Mary Ann Rutherford Lipscomb’s life was based on the philosophy that education was the key to a successful and productive future, especially for women. Her entire life is a reflection of bringing that philosophy to life—for herself, other women, and for all the children growing up in Georgia.
Mary Ann Rutherford was born in Athens, Georgia, in 1848, the daughter of Williams and Laura Cobb Rutherford. She was influenced by education very early in her life. Her father was a math professor at the University of Georgia and she grew up living next door to the university campus. She would later marry the son of the Chancellor, her neighbor, Francis Agate Lipscomb.
Mary Ann was well educated herself, graduating with honors from the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens. In 1869 she married Francis Lipscomb, who would die five years later, leaving Mary Ann with three young children.
Mary Ann relied on her own education to care for her children, teaching first at the Waverly Seminary, a private school in Washington D.C., and then later teaching and becoming principal at the Lucy Cobb Institute. She knew firsthand how difficult life was for women in those days, and she knew that the more educated a woman was, the more options she might have. She was active in the campaign for women’s financial independence, using her own experience as a single mother as an example for women.
As one of the founders of the Athens Woman’s Club, she addressed the conditions of rural schools in the Athens and Clarke County area. The club worked with local schools to provide textbooks and supplies but they realized that many children in Georgia didn’t attend school because they were working in the mills.
As Mary Ann had championed the cause of women’s financial freedom from their husbands or guardians, she next took on the powerful mill owners as she worked to keep children as young as six years of age from working the hazardous mill jobs. The owners opposed her efforts to educate the rural children. She broadened her target and led a campaign to provide compulsory education for all of Georgia’s youth. In 1916 the first steps were taken when the Georgia legislature passed a bill which required students between the ages of eight and fourteen to attend school at least 12 weeks a year.
Drawing on her own experiences again, Mary Ann and members of the Woman’s Club opened the first free kindergarten for working mothers in 1902 and in 1905 it was absorbed into the Athens Public School system. She campaigned for these kindergartens to be established to also assist the working African-American mothers in the Athens area.
Mrs. Lipscomb knew the value of education, and she used it to inform the public about tuberculosis and other diseases and how they are spread and prevented. She lobbied politicians for better health regulations and laws, and she worked to include hygiene as part of every child’s education.
When Mary Ann Lipscomb saw a problem, she addressed it with all the power she could muster. When she discovered that the children of the northeast mountains didn’t have a suitable school, and she didn’t receive enough local support, she galvanized the Women’s Clubs of Georgia again to establish the Tallulah Falls School, which was an innovative concept for that time. Rather than a one room school, it had six rooms used to provide academic and vocational education.
Mary Ann Lipscomb faced difficulties in her life and she knew of only one action—overcome them through education. She made a good life for herself and her children; she led efforts to help women everywhere have knowledge of and control over their own money; she fought for working mothers, healthier families, and for free education for all Georgia’s children, touching thousands of lives in the process.