Emily James Putnam, née Emily James Smith, was born in Canandaigua, New York. Her father was Justice James C. Smith. She graduated with the first class from Bryn Mawr College in 1889 and studied at Cambridge University in 1889-1890. She became a teacher of Greek at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and then a fellow in Greek at the University of Chicago. In 1894, she was appointed the first dean of Barnard College, a position she held for six years, and later became a trustee of the college. She served as president of the League for Political Education, co-founded by her sister-in-law Mary Putnam Jacobi, and as vice president and manager of the Women's University Club. In 1899, she married George Haven Putnam, the publisher and author, with whom she had a son, and became a role model for women of that era who wanted to combine marriage and a career. As a classical scholar, she published several translations from Greek. Her book of essays on women's history, The Lady: Studies of Certain Significant Phases of Her History, was published in 1903.