A.B., Bryn Mawr, 1889; study at Girton College, Cambridge, 1899-1901.
Teacher Greek, Packer Collegiate Inst., Brooklyn, NY, 1891-3; fell. Gk., U. of Chicago, 1893-4, dean, Barnard College, 1894-1900; trustee, 1901-5; lecturer Greek lit. & history, 1914-20; prof. Greek, 1920-30; co-founder & pres., League for Political Education, 1901-4; manager, & vice president, Women’s University Club, New York 1907-11; founder, New School for Social Research, 1919; lecturer, 1920-32.
Selections from Lucian (New York: Harper & Bros., 1892); “Hungry Greeklings,” Atlantic Monthly 72 (November 1893) 685-93; “Barnard College Once More,” Outlook 49 (26 May 1894) 909; “Americans at the English Universities,” The Nation 58 (22 March 1894) 208-9; “Preparation for College,” Outlook 51 (22 June 1895) 1095; “Lucian the Sophist,” CP 4,2 (April 1909) 162-77; “Classical Education,” Putnam’s Magazine 3 (January 1908) 418-24; “As Europe Sees Us,” Putnam’s Magazine5 (December 1908) 360-5; “Land of Unrest,” Putnam’s Magazine 6 (April 1909) 31-40; “George Meredith,” Putnam’s Magazine 6 (July 1909) 446-55; “Greek Lady,” Putnam’s Magazine 7 (March 1910) 681-9; “Roman Lady,” Contemporary Review 97 (May 1910) 555-67; “Lady Abess,” Contemporary Review 98 (97 (June 1910) 676-91; “Lady of the Castle,” Contemporary Review 98 (July 1910) 25-47; “Lady of the Renaissance,” Contemporary Review 98 (August 1910) 157-73 “Lady of the Salon,” Contemporary Review 98 (September 1910) 284-99; “Lady of the Blue Stockings,” Contemporary Review 98 (October 1910) 425-40; “Lady of the Slave States,” Atlantic Monthly 106 (October 1910) 491-502; “Lady Summarised,” Contemporary Review 98 (December 1910) 653-60; The Lady: Studies of Certain Significant Phases of Her History (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1910); “Lady of the Slave States,” Atlantic Monthly 106 (October 1910); “Treatment of the Lady,” Bookman 32 (January 1911) 451-2; “Portrait,” Harper’s Bazaar (April 1911 rev. of The Iphigenia in Tauris of Euripides,” CP 6,2 (April 1911) 222-3; “Pagan Morals,” Atlantic Monthly 114 (September 1914) 355-62; Émile Faguet, Dread of Responsibility (trans. with intro.) (New York: Putnam, 1914); “Wayland the Feminist,” Unpopular Review 4 (October 1915) 237-54; “Prudence and the Classics,” New Republic 13 no. 163 (15 December 1917) 177-8; Marcel & Marcel Berger, The Secret of the Marne: How Sergeant Fritsch Saved Europe (trans.) (New York: Putnam, 1918); “Progress of the New School of Social Research,” New Republic 21 (4 February 1920) 294; Raymond Escholier, The Illusion (trans.) (New York: Putnam, 1922); rev. of F.L. Lucas, Euripides and His Influence, CW 18,1 (6 Oct. 1924) 6-7; “Helen in Egypt,” Atlantic Monthly 137 (April 1926) 481-91; “Hippoclides Doesn’t Care,” Atlantic Monthly 137 (May 1926) 610-22; “Candaules’ Wife,” Atlantic Monthly 138 (August 1926) 183-92; Candaules’ Wife and Other Old Stories (New York: Putnam, 1926); “Street Scene,” Atlantic Monthly (November 1936) 636-9; “Paul Shorey,” Atlantic Monthly (June 1938) 795-804.
Emily Smith grew up in the region that produced Emma Willard's Troy Female Academy (1821) and Elizabeth Cady Staton and Lucretia Mott's Seneca Falls Convention (1848). While a young girl, she was introduced to Greek history by an enthusiastic neighbor. Her parents initially hoped that she would find a calling more suitable for a woman of her era, but they also encouraged her to be educated and with the help of tutors she secured entry into the first class to be graduated from Bryn Mawr under their classically trained president, Martha Carey Thomas. She was subsequently one of the first American women to study at Girton, the first women’s college in Cambridge. During her first job, at Packer Institute, she published her first scholarly work on Lucian. After moving to the recently founded (1890) University of Chicago, she was called at the age of 29 to replace superintendent Ella Weed (1853-94) and became the dean of Barnard College, which had been established in 1889 as the “Women’s Annex” of Columbia University and had 50 undergraduates. In an age where it was widely believed that women were simply incapable of learning Greek and Latin to any high level, she taught Homer to freshmen and Plato to sophomores. “Annex” women were at a significant disadvantage in taking Columbia exams because they had not had access to many Columbia teachers, so Putnam determined that Barnard women should have the same access to great teachers and resources as the Columbia men. She wrote,"[At Barnard] We are interested in opening every sort of opportunity to women: then we should quickly discover what women can do or even what is truly feminine." Over the next six years she worked with Columbia President Seth Low (1850-1916) and dean John Van Amringe (1836-1915) to greatly strengthen Barnard’s standing by establishing a more equitable arrangement with Columbia. Among her notable students was Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve (1877-1965), who would succeed her as dean. Her chief accomplishment as dean may have been the agreement in 1900 that Barnard be represented on the University Council, with broader access for women to graduate study, and full privileges at the Columbia Library.
In 1899 she married Putnam, 21 years her senior and president of the publishing house G.P. Putnam’s Sons. In the face of controversy over whether the dean of a women’s college should be married, she resigned the next year after becoming pregnant with her only child, Palmer Cosslett Putnam (1900-84). She gave up her teaching duties for the next 14 years to devote herself to her family and civic affairs and writing, but remained as a Barnard trustee until 1905.
In 1910 she published her most famous work, The Lady, a series of eight essays, which appeared in advance in the Putnam company’s Contemporary Review on the role, education, and social life of women “of the favored social classes” from the ancient world to the American South. Like Lucian, she was enamored of social stereotypes. The purpose was to show women their role in society: “[A woman] can hardly understand herself unless she knows her own history.” Her view was that the economic prosperity of 20th century would provide far greater social and economic mobility for women. She was ambivalent on the necessity of marriage and motherhood. Of women in all ages she writes, “She is the product of man’s earliest aesthetic desires, and it is her business to foster those....The lady overshadows the rest of her sex. The gentleman has ever been an analogous phenomenon. ... She even occurs in great numbers in societies where the gentleman is the exception." E. Armstrong observes that “an anti-feminist might draw from Mrs Putnam’s pages the melancholy conclusion that the lady, as a class, is only prominent when society is decadent, that her greatest days were in a decadent Sparta, in decadent imperial Rome, above all in the lowest depths of the French monarchy, where the lady certainly reached its apogee.” A review in the North American Review called it “By all odds, the most brilliant book of essays ever written by an American woman…. Able, scholarly, temperate, with a delightful vein of restrained humor throughout.” In 1901 she co-founded, with her sister-in-law, Mary Putnam Jacobi, the League for Political Education and served as its president for 5 years. She resumed part-time lecturing at Barnard in 1914. With her friend, the Columbia historian James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936), she co-founded the New School for Social Research in 1919. Founding faculty included the economists Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) and Alvin Johnson (1874-1971), the historian Charles A. Beard (1874-1948), philosophers John Dewey (1859-1952) and Horace M. Kallen (1882-1974). The school was designed as a progressive institution where adults could “seek an unbiased understanding of the existing order, its genesis, growth and present working.” Robinson resigned from Columbia and joined Putnam as a lecturer at the New School, giving two of the first seven courses. Putnam’s course, “Habit and History,” comprised twelve lectures between February and May 1919. In her view, “habit” was ingrained behavior typical of primitive societies while “initiative” is characteristic of more developed societies in the West. The freedom of women relies on breaking with habit and developing initiative. Robert Bellah re-examined the lectures nearly a century after their delivery and found them still relevant.
She devoted her classical career to making the classical world accessible to a wider audience. Candaules’ Wife is a re-telling of five episodes from Herodotus in modern dress: “Candaules’ Wife,” “He Who Could Not Escape” (Adrastus), “Helen in Egypt,” “Hippoclides Doesn’t Care,” “The Lonely Man.” As with The Lady, she published the essays in advance, mostly in The Atlantic. An intrepid traveler, she once ascended Mt. Athos in a basket disguised as a man to the monasteries of Mt. Athos.
Following the death of her husband in 1930, she retired from Barnard, moved to Spain with her sister, with whom she lived until the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. The sisters moved to Kingston, Jamaica, where Emily died eight years later of double pneumonia following a tropical rainstorm.
Annette K. Baxter, s.v., in Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S. Boyer, Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard U. Press, 1971) 3:106-7; “Research School to Open,” NYTimes (30 September 1919); review in North American Review 193, no. 665 (April 1911) 610-12; E. Armstrong, Review of The Lady, English Historical Review 26, no. 104 (Oct. 1911) 818-20; “Emily James Putnam Correspondence (ca. 1896-1897) Columbia University Archives; Jeanette Mirskey, foreword to The Lady (1972); Robert N. Bellah, “Habit and History,” Ethical Perspectives 8,3 (1001) 156-67.