Yule, Emma Sarepta (1863-1939)

  • By Deborah A. Fox
  • Posted 11/13/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22585
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Despite nineteenth century patriarchal attitudes and societal constraints, Emma Yule – the first teacher and first school principal in the emerging city of Everett – pushed the social boundaries of her time. She pursued a long career in which she held leadership positions often reserved for men, influenced and mentored many children and young adults, and traveled solo around the world. Yule was the author of numerous books and articles, and she wrote about the conditions of women she encountered on her travels. Throughout her life, Yule saw education as a means to independence for women beyond the expected roles of wife and mother.

Early Life

Emma Sarepta Yule was born on March 25, 1863, in Red Oak Township, Iowa. She was the youngest of seven children born to Samuel Porter Yule and Sarepta Elvira Clark Yule. Four days after giving birth to Emma, Sarepta died, and Samuel remarried in October of that same year. He had an additional nine children with Mary Ann Porter. By age 17, Emma Yule lived with her oldest sister, Delia Marie Yule Rigby (1849-1916), while attending school. Delia, who was 14 years older than Emma and had five children of her own, grew to be a mother figure for Emma. Delia's two daughters, Clara and Alice, were closer in age to Emma than Delia, and the four developed close relationships.  

Women's social roles were strictly prescribed in the late nineteenth century. Most functioned as wives and mothers, and career choices were few, limited to what would be seen as "acceptable" for a woman. Emma witnessed Delia's unhappy marriage that resulted in divorce. She knew the tiresome task of raising children, having experienced her many younger half-siblings, nieces, and nephews. Knowing her narrow choices, Yule yearned for a purpose beyond motherhood. A determined Emma Yule set off on a path as an educator, ultimately taking herself across the country and around the world.

Pioneer and Educator

In 1885, Yule attended Iowa State Normal School, an institution for training teachers, and started teaching near Aurelia and Hull, Iowa. In 1890, she spent about a year near Livingston, Montana, and attended County Teachers Institute. The following year, Yule was offered a teaching position in the emerging and rapidly growing town of Everett, where she launched her teaching career on December 14, 1891. She was the sole teacher in the brand-new school building with 26 students. Before the school year concluded, enrollment surged sixfold, and new teachers and buildings were added.

On February 19, 1892, Yule was appointed as Everett's first principal. However, the following September, she was demoted to "the position next to the principal," and succeeded by a man. This was the first of three times Yule was thwarted by the male-dominated school board. Despite the career setback, Yule persevered. She developed strong academic courses and extracurricular activities which continue today, such as the school newspaper, the theater program, the alumni association, and a literary society.

Hallie Hunsaker (1882-1980), a student who came to Everett in 1892 at the age of 10, recollected: "Emma Yule was an outstanding educator and Everett was very fortunate to have had her to found its school system. We had almost the equivalent of a college education and it was all Miss Yule's doing" (Riddle, 15-16).

During the 1890s, Yule was an active community member. She was a charter member of the First Congregational Church in 1893. She helped organize the Everett Choral Society in 1894, becoming its first vice president. Devoted to her career in education, she became a member of the Snohomish County Teachers Institute and the State Teachers Association. In 1894, after rigorous exams, she earned a Life Diploma from the Washington State Board of Education, which made her teaching certificate in Washington valid for her lifetime. On January 7, 1897, Yule was appointed superintendent of Everett Schools – the first and only female to serve as superintendent in the district during the next 92 years.

Yule frequently faced patriarchal cynicism and marital-status discrimination. Because she was a woman, she was not allowed on the board of the First Congregational Church, even though she was a charter member. As bright and well-read as any member, Yule was denied membership in the Everett Woman's Book Club because she was unmarried.

On July 23, 1900, Yule suffered another career setback when she was demoted to principal, and her position as superintendent was delegated to a man. Yule had received an offer to grow the school system in Juneau, Alaska, as she had in Everett. Using it as leverage, she approached the Everett School Board for a salary increase. Despite her competence, contributions to the district, and popularity with students, her gambit failed. On October 9, 1900, her request was rejected in a terse letter from the school board stating, "If Miss Yule feels that her duty to herself requires her to accept the Juneau proposition she will be relieved without prejudice and with the best wishes and endorsement of the Everett School Board" ("Henry Friday ..."). Recalled Hunsaker: "So she resigned and she thought they would not accept her resignation. But they did!" (Riddle, 15-16).

On November 10, 1900, Yule set sail for Juneau. Her departure left big ripples. Her students sorely missed her, and her successor, who had big shoes to fill, wasn't as well-received. As her student, Margaret Clark Salisbury recalled of Yule, "[she was] our beloved friend and helper at all times" ("Mrs. Salisbury First Graduate ...").

In December 1900, Yule began teaching 6th and 7th grade in Juneau. The next year she was made superintendent, serving from 1901 to 1909. At least for the 1902-1903 school year, she was principal as well. As she had been in Everett, Yule was a popular educator. Perhaps because she didn't find Juneau's social attitudes toward women much better than Everett's, she left in 1910.

Feminist, World Traveler, Author

Yule began to travel internationally while living in Juneau. In 1903, she took a group tour through Scotland, England, Belgium, and France. On her return trip to New York from Liverpool, she sailed on the new steamship Carpathia, later made famous for rescuing survivors of the Titanic disaster. She taught English at night school in Japan for two years, though it is unclear exactly when or if the position was held for two consecutive years. In In Japan: Without a Clock or Calendar, Yule says her visits were "varying from a few days to several months and extending over a period of years" (Yule, In Japan..., 1). She also traveled to China, the Philippines, and Korea.

Yule broadened her career to writing for magazines and other national newspapers. One of her earlier articles, "China Joe," published in 1910 by Pacific Monthly Magazine, is a moving tribute to the sole Chinese immigrant in the rough frontier town of Juneau.

After leaving Juneau, Yule relocated to the Philippines. There, she found the freedom and respect that she craved. "A land of perfect sex equality," as Yule called it (Yule, Filipino Feminism..., 743). In the Philippines, she taught high school for four years. She reached a new career peak when she was offered a professorship of English at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños. Yule was promoted to head of the English Department at the College of Agriculture, the University of the Philippines, where she stayed for two decades.

Yule continued to travel throughout Asia to study the economic conditions of women. The result was a series of articles published by Scribner's magazine and other periodicals, which focused on Asian culture, including "Filipino Feminism" (1920), "Japan's New Woman" (1921), "Miss China" (1922), and "The Permit Kingdom" (1921). Most articles focused on the status and struggles of women in the patriarchal societies of Asia and advocated for education as the liberator of women. She gave American readers a rare glimpse into the lives of Asian women and informed women suffragists back in America.

Yule also authored a children's book, In Kimono Land (1927), a history book, Stories from Japanese History (1926), and a textbook, An Introduction to the Study of Colonial History, for Secondary Schools (1912). In Japan: Without a Clock or Calendar (1935) is an autobiography about her time in Japan. In it are her photographs, and fascinating observations about the people, customs, folklore, and landscapes of Japan. She included a glossary of Japanese terms and a candid confession of why she went to Asia: "I went because I was tired with that empty, drained-dry weariness that makes one want to get away from all familiar people and things" (Yule, In Japan...).

A Trailblazer Returns to Everett

In 1929, Yule took a sabbatical from teaching and traveled around the world. She was warmly welcomed back to Everett during that trip with a banquet. She retired from the University of the Philippines in 1936 and was honored with the title Professor Emeritus. She left the country that had warmly accepted her and returned to the United States. Yule moved to Los Angeles, where her nieces Helen Hart Clapper (1888-1946) and Grace Hart Moore lived. She continued to advocate for social change through speaking events at the Women's University Club.

Yule remained unmarried her entire life, and never had children. During her era, marrying meant giving up her career, as married women were not allowed teaching positions. She was attractive, and no doubt had many suitors. Margaret Clark Salisbury (1874-1947) recollected:

"On one occasion Englebert Bast (1834-1907), a member of the first school board, outdid Sir Walter Raleigh when Miss Yule was trying to figure out a way to cross a big mud puddle. No robe throwing for him. Mr. Bast picked her up and carried her across. W. J. Rucker (1857-1931) [one of Everett's founders] was a witness to the scene and he called out, 'Hey, you young fellows will have to stop doing that or we won't have a school teacher'" ("Mrs. Salisbury...," 14).

Seen through today's lens, the recollection sheds light on Yule's struggle with the patriarchal norms of her time. Bast's gesture, while most likely well-intentioned, reduced Yule's stature and took away her agency to figure out her own problem. The episode was witnessed by W. J. Rucker, one of Everett's most prominent men, and called out for its amorous appearance, which may have been innocent teasing on Rucker's part. However, the joke was on Yule, who may have been embarrassed, especially since she worked diligently to be seen as a professional equal to her male colleagues. If there was a kernel of truth to what Rucker saw, it put Yule in the uncomfortable position of having to reject the romantic advances of one of her bosses.

Emma Sarepta Yule died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 16, 1939, in Los Angeles. She was 76. Yule requested burial in Everett, and her former Everett students were pallbearers. Her gravestone now identifies her as "Everett's First School Principal." She is buried next to her nieces Alice Rigby (1871-1915) and Clara Rigby Casperson (1873-1953). In her will, she created the Emma Sarepta Yule Fund, a bequest for women's education at the University of Washington, a testament to her convictions and a legacy of empowerment for women through education.

Yule was a role model for women seeking self-determination. She was bright and fearless. It would be decades before the world caught up with this trailblazer. Today her lasting contributions have been honored with her name on two parks, in two different countries. One park is on the campus of the University of the Philippines, Los Baños, named "Sam F. Trelease and Emma Sarepta Yule Park," dedicated in 2010. The two colleagues authored the textbook, Preparation of Scientific and Technical Papers (1927). And after a grassroots effort by the citizens of Everett, on January 29, 2020, the Everett City Council unanimously voted for the name "Emma Yule Park" on former school district land slated for a new park. On September 29, 2022, Emma Yule Park officially opened, and the city honored its primary female pioneer and founding mother.


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