Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Author of Understood Betsy

Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Dorothy Canfield Fisher (February 17, 1879 – November 9, 1958) was an American author, educational reformer, and social activist based in New England. Her ancestors settled in Vermont in 1764 and owned land there ever since.

Her father, James Hulme Canfield, was a college professor and president of several universities, and so the family valued education. Her own education was rather cosmopolitan, as she moved among several midwest university towns and traveled to France and Italy to broaden her scope.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University and studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, she received a Ph.D in French from Columbia University in 1905. Eventually, she had the ability to speak five languages.


Embarking for Europe, and the cause of refugees

She was preparing to be a language teacher when she married James Redwood Fisher in 1907, settling on one of her family’s farms in Vermont. She continued to travel to Europe frequently but did most of her writing on the family homestead.

Both Dorothy Fisher and her husband were closely affiliated with French issues, so upon the outbreak of World War I, they took their children and embarked for France to participate with relief work.

She established the Bidart Home for Children for young refugees, and organized an effort to print books in Braille for blinded combat veterans. 

In February of 1919, Red Cross Magazine described her wartime activities: “She took a family of refugee children under her charge to the Pyrenees; she helped establish two hospitals for children under the Red Cross, one specially devoted to tuberculous children. Her ardent activities included a home for the children of munition workers near Paris.”

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Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Wise Quotes on Life by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
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A social and educational activist

Immensely involved in social activism, Dorothy Canfield Fisher was also an advocate of women’s rights at a time when those causes were resisted by the mainstream.

She also helped create channels for assistance to Jewish immigrants in the 1920s, a time when quotas were strict. In addition, she was instrumental in bringing Montessori education to the U.S., and helped popularize adult education.


An international reputation

Fisher gradually gained an international reputation. Her books were published not only in the U.S. but also in France, England, the Netherlands, and several Scandinavian countries. She also continued to be involved in education, and in 1921 became the only woman to be a member of the State Board of Education of Vermont.

She wrote literary criticism and worked on the board of judges of Book-of-the-Month Club for a time. Her fiction and nonfiction held progressive views of parenting at a time when motherhood was still sentimentalized. Unfortunately, her work is no longer widely read today.

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Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. . . . . . . . . .

The mixed legacy of Dorothy Canfield Fisher

As an author, she was considered a consummate woman of letters. Her body of work included 22 novels and some 18 works of nonfiction. Some of her best known novels included The Brimming Cup, The Home-Maker, Rough-Hewn, Raw Material, Her Son’s Wife,The Deepening Stream, and Understood Betsy. She was also a prolific author of nonfiction titles.

The Manchester Guardian said of her, “She is one of the few American authors who. while profoundly influenced by her European experiences … retains a full-blooded Americanism of the best kind.”

In the last few years, her legacy has come under scrutiny. It has been alleged that she was involved in Vermont’s eugenics movement. The jury is still out on this one; read more about this controversy.

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Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her later years

More about Dorothy Canfield Fisher

On this site

Major Works

  • Understood Betsy
  • The Home-Maker
  • The Bedquilt and Other Stories
  • The Squirrel Cage
  • The Bent Twig
  • Hillsboro People
  • Rough-Hewn
  • The New Hesperides: And Other Poems
  • A Fair World for All: The Meaning of the Declaration of Human Rights
  • What Shall We Do Now? 500 Children’s Games and Pastimes
  • Home Fires in France
  • Self Reliance


  • Keeping Fires Night and Day: Selected Letters of Dorothy Canfield Fisher
    by Mark J. Madigan and Clifton Fadiman
  • Dorothy Canfield Fisher: A Biography by Ida H. Washington

More Information

2 Responses to “Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Author of Understood Betsy”

  1. As a child my mother read “Understood Betsy”, it must have been a prized book because my mother named me Betsy. She kept a copy of the book which is labeled “Bixler School Library” my mom passed away 10 years ago, I found the book in her cedar chest, yesterday, 6/2/2020. I am 74 years old, if possible I would like to write to one of her decendents and let them know about my mom and this book. I noticed she graduated from Ohio State as has my nephew, and two of his sons, this makes me feel even closer to her.

    • Thank you so much for this lovely comment! And what a treasure to find that in a cedar chest. I don’t know if Dorothy Canfield has any descendants alive today, but if you can’t find a way to contact them, you might see if she has her papers in a university archive; they might be interested in this copy, especially if it’s a first edition.

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