Behind the Great Leader: The Story and Influence of Urania Nott

With the president's decisions communicated almost exclusively through his wife, it is highly likely that it was Urania at the helm of the College beside her incapacitated husband.
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Behind the Great Leader: The Story and Influence of Urania Nott

Urania Nott, 1854, oil on canvas, by Thomas Sully. The Union College Art Collection.
Urania Nott, 1854, oil on canvas, by Thomas Sully. The Union College Art Collection.

Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Fall 2014

Before her marriage to President Eliphalet Nott, Urania Sheldon was the highly respected superintendent of several women’s schools and the leader of local benevolent associations. After 1860, with the Nott incapacitated by stroke, she took a greater role in the administration of the College, elevating her beyond the traditional role of president’s wife.

Born in Troy in 1806, Urania attended the Troy Female Seminary under the leadership of Emma Willard, a prominent advocate of women’s education. In 1827, at 21, she founded a women’s school in Rensselaer County, and in 1830 she established the Schenectady Female Seminary, where she likely met her future husband. In 1837, she created and led the Utica Female Academy. All three schools flourished.

Urania’s approach paralleled the mission of Emma Willard and the movement for women’s education; she instructed her pupils with practical, intellectual topics to equal the education of men. She believed strongly in the intelligence and independence of women and displayed this in defiant action in Utica. When trustees proposed annexing the Academy with the boys’ school, Urania declined, saying the arrangement “was likely to be a partnership productive only of disappointment … and of great disadvantage to her school,” according to a memo.

When Nott and Urania Sheldon married in 1842, he was 69, she 35. The arrival of Urania in the 38th year of Nott’s presidency heralded a reinvigoration of the College. A letter from Franc Bangs Wilkie describes Mrs. Nott as “[her husband’s] mentor, his staff, his inspiration.” Faculty respected her by affording her “a voice in the counsels of the faculty” and her administrative skills were “an essential factor in numerous business enterprises of her husband,” according to Wilkie, who adds that students regarded her as “their friend, their nurse, their sympathizer and a mother.”

Throughout Nott’s presidency, Urania protected Nott’s interests and reputation. In his later years, when newspapers ridiculed Nott for mishandling public money and mixing his finances with those of the College, Urania appealed to political leaders to defend her husband.

With his wife’s assistance, Nott remained as president for six years after a series of strokes beginning in 1860. Whether Nott was capable of making decisions is answered in part by letters from Urania to William Henry Seward, Class of 1820. In an 1863 letter to Seward, she reports that Nott had suffered a “severe attack of paralysis affecting the whole left side together with his speech,” rendering his mind as “calm as a summer sea … literally waiting for the messages to bear him Home.” In 1864, after another stroke, Nott seemed to have no concept of time and place, according to Hislop.

With the president’s decisions communicated almost exclusively through his wife, it is highly likely that it was Urania at the helm of the College beside her incapacitated husband. Throughout his illness, Nott was “hovered over constantly by Urania,” according to Hislop, who notes that Urania guided Nott’s hand in signing signatures at the 1865 Commencement.

Nott’s failing health was no secret to administrators and faculty “who drifted in and out of the treasurer’s office, [being able to] see above the debris of the President’s collapsed fortunes and hopes for a Union College,” Hislop wrote.

On Jan. 25, 1866, at 92 and in the 62nd year of his presidency, Nott died with Urania by his side. She did not rest in her protection of her husband’s reputation. She contributed substantially to memorial and biographical sketches and was a strong proponent of the Nott Memorial, which was to include a rooftop statue of Nott. She established the Nott Trust Fund, serving as one of six overseers.

Rumors abound that after the death of Nott, Urania refused to leave the President’s House. However, this privilege was granted to her by the trustees along with an annual stipend, according to a biography by former archivist Ellen Fladger.

The widow occupied her time with service to the town of Schenectady, becoming the president of the Ladies Benevolent Society. During her term, she saw the establishment of the Home for the Friendless, which exists today as the Heritage Home for Women. Urania Elizabeth Sheldon Nott died April 19, 1886 at age 80.