Biographical Sketch of Pauline Van de Graaf Orr

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920

Biography of Pauline Van de Graaf Orr, 1861–1955

By Christine M. Fishkin, Annandale, VA

Educator and Advocate for Women's Rights

Professor Pauline Van de Graaf Orr was born in 1861 in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, to Jehu Amaziah Orr and Cornelia Ewing Van de Graaf Orr. Both parents came from prominent southern families and attended schools in New England. Her father, a federal judge with a master's degree from Princeton and a law degree from the University of Alabama, served in the Mississippi legislature and also was a colonel in the Confederate Army. He was a widower with three young children when he married Cornelia Van de Graaf. Cornelia, originally from Mobile, Alabama, had attended a girls' boarding school in New Haven, Connecticut. Pauline's younger sister Corinne was born in 1866.

From an early age, Orr demonstrated a keen intellect and interest in education. As a child, she briefly attended a girls' grammar school but refused to continue with school unless she could attend the local boys' preparatory school. She secretly worked at home for a year to learn the advanced English, Latin, and mathematics required for the boys' prep school. She convinced the school's headmaster and her parents that she was prepared for the curriculum and was allowed to enroll, although she was much younger than most of the students. Pauline subsequently graduated at the top of her class from "the boys' school."

Rather than attend the traditional "finishing school" that her mother favored, in 1877 or 1878 Orr chose to attend Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights, New York, a girls' boarding school with a rigorous curriculum. Orr's college studies included ethics, chemistry, botany, and English literature. Her later advanced studies focused on literature and writing. Orr also studied German and took public speaking at the Diehl School for Oratory. One of the faculty members at Packer was Professor Mary Lowe Dickinson, a nationally recognized author, woman suffragist, and temperance activist. Professor Dickinson guided Orr's development as a scholar and feminist.

Orr had planned to become a journalist in New York City. However, when Mississippi established the first state-supported women's college in the country in 1885, she returned to her home town in Columbus, Mississippi, accepting the offer to head its English and Literature Department. During her 28-year tenure at the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Women—now Mississippi University for Women, Orr provided a rigorous education founded on the principle that women could perform difficult academic work. She believed women should be able to pursue the same avenues of achievement and occupations as men and not be treated as inferior to men. Orr was active in the Mississippi Federation of Women's Clubs and obtained a position on the national General Federation of Women's Clubs Literature committee.

Orr developed a life-long relationship with a former student and colleague at the college, Miriam Greene Paslay. In 1891, Orr was incapacitated by episodes of severe migraine headaches and hired an alumna, Rosa Peebles, to teach her classes. The teaching support of Ms. Peebles enabled Orr and Paslay to take unpaid sabbaticals the following year in Europe. They took several more trips between 1893 and 1905, studying at the University of Zurich and the University of Munich. They also studied architecture and art in Italy.

Orr developed an English and Literature curriculum at the college—then known as the Industrial Institute and College—that reflected her emphasis on the intellectual development of women rather than vocational development. Her perspective is highlighted in a speech she gave on "The Education of the Modern Woman" before the Mississippi Teachers' Association. Orr said that "education, with all the possibilities it implies, is the heritage of the daughters of a free and enlightened state. This is their new birthright." She stated that the primary goal of a college was "intellectual"-- to give young women the "power of thought" and "command of their resources." The second goal was the "industrial, fitting for the practice of some bread winning pursuit." Orr also lectured on "the education of women to Power Society." Her academic standards reflected the standards in women's colleges in New England and Europe. She also fought for women's equality at the college, for example, in seeking equal pay for equal work for the women professors.

The name of the college and its charter included both academic and vocational education goals. It is not surprising that there was some controversy about the rigor of the liberal arts coursework Orr promoted. Many students needed preparatory courses before beginning them—and still many did not succeed in the classes. Further, at the college, Orr and Paslay challenged traditional views of women's roles and gender discrimination, advocating for equal pay for equal work for the women professors. By statute, the president of the college was male, and over the years, some of the presidents supported her, while others opposed her. Nonetheless, Orr resisted pressure for the curriculum to be focused on a more traditional education. During her tenure, Orr was subject to several investigations by the school administration and the legislature. Criticisms included that Orr and Paslay placed the college on "too high a plane," the standards for the students were "too high," they favored the better students, and made it overly hard for some to graduate. Critics suggested that Orr's "ambitious" nature was a bad influence on women. While Orr prevailed in the various challenges, they apparently took a toll. She noted in her diary "just a foolish depression" stemming from the investigations.

After earning a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University, Orr resigned her department chair at the college in May 1913. It was reported she left for personal reasons. However, prior to her resignation, the University President cut Latin from the home economics degree program. Orr, Paslay, and educators across the state had unsuccessfully protested the University President's plan to make this change. When she resigned, Orr said, "I have desired above everything else, the mental enfranchisement of the girls of Mississippi. I have tried to help them to realize and express themselves; and whatever success I have attained in this direction, I count as my best service to my day and generation."

A number of Orr's students went on to be successful writers, professors, attorneys, doctors, and administrators and department chairs of prestigious colleges, such as Vassar and Hunter College. She had the strong support of her students over the years and maintained contact with many of them after she left the college. In 1920, when the college became the Mississippi College for Women, its new name reflected the academic focus that Orr had long fought for. Shortly before her death in 1955, the college rededicated the campus chapel in her name.

Woman Suffrage Leader

While Orr had been involved with woman suffrage activities before she resigned from the college, she subsequently became a leader for woman suffrage in Mississippi. She agreed to bring the suffrage question to the state legislature and was appointed to the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) Legislative Committee. In January 1914, Orr testified before the Mississippi House of Representatives in support of a state constitutional amendment for woman's suffrage. Orr testified that women's rights need protection and the only way to accomplish that was for women to have the right to vote. Orr was elected vice president of MSWA in May 1914 and recruited some former students for a committee of the MWSA, helping to develop future suffrage leaders. Orr was then elected president of MWSA in 1916. During her tenure as President, Orr began to favor a federal amendment rather than a state amendment. Given that Mississippi rejected the 19th amendment in 1920 and, in 1984, was the last state to ratify it, Orr's preference for federal action seems pragmatic.

In her various woman suffrage leadership roles, Orr undertook statewide speaking tours, helped organize new local suffrage societies and suffrage parades, and created an administrative system based on Congressional districts to get support for woman suffrage. She made keynote speeches at conventions and MWSA annual meetings. Orr accomplished all of this despite recurring periods of incapacitation and some continuing controversy associated with the Industrial Institute and College.

Orr moved to New York City in 1920, settling in a large brownstone at 252 West 74th Street with Paslay, Jerome Harris, Orr's nephew who was an Episcopalian rector; and Mary Hathorn, a former student who was a physician. Orr's mother had died in 1917, and her father lived with for her for the last year of his life. He died in New York in 1922 at the age of 93. The year she left the college, Orr became a charter member of the Bernard Romans Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, serving as its first Chapter Historian. Orr was a DAR member from 1913-1935. Orr passed away in 1955 at the age of 94, shortly after being honored by the college for her service many years before.


Pauline Van de Graaf Orr from the Sarah Wilkerson Freeman, Mississippi Women, p. 75.


Email message from Joy O'Donnell, Daughters of the American Revolution representative, to Nancy S. Simmons, May 14, 2018.

Swain, Martha H., et al. Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, University of Georgia Press, 2003, pp. 72-93.

Harper, Ida Husted, et al., eds. The History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. VI (1900-1920). N.p.: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922, pp. 333-334, 336. [LINK]

Jehu Amaziah Orr, Find A Grave, database and images, accessed July 17, 2018.

Kohn, Sheldon S, "Pauline Van de Graaf Orr (1861-1955) Educator." Mississippi Encyclopedia, July 11, 2017 (last update April 14, 2018. accessed July 17, 2018.

Kohn, Sheldon Scott, "The Literary and Intellectual Impact of Mississippi's Institute and College, 1884-1920." Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2007.

Pauline Orr in the New York, New York Death Index,, New York, New York, Death Index, 1949-1965 (database on line), Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2017

Pauline Van de Graff Orr, Find A Grave, database and images, accessed July 17, 2018.

Spruill, Marjorie Julian and Wheeler, Jesse Spruill, "Mississippi Women and the Woman Suffrage Amendment, Mississippi History Now on-line publication of the Mississippi Historical Society,

Women's Suffrage Movement in Mississippi, Mississippi Department of Archives and History,, accessed July 17, 2018.

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