Stories including womens' studies

Learning to Be a Feminist in the World

My mother left Toledo, Ohio, to attend Vassar in the early 1960s.  She remembers hearing Pete Seeger sing “We Shall Overcome” and Ravi Shankar perform on campus, being told in Chapel by President Blanding that Vassar students were becoming too promiscuous (a word that she then had to look up), and receiving meaningful support from Linda Nochlin, the art historian who would go on to publish the groundbreaking essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in 1971.  I remember as a child finding letters that my mother had written home to my Granny, a brilliant and bitter high school history teacher who painstakingly corrected my mother’s grammar with red pen.  For as long as I can remember, Granny told me to go to Cornell, her Alma mater, because that is where I would find a good man.  I also remember my mother telling me about the family crisis that caused her not to return to Vassar in the fall and the riding boots she left in a trunk stored in the basement of Lathrop.  Now, as a professor, I sometimes wonder where those boots are and whether they will ever be unearthed, my own personal Vassar mastodon.  My mother had a good sense of the benefits of a Vassar education, as well as the challenges involved, which is perhaps why, looking back, she pressed me before graduation to go and personally thank the Vassar Bursar who rearranged my financial aid package to make it possible for me to return to Poughkeepsie when my plans to study abroad in Greece were cancelled in the midst of the Gulf War.  I was glad I did and surprised to learn he knew who I was and where I was from.

I first visited Vassar with my mother my senior year of high school, taking the train up from Virginia, still wearing my beloved cowboy boots.  I finished Philip Roth’s When She Was Good in Alumnae House, a novel that ends with the heroine dead and buried under the snow—perhaps not the best beginning.  I also saw La Bamba at the Juliet and distinctly remember feeling at ease walking in solitude across the quad.  Along with its elitism and wealth, Vassar struck me as a space for alternative visions, an impression no doubt quietly and steadfastly reinforced by my mother.

As for academics, I received a C- on my first British history midterm and quickly learned that I needed to work harder.  Much harder.  The professor for that class, one of my best, Donald Olsen, would routinely keep us for over an hour after the scheduled ending time with an unquestioning sense that the discussions in that classroom about mercantilism or Chartism or the way in which eighteenth-century aristocrats would let their infants play in pots of cream on the table (could I have imagined this last one?) took precedence over missed dinner dates and all else.  Inspired to do better in his class, I arranged my campus job to work in the Library, first in acquisitions where I filed typed cards in the catalog, and then in the Reserve Room, where I worked through my senior year handing out file folders to hurried students and searching the 24-hour room for stolen books.  The Library is still my favorite space on campus, and the people I came to know there were among the very first to make me feel welcome at Vassar when I returned to teach.

As a women’s college that has gone co-ed, Vassar surrounded me with models of excellence that were mine to draw on.  Sitting with Beth Darlington outside Sanders as she read “The Wasteland” on one of the first spring days, hearing Rachel Kitzinger speak Greek in melodic tones, dissecting an argument with Uma Narayan, and being introduced to the joys and challenges of women’s social history by Miriam Cohen are among my strongest memories.  Although I never took a Chemistry class, Miriam Rossi gave me a tour of her lab when my step-father, also a crystallographer, visited.  Now when in the “Introduction to Women’s Studies” I teach the section from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929)—“Chloe liked Oliva.  They shared a laboratory together.”—this is the vision I hold.  More than anyone else, Tony Wohl, my senior thesis adviser, taught me the discipline of History as he encouraged me to develop my work on childhood and prostitution in Victorian London focused on a series of articles by the journalist W. T. Stead.  Tony never had to be told first how Stead had died on the Titanic or taken a controversial stance on the Boer War in order to see the relevance of my topic—a response that proved unusual for the time, but was certainly true to the longer traditions of Vassar’s History Department.

Unlike my mother, I never became a great or even good rider, but in Vassar she gave me the thrill that comes with an unrestrained gallop, knowing full well that you may end up on the ground or splayed across the horse’s neck, hands full of mane.  Vassar at its best taught me how to be a feminist in the world, and for this I am eternally grateful.

What We Learn Within…

Graduation. It seems strange to talk about that word now as I sit here, one week before I will be participating in what seems like a day I’ve prepared for my entire life. Through grade school and high school, we were instructed and encouraged to do well in our classes, be involved in community work and produce an all around persona that would eventually get us into a great college. As we approach graduation, I’m realizing more and more that it seems like, until this moment, everything has been in preparation for the completion of our college education and now, as we near the end, I find myself asking: Now what?

In order to not completely diminish our direction and enthusiasm for the future, the truth is that the lot of us have certainly approached our college educations as a medium through which we can move on to great careers, further research or education opportunities or simply a life guided by the knowledge and experience of a liberal arts education. Having experienced Vassar and all it has to offer, I leave here with the fabulous sensation of knowing that, while a comfortable and familiar place, Vassar has made me ready to go because of its effectiveness as an institution of learning and a place that prepares its students to do great things.

As I look back at my four years here, my first thoughts are about how much I’ve changed, how my professors, friends and mentors have altered the way I think about things and mostly how I think about myself. I remember entering the gates of Vassar in 2006 with expectations that seemed inflated and idealistic and I am leaving here having met all of them and exceeded most.

It’s hard to condense what it has been like to be a Vassar student into so many words as the experiences are numerous and the lessons often unexplainable. I can say this, however: Vassar has taught me how to think. I learned somewhere around the second semester of my sophomore year that I don’t have to believe every theory or article my professor presents to me or adhere to the opinion of the most aggressive student in class. Rather, I learned that these things were there as challenges to my own imagination and channels through which I had the luxury of deciding for myself what I was going to think about and take from each individual experience. I learned that not until you know what you’re confident about and have sufficient evidence or cause to believe in it should you begin to try and convince others of it. I learned that thinking, and thinking well, can get you anywhere.

As I approach my final days here, I think of the 34 credits I’ve earned across numerous disciplines ranging from women’s studies to economics and American Sign Language to Proto-Indo European linguistics and feel as if I’ve been filled by the knowledge of how to engage, how to explore and how to grow.

What comes next? Well, specifically, jobs, graduate school, time off, exploration and fellowships, etc, but in the more general sense, who really knows? On May 23, we will be setting out from the gates of Vassar and be have our knowledge and skills put to the test in making this world what we want it to be and in using our education to change realities and develop new ideas. So when all along we were preparing for college with an uncertainty as to what would come next, my feeling is that there was no way for anyone to inform us on or prepare us for that part. We’ve finally reached the point where we’re in control of the “what comes next,” and I truly believe we’ve all been sufficiently prepared to depart and find greatness.

My best wishes to the Class of 2010, and may we all contribute a little of what we’ve learned within these walls to the betterment of what awaits us outside of them.

View more posts ↓