A long-time resident of Old Lyme and professor of philosophy at Connecticut College in New London, Susanne K. Langer was one of the first women to make an academic career in the field of philosophy and the first to be considered a major American philosopher. Her Philosophy in a New Key and Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling pioneered new concepts in the field of aesthetics.
Born in Manhattan to German immigrant parents, Susan Knauth was raised in a rich intellectual and artistic environment. She attended private schools before entering Radcliffe College, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1920. A year later she met and married William L. Langer, a history professor at Harvard. She then earned a Master’s degree (1924) and a Ph.D. (1926) in Philosophy from Harvard. For the next fifteen years she was a professor of philosophy at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Smith, and other colleges while also raising two sons and writing her first scholarly works. Her first book, The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales (1924) was a study of myth and fantasy and her first philosophical treatises were The Practice of Philosophy (1930) and An Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937) .
It was with the 1942 publication of Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, 1946’s Language and Myth, and her translations of the work of the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer that Langer became known as a leading figure in the philosophy of art. From 1945 to 1950 she taught at Columbia University, where she received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to write Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, which she published in 1953. In 1954, Langer was named Chair of the Philosophy Department at Connecticut College, where she taught for the rest of her career. In 1960, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She retired in 1962 as Professor Emeritus, continuing to pursue philosophical thought.
Susanne K. Langer spent her retirement years at her colonial home in Old Lyme, where she dedicated herself to writing Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, which was published in three volumes (1962, 1972, and 1982) and represents the culmination of her life’s work. She died in Old Lyme in 1985 at the age of 90. Her papers are housed at the Connecticut College Library, where a bronze bust of her was dedicated in 1988.
Philosophy in a New Key, Langer’s best known work, sold over 500,000 copies in her lifetime, making it one of the all-time bestsellers of Harvard University Press. For decades it was one of the most commonly assigned texts on college campuses, appearing on syllabi for a variety of courses from anthropology, literature, and psychology to religion, art history, and philosophy.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.