Learning to Be a Feminist in the World
by Lydia Murdoch, Class of 1992
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.
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