REFLECTION AND RESONANCE
By Elisabeth Griffith’69 Headmistress, The Madeira School, Mclean, Virginia
Still and silent, the striking photographs in this book have stirred many memories of Wellesley for me. I look at them and I hear the Bach choir practicing; oars clicking in shells cutting across the lake; the crackle of dry leaves and the crunch of hard snow underfoot; tennis balls thudding; radiators clanging; telephones ringing; laughter and chatter drifting across a dormitory courtyard. I look at them and I recall the cool quiet angles of sunlight and shadow in the chapel; the smell of chalk dust, floor wax, and formaldehyde; the grainy touch of Gothic grey stone; the taste of peppermint ice cream with hot fudge sauce.
These images evoke a sense of the physical reality of the College-beautiful, serene, changing by season but unchanged in character. I feel rooted there, in the bedrock of an intellectual community of women, an environment which nurtured an in dependent sisterhood. Confidence in the capacity of women to undertake any challenge and succeed was pervasive, Freed from adolescent peer pressure to play dumb in the presence of boys, unfettered by society’s assumptions about appropriate roles for the “second sex,” Wellesley students could prove to themselves how competent each was. At Wellesley there was no doubt about the ability of women to accomplish anything they chose, so self-doubt was supplanted by self-confidence.
In intellectual rigor Wellesley remains the match of any male institution, as its founder intended and its faculty guaranteed. Balancing that academic emphasis is a sense of community and an environment in which individual gifts are nurtured. Long before educational psychologists like those at Wellesley’s Center for Research on Women had established the need for women to balance “achievement” and “affiliation” (put plainly, work and love), Wellesley fostered that equilibrium.
I entered Wellesley in 1965, without benefit of recent studies which affirm that single sex colleges provide women with greater self-esteem and more leadership roles, factors which both enhance and predict future success in any field. I didn’t know then that, as a group, women’s college graduates would have more successful careers than women graduates of coeducational institutions, or that women’s colleges inculcate values of cooperation, consensus building, and community service. All I knew was that the admissions officers and alumnae I met told me that Wellesley would make a difference in my life. And it did, in ways I never could have anticipated.
Coming from a large suburban high school in the Midwest, where competition among girls for both grades and dates was cut-throat, I was astonished to find so little of that at Wellesley. There students were motivated to compete against themselves rather than each other. For four years I never knew anyone’s standing, except when lists of Durant Scholars, Phi Beta Kappas, or honors candidates, were published.
How we looked and dressed also seemed to matter less, except to strict housemothers or visiting moms, who seemed shocked by our scruffiness. We looked unkempt except on Friday before weekends away. For many of us, Wellesley fostered female friendship and a strong sense of sisterhood.
I graduated from Wellesley at the end of the 1960’s, the decade of civil rights activism, anti-war protests, the Beatles, Motown and miniskirts, the end of parietals and the beginning of the women’s movement. After thriving in Wellesley’s congenial climate, it was a shock to encounter sexism and skepticism within days of enrolling graduate school. One male student demanded to know why I was taking the place of a more deserving man; one male professor required all female students to request permission to enter his seminar, since in his experience girls didn’t speak up. All of this was an unfathomable situation to me. Within months I went from being a member of the majority to being a visible minority in a field where men were dominant.
My field is history, and even history was being written then as a masculine chronicle whose protagonists were exclusively male. As I pursued my doctorate, Women’s Studies was just being established a field. I began to learn about women who were not then part of any history curriculum; about women reformers, factory workers and field hands. Many among the most notable were Wellesley graduates, or alumnae of other women’s colleges or female institutions like the settlement house or the suffrage movement.
I learned how difficult it had for women to gain access to education in the era of Wellesley’s founding. Such efforts had been undercut by accepted medical(masculine) authority which purported that studying Latin or algebra, indeed any thinking at all, would render women infertile as vital energy was diverted from the uterus to the brain. Labeling this theory as hokum was a lively mother of seven and superior thinker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It was she who had had the audacity in a 1848 to demand voting rights for women and who had set the agenda for the first women’s movement in this country. Mrs. Stanton became my dissertation topic.
As a biographer, I searched for the formative events in her life, those incidents that make a difference to the outcome of each pilgrim’s progress. Applying that same lens now to my own life, Wellesley’s impact is easily identified. By presuming my inherent ability, by giving my opportunities to lead and to observe female leaders, by teaching me to value other women, Wellesley ignited a commitment to feminism and propelled me into the women’s movement. At this stage in my life, I see that my politics, my philosophy, my professional choices and my private life reflect Wellesley’s standard of female equality. I know that many other Wellesley women have found these same standards significant in their lives.
Likes thousands who have preceded and followed me at Wellesley, I have enjoyed the company and profited from the experience and wisdom of Wellesley friends and mentors. It was a Wellesley woman who hired me for my first job, and who recruited me for the women’s movement. President Keohane might have been referring to my husband when she quoted the Wellesley spouse who declared, “My wife went to Wellesley, and she’s never gotten over it!” Few of us do.
Now, after some years as an academic and activist, I am about to become in McLean, Virginia (founded by a Vassar graduate in 1906). I am eager to apply what I have learned about the education of women to the future needs of my students. I want those young women to be inspired and empowered by their experience in a single-sex setting.
The memories of sights, sounds, friends and feelings prompted by this book are sharper and more tangible than my recollection of chemical formulae, economic theories, or German conjugations. I cannot remember the words to the Alma Mater, but my perception of Wellesley and its importance in my life is vividly clear and keenly appreciated. I hope this book stimulates the memories of each alumna. We were all lucky to have had such an opportunity and such a unique and enduring experience in a very special place. I’m looking forward to turning these pages with my daughter Megan, in am early recruitment effort.