Discovering Gertrude Hitz Burton: Victorian Reformer, Educator, Wife and Mother

June Vail

For someone who spent most of their working life teaching, and writing about dance, June Vail‘s latest book is a new departure. The Passion of Perfection: Gertrude Hitz Burton’s Modern Victorian Life (Maine Authors Publishing, 2017) chronicles what Vail, who founded the Bowdoin dance program, called “a brief, extraordinary yet unremembered life, discovered in a trove of family photographs, diaries and correspondence.”

Gertrude Hitz Burton (1861-1896) was Vail’s great-grandmother, a woman with impeccable Bowdoin and New England credentials. The wife of a College trustee, one of her sons went on to be a Supreme Court justice, while another was a noted Boston architect who designed and renovated many buildings on campus.

She was more than a wife and mother though, said Vail. “In my great-grandmother’s long-forgotten letters and diaries, I discovered an ardent, principled and ambitious young woman: a feminist and social reformer of the so-called Gilded Age. Gertrude’s story deserved telling and it seemed that I was the one to do it.”

In many ways, Hitz Burton was ahead of her time, said Vail, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Award for Faculty and Staff in 2010. “Gertrude’s writings and lectures in Washington D.C., Boston and Maine, promoted sex education, marriage equality and ‘voluntary motherhood.’ She challenged sexual double standards similar to those evident in America today.”

Hitz Burton was exemplary in other ways too, said Vail. “Her complicated personal journey raises questions that echo current concerns many of us have: How to create a meaningful life? How to think about and prepare for your own death?” Hitz Burton died aged just 34, her energetic life cut short by tuberculosis.

June Vail will be discussing her book, The Passion of Perfection: Gertrude Hitz Burton’s Modern Victorian Life, at the Pejepscot Historical Society in Brunswick at noon on March 28, 2018.

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