Cornelia Phillips Spencer, a writer during the Civil War era, was born March 20 1825 in Harlem, New York where her father conducted a boys’ school. She was the youngest of three children.
Her family moved to Chapel Hill in 1826 when her father, James Phillips, took a post as Professor of Mathematics at the University of North Carolina. Cornelia grew up in Chapel Hill and was educated in Latin, Greek, French, literature, music, drawing, and needlework.
In 1851, at age twenty-six, Cornelia met twenty-two-year-old James Munroe Spencer, a law student. They married in 1855 and moved to Alabama, where their only child, Julia “June” James Spencer, was born in 1859.
In June 1861, James Spencer died after a long illness. Several months later, Cornelia yielded to her father’s pleas to return to Chapel Hill. By then the Civil War was in progress, and she could scarcely maintain her occupation of tutoring young people.
During this period, Cornelia began collecting material for her first book, The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina, a project suggested to her by Governor Zebulon Vance. She also wrote about the university and published a weekly ‘Young Ladies’ column in The North Carolina Presbyterian.
She became a tireless advocate for the University of North Carolina. She published articles in the Raleigh Sentinel and urged members of the legislature to close the campus in 1870, when she feared the school would be a victim of Reconstruction politics.
After Reconstruction, her letters to editors and state leaders helped reopen the school. On March 20, 1875—her 50th birthday—Cornelia climbed to the roof of the South Building and rung its bell to celebrate her victory. She became known as ‘The Woman Who Rang the Bell.’
Although she opposed coeducation and woman suffrage, she strongly advocated more educational opportunities for women. She was particularly proud when the university’s first summer school for teachers enrolled female students in 1877.
Although her sex prevented her from taking courses or teaching at the university, Cornelia wrote hymns for special occasions, organized community events, and kept the alumni records. In 1895, she became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University.
In 1894, Cornelia moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to live with her daughter June, whose husband was a professor of mathematics at Harvard.
Cornelia Phillips Spencer died at her home in Cambridge on March 11, 1908.
Today, the annual Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award is awarded to a woman who has made outstanding contributions to the university. Spencer Residence Hall is also named for her.