Creativity, Innovation, Celebration:
The Future of Women’s Colleges
Congratulations to the College of New Rochelle on the occasion of your Centennial! Your colleagues and friends at Trinity in Washington are cheering for you! We, too, recently celebrated our Centennial, and we know how important this historical moment is in the life of an institution of higher learning, especially one with the special mission in women’s education. May this celebratory year be a strong foundation for your second century.
Thank you, President Sweeny, for inviting me to share this day with you. I am so grateful to you for this magnificent honor and your wonderful, warm friendship and collegial wisdom as we work together on the Women’s College Coalition board and so many other endeavors.
The College of New Rochelle first came onto my radar screen in 1987 when I had the pleasure of meeting Sister Dorothy Ann Kelly. I say “pleasure” even though the occasion was a somewhat stressful time at Trinity, when Sr. Dorothy Ann was chairing a special Middle States team to our campus. I was on the board, not yet president. We were in a rough patch, with enrollment declining, spirits sagging, hope in our future fading. With the fire of her conviction about the absolute rightness of our mission as a Catholic college for women, Sr. Dorothy Ann called us out of our confusion, challenged us to seize our mission and make it work for the contemporary women who need us so very much. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Sr. Dorothy Ann, for your inspiration. Trinity salutes all that you have done to make the College of New Rochelle the exemplar for the ideal of the Catholic women’s college of the 21st Century.
And, what exactly is that women’s college of the 21st Century? Can such an institution persist in a world of homogenized, commoditized, mass market higher education? I think it’s particularly appropriate for me to try to answer this question in the middle of the season known as “March Madness,” a peculiarly American sociological phenomenon that exposes the persistent gender gap in higher education.
This year, the College of New Rochelle has already won its most important championship!
The 100th anniversary of the College of New Rochelle is a triumph of vision, persistence and creativity for the sake of this great mission. This mission has always been one of the most complex in all of higher education, particularly for the women’s colleges who also share our Catholic tradition. We who are the stewards of the nation’s Catholic women’s colleges are the heirs of the legacy of giants, women like St. Angela Merici and Mother Irene Gill and their Ursuline sisters through the years here at New Rochelle; or St. Julie Billiart and Sister Julia McGroarty and the Sisters of Notre Dame who followed them at Trinity. (Our Sisters of Notre Dame, by the way, are celebrating their 200th Anniversary this year.)
Their stories are simply remarkable. In days long before women’s liberation, before women could vote, before women could hold property or most positions of authority, these women were powerful leaders in both the spiritual and temporal realms. They created their institutional legacies in times when Catholic women religious were just about the only women who could be founders and owners and presidents and CEOs of schools and hospitals and institutions. As late as 1970, according to statistics compiled by the American Council on Education, only 5% of the college and university presidents in the United States were women, but 90% of those women were Catholic religious.
Calling the establishment of Catholic women’s colleges a tale of “female initiative on a grand scale,” the editors of Catholic Women’s Colleges in America1 cite this quotation from Rosemary Reuther and Eleanor McLaughlin’s Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions: ” ‘Catholic nuns, though they belonged to an extremely patriarchal church…were in some ways the most liberated women in nineteenth century America.’ Their religious vocation allowed them to transcend gender roles considered normative.” As a result, they persisted and triumphed in founding institutions of higher education that were gateways for thousands of women, largely the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants, to achieve professional success, economic security and personal fulfillment.
To a large extent, whether religious or lay, Catholic or not, the founders of the nation’s women’s colleges generally faced considerable opposition in their effort to establish these institutions. I recall reading in one history of Smith College a passage written by a female physician warning of the inevitable collapse of a woman’s nervous system under the rigors of advanced study. At Trinity, our archives include numerous press clippings about the vigorous public opposition to Trinity’s founding, lead by right-wing clerics who viewed women’s education as part of the heresy of “Americanism.” Here at New Rochelle, your historian James Schleifer reminds us that skeptical clerics called the effort “Irene’s Folly.”2
The first century of great success in women’s education eloquently refuted the original critics, but ironically, as each women’s college turns the page on a new century, new skepticism abounds at the intersection of mission and market. Despite the fact that women’s colleges produced some of the greatest leaders in a broad span of professional and civic arenas throughout the 20th Century, invidious stereotypes continue to plague us — go no farther than this year’s unfortunate depiction of Wellesley women in Mona Lisa Smile. We who are the stewards of women’s colleges today certainly have our share of wakeful moments when we wonder if we can sustain this good work, if we are persisting more because of hubris than common sense.
My imagination wanders through the possibilities, thinking about a world without women’s colleges.
Imagine a world in which women were denied the opportunity to learn broadly, where millions of women were unable even to read or write, a world where women were disenfranchised, treated as property, denied a separate existence apart from men. That was the world our founders knew just a century ago. That is the world that millions of girls and women inhabit today around the world. A recent UNESCO report indicates that upwards of 65 million girls in our global village are not in school today. Even more alarming, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan pointed out in a speech last year that, “There are nearly 900 million illiterates in the world today — and two thirds of them are women.” 3
Imagine a world without female role models to inspire the rising generations. Imagine a world in which women could not aspire to be doctors or lawyers or bankers or physicists because they were not allowed to attend college. That was the condition for almost all women just 100 years ago. Little has changed in large parts of the globe. Imagine a world in which women are expected to do only the most menial manual labor, as migrant farm workers or trapped in sweatshops or working two and three jobs as maids and custodians without any hope of advancement. You need not go very far to find such conditions even in the wealthiest nation on earth.
Imagine a world deprived of Silent Spring and the environmental intelligence of Rachel Carson; a world without the Good Earth and Pearl Buck’s Nobel Prize-winning writing; a world without the path-breaking leadership of Frances Perkins, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, the first women, respectively, in the Cabinet, UN Ambassador, Secretary of State, elected Senator after serving as first lady, leader of a major party in Congress. Imagine a world without New Rochelle’s own Lt. Governor Mary Donoghue, or Katherine Hepburn, Ella Grasso, Hanna Holborn Gray — all graduates of women’s colleges.
A world deprived of women’s colleges would be, quite simply, unimaginable. Our time is not past; our greatest work unfolds each day in each new life we touch and transform through the great work of the faculty and staff who give our mission life, and graduates who infuse the values of this mission in their work with families and schools and hospitals and corporations and communities and countless places throughout the world.
Yes, certain realities have challenged us greatly in recent years. women’s colleges were so successful in changing the perceptions of the elite ruling classes about women’s capacity for education and work and leadership that we nearly put ourselves out of business. By the middle of the 20th Century, men’s colleges and universities saw what the women’s colleges had achieved and decided that they wanted those bright, capable women on their own campuses. And, of course, in the 1960’s and 70’s women were more than delighted to flock through the open gates at Harvard and Yale, Georgetown, and Fordham, Penn State and Virginia and UCLA because that new-found access to the ultimate men’s clubs signified equality at long last.
Later on, of course, women would learn that access did not necessarily mean equality of opportunity. Women needed a law, Title IX, to give them true opportunity in higher education. But even with the hassles and scandals of chilly classrooms and abusive locker rooms on coed campuses, there was no turning back. New generations of women accepted coeducation as normative and rejected single-sex education as retrograde, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. “The list” is flaunted endlessly : from a high of nearly 300 women’s colleges in 1960, 65 institutions continue to identify as women’s colleges today. How many will be on the roster five and ten and twenty years from now? I’ll have another thought about that list at the end.
Skeptics about our future say that what was necessary, essential, indeed, revolutionary in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries clearly went out of fashion by the end of the 20th. Women are now the majority throughout higher education. Isn’t it true, ask the skeptics, that women no longer need a “Room of One’s Own”4 to unleash their creative powers, their leadership abilities, their self-confidence and potential for genius?
Americans have notoriously short attention spans. In the last decade we’ve seen a great eagerness to declare important social revolutions to be “so over,” “so 20th Century.” Civil rights, women’s rights, human rights — such talk seems out of fashion in an age that’s more concerned about the future of Martha Stewart Living than the history of Ms. Magazine. Talk of racial and economic and social justice is condemned as so much “political correctness.”
The women’s revolution, we hear, is over. Tell that to the women who take home 77 cents for every male dollar on a good day. Tell that to the women who clean your hotel rooms, who sew your garments, make your Nikes, who pick your strawberries and cabbages through back-breaking mind-numbing days on end in hot fields, who struggle to raise their children alone while earning a minimum wage, or worse.
For most of the world, the revolution has not even begun — and it’s not coming anytime soon.
What does all of this have to do with the future of women’s colleges?
women’s colleges are the witnesses, the memory, the voice of women’s intellectual freedom and liberation. In an educational marketplace that exalts super-sized, homogenized credentialing machines, we need women’s colleges as places that continue to give meaning to the ideals of justice and equality through the careful, attentive education of each person. We need women’s colleges to ensure that the power of educated women can continue to influence a society that relentlessly objectifies and demeans women, that still betrays its children by impoverishing their mothers in low-paying jobs and unequal opportunities, that still has too many places where men abuse and degrade women privately and then aren’t sure what all the fuss is about when they are found out.
True, there were times in our history when the inherent elitism of historic educational models obscured the fact that our founding impulse was rooted in the idea of justice and human dignity. But the cultural revolution of the postwar years blew away the old social conventions, leading women’s colleges to consider the true meaning of our mission. The DNA of Catholic women’s colleges, in particular, is entwined with the Gospel imperative of social justice. In her essay “Faith, Knowledge and Gender” in Catholic women’s Colleges, former Smith College President Jill Ker Conway notes that “The conventional perception of Catholic women’s institutions as backward-looking agents for fostering middle-class ideals of gentility overlooks their striking capacity to institutionalize ideals of social justice left out or ignored within the larger higher educational system,”5 largely as a result of the infusion of the charism of the founding congregations into the mission of the college.
Having said all of this in defense of women’s colleges, however, I must also admit the truth of our current situation: if we think this mission is still worth it, then we must change completely. This is the deeply counter-cultural paradox of the women’s college mission. As President Sweeny has written in his Centennial message, we are not curators of a museum. We are stewards of the dynamic and transformative force of learning, delivered in a focused way to those who need us the most: women excluded from educational opportunity. That’s not different from what we’ve always done — but, oh, how different we are today and will be even more so in the future.
The counter-cultural paradox of our mission requires us to embrace the possibilities inherent in making higher education accessible to the millions of women for whom the dream of a college degree is still so elusive. The morality of our mission requires us to ask of ourselves: if we don’t offer such women the opportunity of transformation through education, who will? Think of how much more we could achieve in the future if we acted on the U.N. International women’s Day challenge to worldwide women educators to take a lead in educating the daughters of the world6. Secretary General Annan makes the case this way: “We know from study after study that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and women.”7
There’s a price to be paid, of course, for embracing the essence of our mission as places of access for excluded women. The counter-cultural paradox requires us to leave behind our old notions of elitism in access as a surrogate for academic quality; to stop shrinking inside when our alumnae ask us, “But what about SAT scores?”; to part company with that intransigent impulse of regret pinching our hearts when somebody mentions the US Newsrankings. There’s no place in U.S. News that measures how well a college lives up to the moral imperative of its mission; how many lives transformed, how many families made more secure by the greater earning capacity of the mother, how many children persisting in school because they saw Mom working so hard to earn her college degree; how many school children educated more fully, clients served better, patients saved, readers enlightened, corporations transformed, communities and cities and nations improved because of the relentless quest of our graduates to live out the expectations of this mission with passion, with excellence and with conviction.
The counter-cultural paradox of our mission requires us to become better advocates for the absolute rightness of educational access for underserved women, without apology. We can start at home. As I study census and demographic data and data on who attends college, I continue to be struck by the very large gap in levels of educational attainment for all Americans. In fact, there’s no shortage of women in this country who could and should attend women’s colleges in the future. They are women who have been radically underserved by education in the past: low income white women, African American, Latina, Asian and immigrant women from all backgrounds. We made it possible for the daughters and granddaughters of our old markets to graduate from Harvard; shouldn’t we be doing the same for the daughters and granddaughters of new markets of women previously excluded from higher learning?
Last week there was a flurry of news stories about the fact that by the Year 2050, Caucasians will no longer be the majority in this nation. But this is old news. In particular the rapid increase in the Hispanic population, and continued growth in the African American population, will be a significant challenge for all institutions of higher learning. The Educational Testing Service has already predicted that 80 percent of the nearly 3 million student increase in collegiate enrollment to the year 2010 will be among Black and Hispanic students. The nation’s women’s colleges have an astounding leadership opportunity to ensure the education and advancement of great women leaders for the future from among these rising populations of women of color.
The College of New Rochelle was among the first of the nation’s women’s colleges to recognize that our historic mission could only make sense going forward if we understood women’s education as broadly inclusive, as a gateway for the transformation of entire families through the education of people from all social classes and life conditions.
In her comments in Catholic Women’s Colleges in America Jill Ker Conway recognized the College of New Rochelle as one of her exemplars of the “special genius” of Catholic institutions founded by women religious “to find and serve important late twentieth century constituencies…”8
Our stewardship to our founders, our graduates and the students who will be here in generations to come requires that we take the actions necessary to ensure the vitality, quality and durability of our institutions for the future. These actions may differ from institution to institution, depending upon geography and history and resources and the charism of the founding congregation where one exists. I predict, however, that many if not most women’s colleges will, of necessity, pursue these strategic actions going forward:
- Women’s colleges will illuminate more clearly the core values of woman-centered education in justice, equality, freedom and human dignity; if this be “political correctness” then let”s be guilty, that’s our counter-cultural paradox!
- Women’s colleges will be voices and advocates for those values not just within our own institutions, but for women and people throughout the world. Women’s colleges cannot not be afraid to use the bully pulpit of our privileged places to speak out on behalf of those who cannot. We must and will be places that offer solutions and actions for the worldwide problem of education for women and girls, summarized in the 2003 UNESCO Global Monitoring Report: “In no society do women yet enjoy the same opportunities as men… The continuing prevalence of educational inequality is a major infringement of the rights of women and girls, and it is also an important impediment to social and economic development.”9
- Women’s colleges will, increasingly, become models of access both domestically and internationally, and in this regard, we will built-out our technological capacity so that we can reach those future students who cannot travel to our campuses. We will create models for online learning that also deliver our characteristic careful attention to each student’s growth and needs.
- Women’s colleges will be more affirmative about the ethic and culture of opportunity and student success that characterizes our learning enterprises; in particular, we will promote even more vigorous women’s leadership programs for our new populations for whom the idea of public leadership is so urgent. We will enhance our tradition of rigor and excellence through demonstrating ever more pointedly the success of our mission among women from vastly different backgrounds.
- (Here’s where you might think I’ve lost my mind) Women’s colleges will throw off the stifling armor of “single-sex” language and attitudes, a posture that persists in keeping us isolated and exclusive, an outmoded existence that cannot exist online, at work sites, and in all of the places that we need to be in order to deliver our educational programs. women’s colleges today are woman-centered places of learning that cannot be anti-male, afraid of men, or unwilling to include men who share our sense of mission and who can benefit from our programs.
We must stop allowing ourselves to be defined by absence; we need to be defined by action.
Let’s retire the phrase “going coed” as a relic of that old exclusive, isolated past.
Remember that infamous list of 300, now 65? Let’s burn that list of who’s in and who’s out of the women’s college world. Many of us who proudly call ourselves women’s colleges today are, in fact, comprehensive universities with a broad range of programs that serve students who need us, male as well as female, young and old, in liberal arts and professional programs. Our woman-centered mission is not defined by excluding men, but by serving women’s needs affirmatively. Let’s join in solidarity with all like-minded sister institutions! Let’s get our Women’s College Coalition to abolish the litmus test that determines who may be in the club — it’s in the way of real transformation.
In short, 21st Century women’s colleges will move strategically with a spirit of creativity, innovation, and celebration for all the good that we do. We’ll take a page from the instructions of St. Angela Merici: “If with change of times and circumstances, it becomes necessary to make fresh rules, or to alter anything, then do it with prudence, after taking good advice.”10
We will do what it takes to flourish, because we know, as the College of New Rochelle has demonstrated to the world for 100 years, that to learn in a place such as this is to acquire “Wisdom for Life.”11