The Academy Center is renamed to honor Elizabeth Phillips

Betty Luther-Hillman
November 8, 2018
Elizabeth Phillips Academy Center

Exonians gather under a temporary banner announcing the renaming of the building to Elizabeth Phillips Academy Center.

I had not expected to be crying after the Opening Assembly of the 2018-19 school year. But there I was, with tears running down my cheeks and my mouth hanging open, in shock. Interim Principal Bill Rawson had just announced, to the surprise of nearly everyone, that the Phelps Academy Center would be renamed the Elizabeth Phillips Academy Center, to honor the wife of John Phillips, who equally devoted her money and care to establishing Phillips Exeter Academy in 1781. As soon as the assembly concluded, I ran to my classroom to grab my phone for its camera and raced to the academic quad. I felt like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns hugging upon the news that the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote had finally been ratified; I was over the moon.

As a feminist and historian of women and gender, I have long been aware of the countless numbers of women whose contributions were deemed unimportant and whose stories have thus been erased from our telling of the past. Historians have restored some of the stories of women and other individuals whom our traditional historical narratives have marginalized. From Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Midwife’s Tale, showing how everyday women played leading roles in their communities during the American Revolution, to Catherine Allgor’s Parlor Politics, illustrating how the wives of early presidents of the United States participated in politics just as much as their husbands did, women’s historians have been rewriting history for decades.

Ironically, Elizabeth Phillips’ name had never been erased. It has been in plain sight on the Academy’s Deed of Gift for 238 years, and yet, unconsciously, we had chosen to omit her from  the telling of the founding of our school. The amount of further detail on her life, according to Academy Archivist Peter Nelson, is small; the daughter of a “prominent citizen” of Portsmouth, she was first married to Eliphalet Hale, an Exeter physician, who died in 1765, leaving her with “a modest inheritance.” She married John Phillips in 1767, and jointly signed the Deed of Gift in 1781, which included a release of her inheritance: “Likewise Elizabeth, my wife, doth hereby freely and voluntarily relinquish all right of dower and power of thirds in the premises.” After her husband’s death, Phillips made other financial contributions to both Exeter and Phillips Academy Andover, the other school she supported in its early years. Additional archival documents suggest that she hosted several dinners and teas for the school in Exeter, and boarded two students at her home, before her death in 1797. An 1888 history of Phillips Exeter Academy wrote of her contributions:

“And here let the generosity of Elizabeth, the wife of John Phillips, be recorded. She relinquished [her own inheritance] in order to share with her husband in this pious and glorious undertaking … . Truly the widow bestowed her mite, and therefore should receive due honor … .”

It seems, however, that the “due honor” she was to receive for her “self-sacrificing generosity” did not materialize until now, which is sadly not surprising. Despite the work of historians to uncover marginalized and oppressed individuals of the past, high school history curriculums (which tend to control our broader societal historical narratives) still mostly focus on elite men who officially controlled political and economic life (no matter how much work their wives, such as Elizabeth Phillips, did behind the scenes). While I think the History Department at PEA has done admirable work in diversifying our curriculum — we offer classes on women’s and LGBTQ history, Native American peoples and cultures, and colonial and modern Asia, Africa and India — I still worry that we gravitate too much toward common topics within these classes. It’s simply easier to find sources focusing on Andrew Jackson than on the Cherokee Indians whom he vanquished from their lands. We never fail to discuss Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but we leave out his role in the hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux Indians in 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. We assume that LGBTQ people did not “matter” in history prior to very recent times, when in fact a vibrant queer culture blossomed in major urban areas during the early 20th century.

Even when confronted with evidence to the contrary, it’s also hard to get students — ours are still in high school, after all — to recognize how our traditional narratives of history are incomplete. At the end of one U.S. history class, in which we discussed and debated the role of women in politics in the 19th century, I asked my students if they thought we should include more about women in our yearlong course. Although I’m sure the students recognized that I felt otherwise, they bravely said no. “They just weren’t that important,” one student said. After what I had thought had been a successful class on women’s “unrecognized” contributions, hearing that comment made me want to cry.

Perhaps those were some of the tears that trickled down my face that Friday; tears built up from years of trying to teach about the importance of individuals whose stories can’t be found because they were forbidden to learn how to write, or excluded from jobs that allowed them to write, or died of AIDS. We may never recover their names and significance, but Elizabeth Phillips can be a reminder of those forgotten, marginalized or untraceable people of the past. And with the permanent recovery of her name, to be chiseled forever on the Academy Center, the history of our school is a little bit closer to complete.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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