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21st Century Women's Colleges

rmeyer's picture

Anne (and others),

So at this point in my project, I have read “Alma Mater” (well, the points of interest, anyways), a chapter titled, “Our Failures Only Marry: Bryn Mawr and the Failure of Feminism” in the book, “Woman in Sexist Society”, and an essay by Oyeronke Oyewumi titled, “Ties that (Un)Bind: Feminism, Sisterhood and Other Foreign Relations.” While I still have some more books and essays to read, one of which includes “A Century Recalled--Essays in Honor of Bryn Mawr College,” I will mostly be writing in a “book-report” format, simply because the ideas of my project aren’t fully put together just quite yet. Also, I have planned to meet with several people on campus about their experiences at a women’s college (Weezie, and my friend Katherine, who is also a member of the Social Justice Pilot Program…) and also, some alums as well. My friend Katherine’s aunt, Kit Bakke, who has a book in the book store on campus, said she was most certainly willing to talk to me a little bit about her experience here at Bryn Mawr some years ago. Also, my plan for future researching include reading-up about the feminist movement during the start of women’s colleges to compare with modern feminist ideas and rights that women have gained over time. Another thing that I would like to consider is the idea of females transitioning to males while attending a women’s college. There are currently two people in our Feminist Studies course who identify as males and continue to be enrolled at Bryn Mawr…living in dorms…and the whole bit. What does this do to the sisterhood and why do they choose to stay at Bryn Mawr? If possible, I would love to sit down and perhaps discuss their thoughts on these questions. Why are they allowed to stay? I do know that Mt. Holyoke has some pretty strict rules as to who can attend in terms of gender stuff. I would like to explore that along with the interviews.

Anyways, my paper will mostly focus on a couple things, one being the history and most importantly the founders of women’s colleges and the basis upon which they created these institutions. I suppose it is appropriate for me to start with Mary Lyon, the founding mother of Mount Holyoke and in affect, the beginning of women’s colleges and the seven sister schools.

Being one of eight children on a farm in Buckland County, Massachusetts during dawn of the 19th Century, Mary Lyon was undoubtedly expected to conform to certain norms…housewife…and cook. When her father died at age six and her mother remarried shortly thereafter taking her two younger sisters with her, she was left with her one brother, tending to her father’s farm. Her brother paid her one dollar a week for taking care of the farm and when she was seventeen she started making an extra seventy-five cents a week by teaching at a local school. After saving up her money for two years, she left Buckland Country to go to school at Sanderson Academy in New Hampshire. There, she fell in love with learning. She memorized the entirety of Latin grammar in just one weekend and began to obsessively become more learned. She was able to stay at Sanderson Academy for another term thanks for the father of one of her friend’s, Joseph Emerson, who even let her stay with his family. Over the next few years, Lyon taught at several different schools and attended Byfield School, where Emerson was principle. Here, she met what would be her mentor and good friend, Zilpah Grant, who was Emerson’s assistant and three years older than Lyon. Lyon considered Grant her surrogate mother and they became very close. She followed her and began teaching at Sanderson Academy and from the years 1823-1834, she worked under Grant at Adams and Ipswich female seminaries. Over these next years, she was able to powerfully shape women’s higher education with the help of Zilpah. After her mother committed suicide in 1827, Lyon witnessed her sister’s depression and often visited her in the asylum that she was institutionalized at. It was when she saw the daily routine and discipline in the asylum that her sister stayed in that she began to implement similar ideas and concepts of the asylum regime to the Ipswich seminary. Grant and Lyon started planning out each day, starting with a wake-up bell at 5 AM for the women during the summer and 6 AM during the winters. The two women implemented such schedules to allow external government to turn into self-government. They wanted to instill upon the young women who attended the seminaries a “virtue of a clear schedule and punctuality as a way of meeting one’s own inner standard.” The two women had the students live with the townspeople and converted a tavern into a boarding house for thirty students, which was also where they lived. However, this new communal life caused a lot of problems that went against the regime that Grant and Lyon installed. The students became very noisy and they socialized in the hall-ways and came to meals late. In an effort to solve these new problems, Grant and Lyon implemented an even more intense regime with a system of bells to mark a change in period or task of the day. Also, the two women set up a self-reporting system that required the young women to confess actions that went against this new system to turn “external authority, inward.” Grant thought that the system ‘established the real authority of the Principle in the hearts of the pupils…rather than in them or over them.” The whole purpose of this regiment was to set apart this school from all the rest and the outward distinguishing factor was that it was called a seminary rather than an academy. “The seminary system broke into a woman’s life, previously governed by natural rhythms, and imposed on it the new order of her father and brother.”

But most importantly, the seminary allowed for the imitation of mother-daughter relationships. Having only female professors and authoritative figures, the teacher-student relationship was able to also replicate the mother-daughter relationship. It is in this idea where Lyon was so passionate about. Not having a substantial relationship with her own mother, she desperately wanted to provide that for other young women and she thought that this particular idea “drew on female bonds to reshape the lives of its students.”

To sort of interrupt at this point--I feel like this is a HUGE part of women’s colleges. I talked a lot about the idea of “sisterhood”, but it seems as if at the beginning of women’s colleges wasn’t about “sisterhood” but about mother-daughter relationships and a system to “set up a clear schedule for each day, protected certain hours from intrusion and noise for study, regulated meals and sleep, set aside time for recreation, and, through a rigorous program of study, gave a sense of mental mastery.” However, it seems as if today’s 21st century women’s colleges talk about this idea of sisterhood a lot. I’d really like to take these differing ideals and explore them a little more. After reading, “Ties that (In)Bind: Feminism, Sisterhood and Other Foreign Relations” I was able to use a few ideas from Bell Hook’s writings about “false sisterhood” and how she claims that “sisterhood became yet another shield against reality, another support system.” It is here where I might find interviews, discussions and/or conversations with several people on campus, and most importantly talking with a few people of the transgender community here at Bryn Mawr. I am curious to find out what they might say in response to Bell Hook’s ideas about “false sisterhood.” Her at Bryn Mawr, we constantly talk about the bubble and for me, it’s true. While living on Bryn Mawr’s campus, I don’t feel the harsh realities of the real world….I feel blind to the realities of being a women…of sometimes not being treated equal…of sometimes being expected to follow suit in the old ideals of getting married, having children, and becoming a stay-at-home mom…

Other times, I forget that there is even a fight for equality for GLQBT people. When I visited a good friend of mine at Arizona State University, he told me about how they had celebrated National Coming Out Week and how they have all sorts of events surrounding these issues. And unless I am completely unaware of them, I don’t find as much activism here because in the bubble that we seem to live in…it’s not completely necessary.

And also, here at Bryn Mawr, classes aren’t open to just women. Being apart of a tri-co consortium, many students from Haverford and Swarthmore colleges flock to our classrooms and dining halls. What does this do to the sisterhood? What does it mean to have male professors? I have a male professor teaching a course titled “Females at Risk.” Now, if isn’t confusing to you…(can males be feminists?)

Anyways, back to some Mount Holyoke history…

So, along came a young women by the name of Eunice Caldwell, who was first a student at the seminary and soon became a teacher there. She had the idea and passion of starting a new seminary that incorporated several of the same ideals that Lyon and Grant had previously. Caldwell and Lyon were able to get a minister in Shelbourne named Theophilous Packard to help them promote the establishment of the seminary and Roswell Hawks became the seminary’s agent. After two years of advocating for the new seminary and raising money, Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College decided to become a main supporter. He brought in the president of Amherst College, Heman Humphrey and in 1837, with a collection of some $15,000, Mount Holyoke was established in South Hadley, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1836, one building was built to accommodate 100 women, and it took on the plan of a house, unlike dormitories at men’s colleges.

One thing that I am still not sure of is how to organize my paper…should it be a thesis or just a discussion paper or what? I guess in order for me to fully be able to figure that out, I need to find some arguments for either side of whether or not women’s colleges make sense in the 21st century.


Anne Dalke's picture

Do women's colleges make sense in the 21st century?

Well, rmeyer, the story of Mary Lyon is a fascinating one; what strikes me in particular is her vision of applying an asylum regime to the seminary where she worked, "to allow external government to turn into a way of meeting one's own inner standard." What a vision of training the inner to match the outer; no spontaneity there! Equally striking is the related claim that the "seminary system broke into a woman's life, previously governed by natural rhythms, and imposed on it the new order of her father and brother"

--as is your counter-claim and observation that the early women's colleges were interested in replicating mother-daughter relationships, while now much of our talk is about "sisterhood." Would you say that is part of a general move from hierarchical to more democratic social structures? And what happens to such structures when the sisterhood fractures, as you seem to think it is fracturing now? Is there an alternative metaphor to describe our relationships among one another?

You end this draft by saying that you "need to find some argument for either side of whether or not women's colleges make sense in the 21st century." You may of course write a paper in which you list counter-arguments, but your real charge here is to develop an argument of your own (drawing on the thinking of others, and interviews with a variety of your "sisters"): according to what logic, can you argue, does a woman's college make sense today? All the historical reading you've been doing needs to lead you to some sort of contemporary claim.

Am looking forward to hearing what it will be!