American National Biography: Mary Wilhelmine Williams

Williams, Mary Wilhelmine (14 May 1878 - 10 Mar. 1944), historian, was born in Stanislaus County, California, the daughter of Caroline Madsen of Denmark and Carl Wilhelm Salander of Sweden (changed to Carl Williams after immigrating to the United States), farmers. Williams studied in public elementary and secondary schools in California and worked as a public school teacher for four or five years before earning her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1914. Her dissertation, published in 1916 as Anglo-American Isthmian Diplomacy, 1815-1915, won the Justin Winsor Prize of the American Historical Association in 1914. After one year as an instructor of history at Wellesley College, she joined the faculty of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, as assistant professor of history. She was promoted to associate professor in 1919 and full professor in 1920. She retired in 1940.

Although her travels through her parents' native Scandinavia produced two books, Cousin-Hunting in Scandinavia (1916) and Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age (1920), her primary scholarly interests remained inter-American relations and Latin American history. A pioneer in the development of the field of Latin American history in the United States, Williams served on the editorial board of the Hispanic American Historical Review from 1927 to 1933 and was secretary of the Conference on Latin American History of the American Historical Association from 1928 to 1934. Her People and Politics of Latin America (1930) was considered a standard text on the subject for two decades. She also published a biography of John Middleton Clayton in American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy (vol. 6, 1928) and of the nineteenth-century Brazilian monarch Pedro II, Dom Pedro the Magnanimous, Second Emperor of Brazil (1937).

Williams was active in the feminist and pacifist movements and was a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and founder of the California chapter of the National Woman's party as well as editor from 1935 to 1936 of Equal Rights, an independent feminist weekly. She introduced a course at Goucher College on women in U.S. society in 1922 and successfully defended the relevance of the topic to the study of history when the course came under attack in the early 1930s. Her extensive travels included a tour of Latin America taken in 1926-1927 to survey educational opportunities for women in Latin America and to identify candidates for the American Association of University Women's Latin American fellowships. Upon her return Williams published accounts of her findings on education and civil rights for women and on women's philanthropic activities. Like most of her contemporaries, she believed that elites made history, and her research and observations focused mostly on prominent men or on activities of upper-class, mostly white senoras (using the Spanish term) in charity organizations and the woman suffrage movement. Unlike most of her contemporaries, Williams recognized the relevance of women's position in society to general social and political history. Herself a unitarian, she placed much of the blame for women's oppression in Latin America on the Catholic church.

In The People and Politics of Latin America, a special edition of which the U.S. government produced for its diplomats, Williams sought to improve relations between the United States and Latin America by increasing the understanding of Latin American perspectives on inter-American relations and explaining why its southern neighbors resented the United States. Although Williams was uncritical of many U.S. policies and business practices in Latin America and dismissed much Latin American ill-will toward the United States as the work of "propagandists," she acknowledged the validity of some Latin American complaints of U.S. "dollar diplomacy" and unjustified intervention during the pre-World War I era. Through her teaching and writing, Williams worked to increase respect in the United States for Latin American culture and for the political positions of Latin Americans toward their North American neighbor.

Beyond the walls of the university, Williams's expertise in inter-American diplomacy was recognized by the U.S. State Department and by Latin American governments. She was a member of various U.S. committees on Latin American affairs including the advisory committee of the "Brave New World" radio broadcast series for Latin America (1937-1938). She also assisted in the 1918-1919 Honduras-Guatemala boundary dispute as a historical, geographical, and cartographical expert commissioned by Honduras, and she was awarded a decoration from the government of the Dominican Republic for her work to increase inter-American understanding. This work included Williams's energetic promotion of intellectual and cultural exchange between the United States and Latin America, partly through her work on the U.S. National Committee on Inter-American Intellectual Cooperation and the U.S. State Department Sub-Committee for Exchange of Fellowships and Professorships. She was particularly keen on increasing fellowship opportunities for Latin American women to study in the United States. Convinced of the benefits of U.S. influence and institutions in what she considered "backward" nations of Latin America, she called for U.S. funding of schools established there by U.S. Protestant missionaries, suggesting that funds might come from "the great business establishments which have prospered through activities in Latin America." In her opinion, the influence of the schools and other U.S. institutions would not only improve the image of the United States but would provide Latin American nations with a model of the advanced society they should strive to emulate.

Despite her belief in the superiority of U.S. institutions to those of Latin America, Williams attacked popular U.S. views that inherent cultural or racial traits caused the "backwardness" of many Latin American nations, which she understood as a result of economic and historical circumstance. As a teacher, scholar, diplomatic consultant, and political activist, Williams fostered recognition of and respect for the historical experiences of Latin American peoples and of women in general decades before these experiences had been accommodated in mainstream scholarship in the United States.

After her retirement, Williams moved to Palo Alto, California, where she died of a stroke.

Bibliography: Correspondence and other papers relevant to Williams's academic work are held at Goucher College. See also Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (1971) and Who Was Who among American Authors, 1921-1939 (1976). Williams published articles in various journals, including the North American Review, South Atlantic Quarterly, Hispanic American Historical Review, and the Journal of the American Association of University Women. Obituaries are in the Hispanic American Historical Review, Aug. 1944; the New York Times, 13 Mar. 1944; and the Palo Alto Times, 11 Mar. 1944.

Sueann Caulfield

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