Conway, who came to America in the early 19th century. (I’ve read she came to Memphis in 1846, that she was brought to Memphis in 1855 when her parents died, but also that she simply moved here in 1864.) She was educated at St. Agnes Academy in Memphis, but primarily studied at home for most of her education. She also did some studying abroad. (Given this information, it would seem the 1855 date would be more accurate.) 

Conway began her professional career as a public school teacher. It was said that she “seemed possessed of natural gifts particularly qualifying her for the work of teaching. Her peculiar abilities for imparting knowledge and inspiring to effort all with whom she came in contact were of such rare value as to be quickly recognized.”

She became principal for the Alabama Street School and the Market Street School. She was considered an outstanding teacher and was frequently featured in newspapers. She was the first woman to assist in the organizations of teachers’ institutes.

In 1873, she was proposed for superintendent of public schools in Memphis, in an effort to have female educators recognized for their merits. 
She was endorsed by The Memphis Appeal, who wrote:

“We are in receipt of several letters from person’s connected with the public school system of Memphis and others who have a direct personal interest in them, advocating for the election of Miss Clara Conway to the position of Superintendent of the Public Schools, and the only reason we have for rejecting them was their length. They all exceeded the limits we have named for correspondence. To the election of Miss Conway to so high and responsible a position we can see no objection. She possesses all the ability requisite for it with the experience of several years as an educator (Clara Conway was Principal of the Alabama Street School for several years.) To the gentleness and refinement of a cultivated lady she invites all the firmness requisite to the director of our schools… We do not know a man in our city who can surpass her in fitness. If Miss Clara Conway will accept the position, she has the hearty support of the Appeal and we hope she will be elected.”

The efforts to elect a female superintendent ultimately failed and Miss Conway’s name was not even mentioned in the election. But nevertheless, the call for a female superintendent was a brilliant maneuver, the failure exposed the powerlessness of women to protect their interests as long as they lacked the rights to participate in the electoral process.

Over time, Conway found herself becoming more interested in providing women with the ability to have a quality education.  Her study of educational methods inspired within her the desire to establish a system of education for girls which should be based on absolute thoroughness. Her idea was that women should be so taught that, if conditions make self-support necessary, they could fill professional careers. 

Conway was the first Southern woman to attend the teachers’ summer school in the North. She recognized the need for a school for girls in Memphis that would offer such educational advantages as those that were offered at the best schools in the North. Conway visited schools in the north for six months in the winter of 1876 for the purpose of making a careful and thorough study of the best modern school systems.

In 1877, she left her position in the public school sector and founded a school of higher education for girls, one that would prepare them for economic independence. She believed education would be a woman’s liberation. It would be what would prepare them “to take part in the work of the world”. She believed that society had little use for idle helpless women as it did for idle helpless men. She believed independence was one of the highest attributes of womanhood. She would also say that the woman’s highest duty is first and foremost to herself, not her husband.

Conway’s school began with $300 of borrowed money, 50 students, and one assistant. Her school had a kindergarten, a new idea for Memphis, where young children would start out with a good foundation, well preparing them for the future. Young students would learn free hand drawing to help with their technical skills, hand, eye, and mind coordination. In an ad from 1879, Conway pleads to parents saying that “no parent should deprive a little one of this beautiful mental, moral, and physical health care giver”. Conway put a lot of stock in educating children from a young age. 

For older students, there were a myriad of subjects to learn and events to participate in. Conway’s goal was to create a college preparatory school for girls, so they would be able to attend the best eastern women’s colleges. Breadth, thoroughness, and development of power were aims of the school. These aims were gained by tailoring each student’s studies based on their individual needs. A noble, self reliant womanhood is the chief end sought throughout the years of school life. 

The number of students at the Institute continued to grow and it was apparent that schools needed trained teachers. Conway decided to add a “normal” department, which is a school for training teachers, so that would-be teachers would have a place to learn and practice. 

The summer of 1882, Conway went to Europe in preparation for taking her students abroad a couple years later. This feature would allow students to add travel to their fields of study, visiting famous historical scenes and learning about literature, art, and architecture. 

By 1884, the school had grown to 250 students and around 10 teachers. During the summers, Conway would take her teachers to a normal institute in Martha’s Vineyard, where she herself had taken courses. 

Also in 1884, Conway went to the National Educational Association in Madison, Wisconsin and read a paper she had written on the needs of Southern women. The Memphis Daily Appeal wrote an article on her speech, and here’s an excerpt from that article:

A Plea for the Education of Women in the South

She blew away the 6000 teachers convened at the National Educational Association meeting. 
Her name was on every tongue, not necessarily because of what she said, but how she said it. Her earnestness was intense, her lips quivered with emotion, and a glow came into her pale cheeks, while her brilliant black eyes flashed an accompaniment to the fire of her tones. 
Her discourse was a plea for the women of her section, who she declared were in need of educational advantages now denied them.
Clara focused on the fact that there was scarcely a college that was available to women in the South. She led with the example that a boy may find the best (university), while his sister, even though she be his superior mentally, having the same or higher ambitions, aspirations, and hopes, must go to far off colleges for a full education, or must be content with the superficial course of the down academy or the fashionable boarding school. 

She debunked the myths of women being able to get married for financial support, and posed the questions:
“What if she doesn’t? What if she does but then she’s left alone with her children to support?
What if she can sew? If she has that ability, but it’s not a sustainable profession.
What if she can teach? What if she is not qualified and doesn’t understand the child’s mind in order of their true development? Teacher’s work is sacred. 
Had she the opportunity for a proper education, maybe I could have helped her, but that was only offered to her brother. 
We have educated our girls to believe that their very helplessness is the best appeal to the helpfulness of some man who will one day become the protector and breadwinner.
If you were to say this is what God meant in the beginning, I say I have no means of determining what God meant. Evil in the world today is rampant. Hundreds of women and children are without protectors and what is worse, unable to protect themselves. Your argument would have some force, a very little, if every woman married happily and could have a guarantee, signed, sealed, and delivered that her husband should be strong, temperate, competent, and long lived. But it has no force at all while unmarried women are on every hand and orphaned children fill the air with their piteous lamentations. The promise of a happy home and wifehood cannot be given. 
In the face of the glaring and terrible stories of desertion, cruelty and murder that fill our papers, do you tell me that woman should not be fitted for a life work as well as a man?
There is a senseless prejudice against the liberal education of women, which finds its best expression in the term “strong minded, “ applied to any woman who thinks, reads, and reasons. It is said that such women are not fond of the home, that they neglect its duties and find their chief happiness elsewhere. 

The end of the paper, she goes on to debunk this as well, naming numerous educated women who tend not only to their occupations but also their homes. 

As the number of Clara’s students increased, the need for a larger building was apparent. In 1884-85, a board of trustees was formed from a number of the city’s most influential businessmen. The school was incorporated and a stock formed, allowing for the building of a new school. 

The Clara Conway Institute (as it was now called), rightly, boasted a top notch reference library, a well equipped gym for gaining a firm step, a graceful carriage, and a strong well developed form, a science lab for the study of chemistry and physics, and even an art studio. Courses were offered in voice, piano, music theory, public speaking, trigonometry, art history, philosophy, political economy, and civil government. Elocution lessons prepared the way for excellent, well formed speech. There was a three year literature course, with an in depth study of Shakespeare, as well as German and French authors. 

By 1891, it had over 300 students and 26 faculty, some of which had graduated from the Institute, and a building worth about $75,000. There was also an off campus residence hall for students that came from away. The school was thriving and the students were so well educated, some were admitted to schools such as Vasser without examination, and Wellesley recommended and recognized it for its excellence. 

In Conway’s quest for higher education, she continued to write papers and do interviews emphasizing the need for a women’s college in the South. In a paper she wrote for the Eagle publication, Conway says that while we have great primary, secondary, and high schools for girls, there is no Vasser or Wellesley, Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, or Smith. Our girls have to travel far from home for college culture or do without. A large majority cannot leave home for apparent reasons, money and ability to travel, and they are at a great disadvantage because they are of able mind and their training is absolutely essential. 

She pleads for a college in the South, so magnificently endowed with provisions for student aid that no good girl in search of an education would be turned away. It should combine all the requirements of the best discipline and instruction. Its foundation should be laid in the thorough training of the English according to the most approved methods. There should be a department of domestic economy, so well equipped that every graduate of the college might be prepared, not only for housekeeping, but for home keeping. 

In another article written about Conway and her accomplishments, she expresses that interest to start a college in the South. She believed $500,000 would be sufficient to start the school. It would ensure a small cost and the ability to provide some scholarships. Unfortunately, that dream of Conway’s would not come to pass. 

By 1893, Conway’s “ambition” of being a college preparatory school, over the opposition of the trustees, was likely the cause of the Institute’s demise. Her emphasis on independence for women and urging graduates to attend progressive Eastern colleges may have been too much for the all male trustee board. She tried to reassure them that practical housekeeping was also taught and reminded them that ignorant women made bad wives and mothers, but to no avail. The school closed. Conway continued to teach, by herself, for a few more years, before ultimately stopping to help further another cause she had involved herself in, the Nineteenth Century Club. 

1904 Nineteenth Century Club

In the spring of 1890, a small group of Memphis elite women formed a club dedicated to the intellectual development of women. It would become one of the South’s foremost female organizations. This group elected Mrs. Robert C. Brinkley as the first president. She had impeccable social credentials and was a leader in Memphis society. Her husband was also influential in the business community. With Brinkley and 15 charter members (Conway included), they formed the club. In early May, the newly donned Nineteenth Century Club had gained a total of 80 members and in a meeting at the Gayoso Hotel, they wrote the constitution and by laws. Their motto was coined by Conway, “influence is responsibility”. 

The club’s constitution stated that their objective was to promote female intellect by encouraging a spirit of research in literary fields and provide an intellectual center for the women of Memphis. They actively engaged in moral, philanthropic, and educational projects. It provided a means for intelligent women to implement their ideas about the direction of the city’s growth. 

They would strive to improve civic pride and elevate civic ideals. And while they claimed to not have any political intentions, it was clear they were intent on involving themselves in politics. They wanted Memphis to become a vibrant, people filled city, which included parks, schools, hospitals, asylums, and playgrounds and they attempted to influence city officials to get that done. 

The story of the Nineteenth Century Club is an interesting one and in order to do it justice, we will be dedicating an entire episode to it.

Conway published a book in 1902, called Silver Lined Days- leaves from a notebook of old world travel, about the experiences of traveling in Europe at the turn of the century. She passed away in Nov of 1904 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery. 

Clara Conway was a pioneer for women’s independence. Her tenacity and drive for what she believed in made her well respected, not only in Memphis, but around the country. Her legacy will continue to live on as people learn of the great things she accomplished. 

And that is the story of Clara Conway and her contribution to helping the women of Memphis gain strength and independence.

Conway Pergola in Overton Park- destroyed 1936


Elite Women and the Reform Impulse in Memphis, 1875-1915
Marsha Wedell, 1991

Memphis Music: Before the Blues, Time Sharp,
Arcadia Publishing, Apr 11, 2007

Berkeley, K. (1984). “The Ladies Want to Bring about Reform in the Public Schools”: Public Education and Women’s Rights in the Post-Civil War South. History of Education Quarterly, 24(1), 45-58. doi:10.2307/367992

Addresses and Proceedings – National Education Association of the United States: Volume 44, National Education Association of the United States, January 1, 1905.

Cosmopolitan, Volume 12, Schlicht and Field., 1891, A REALIZED IDEAL. By Lucy Graham Crozier p.885

Commercial and Statistical Review of the City of Memphis, Tenn: Showing Her Manufacturing, Mercantile and General Business Interests, Together with Historical Sketches of the Growth and Progress of the “Bluff City,” Also Sketches of the Principal Business Houses and Manufacturing Concerns, January 1, 1883, Reilly & Thomas

Chattanooga Daily Times, Sept 1, 1892

Memphis Daily Appeal- July 23, 1884






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2 thoughts on “Episode Eight: Clara Conway & the Clara Conway Institute

  1. I learned something tonight. Thank y’all for the study and how relevant it is today. I am more shocked for what Ms. Conway said ‘out loud’ in her period in history w/o much stronger retaliation than what she received; even when women like Ida Wells had her offices burned down for expressing herself. Again, thank you for the podcast.

    • Oh most definitely! I’m proud to say such a progressive minded woman was from Memphis. She’s in my top badass women in history now.
      I think because she was a white woken who made a name for herself among some of the Memphis elite, she was spared a lot of retaliation that could have befallen her.
      Nevertheless, I’m glad there was someone looking out for the well-being of women in a time when that wasn’t the case. High five Clara Conway!

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