On September 18, 2013, the following keynote speech was delivered by Carol Tecla Christ ’66, President of Smith College from 2002-2013, at the Douglass 95th Anniversary Dinner held in Trayes Hall.
Let me first thank you for the invitation to speak at this celebration of Douglass’s 95th anniversary. I’m honored by it, and value the opportunity to think about the history of Douglass and its significance today.
Douglass’s history is unique among women’s colleges. It is the only women’s college founded by the organization of women’s clubs, and by popular subscription
Let me tell you the story. At the beginning of the twentieth century, incredible as this sounds, there was no college in New Jersey open to women; moreover, the public university—Rutgers—did not admit women. At a meeting in 1911 of the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs, interest arose in opening Rutgers College to women. The Federation appointed a committee to explore the matter, and persuaded Mabel Douglass to serve as its chair.
To understand this initiative, it’s helpful to know a bit about women’s clubs in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. They had their origin in an act of discrimination—specifically, the barring of a woman from a reading by Charles Dickens. In 1868, New York journalist Jane Cunningham Croly, who wrote under the name Jennie June, was denied admission to a banquet honoring Charles Dickens, sponsored by the all-male New York Press Club. She was angry, and she decided to found her own club, for women only. The movement spread, and 21 years later, in 1890, Jane Croly organized a conference, bringing together delegates from 61 women’s clubs, who then formed the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.Women’s clubs engaged in a variety of projects, but they were united in claiming public space and voice for women. They passed resolutions—against child labor, in support of the Pure Food and Drug Act, in favor of the eight-hour workday and workplace safety; they founded 75% of the public libraries in the country; they organized volunteer work in support of causes they embraced; and they offered literary and intellectual programs for their members. Both before and after suffrage, women’s clubs formed an important avenue for women’s participationin the public sphere, in political and intellectual life.
So women’s clubs were a force, and so was Mabel Douglass. When she took on the project, she first went to the governor; then she went to President Woodrow Wilson. Initially, there was support for making Rutgers itself co-educational, in the manner of the Midwest landgrant universities. A writer in the New Brunswick Home News advocated making Rutgers a coeducational tuition-free university, “Spreading enlightenment and culture in a saloonless state.” But Mabel Douglass recognized that she would garner more support for a parallel coordinate women’s college. She tried to get the support of major philanthropists and foundations for her effort.Failing to do so, she organized a $1 subscription fund to build the college’s first building. Rutgers offered lukewarm and somewhat cynical support for this effort. After meeting with Mrs. Douglass, U.S. Senator and Rutgers trustee Joseph Frelinghuysen reported to Rutgers President William Demarest, “As you say, she is reasonable and intelligent . . .She wants $100,000 . . . I think the thing should not be turned down or ignored, as her inability to raise her fund will be a sufficient deterrent without any opposition on our part, and if it could succeed it would not be so bad as it would not be a coeducational college.”
The campaign, both for public support and for funding, was arduous, but finally, in 1918, Congress approved funds specifically designated for the teaching of home economics at land grant universities. Rutgers wanted this money, but did not have any program in which women could study the subject. With the prospect of the funds, and with the acquisition of land in New Brunswick at an inexpensive price, Rutgers approved the establishment of a Woman’s College, but stipulating that Rutgers would have no financial obligation for it. Ever practical, Senator Frelinghuysen said, “It’s better to have twenty-thousand women with us and not against us.” In September 1918, the college opened its doors with 54 students; the library consisted of twelve books, donated from Rutgers, stored in the Registrar’s closet.
As these financial arrangements suggested, Douglass was used to frugality from the start. As I’ve prepared my remarks for tonight, I’ve thought of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” in which Woolf seeks to answer the question of what women need to write fiction. She begins the book with an imaginary trip to a university modeled on Cambridge, in which she contrasts her dinner at a men’s college of partridge and wine with a dinner at one of the relatively new women’s colleges of beef, potatoes, custard, and prunes. Here is Woolf on the founding of this women’s college, which she calls Fernham—a standin for Newnham or Girton, but it could as well be Douglass: “Committees met. Envelopes were addressed. Circulars were drawn up. Meetings were held; letters were read out . . . And it was only after a long struggle and with the utmost difficulty that we got thirty thousand pounds together.”
But this beginning for Douglass endowed it with a distinctive legacy. It was founded not by a benefactor, like Matthew Vassar or Sophia Smith, but by a women’s movement—the campaign of the women’s clubs–, and it was founded as a public resource. Together with the agriculture school, Douglass was the most public part of Rutgers.
The early years of the college gave shape to many of the defining characteristics of its culture. Mrs. Douglass determined to build small houses rather than dormitories to house the students, because she thought,were the college to fail, the mortgages could be assumed by individual families. Because of the state funding available for home economics, the curriculum from the beginning combined the liberal arts with professional education. From the early years of the College, the Honor System—for the enforcement of both academic and social regulations—was a defining feature of the culture, about which I’ll talk more later. Douglass’s second dean, Margaret Corwin, called Douglass “a campus devoted to plain living and high thinking.”—an image of frugal virtue—beef, potatoes, custard and prunes. More significant was the unusual diversity of the student population. In 1935, one third of the students came from immigrant families.
I’m now going to fast-forward to the 1960’s, when I was a student at Douglass. I entered in 1962 and graduated in 1966, as did Judge Brinkema. Douglass was gifted with two extraordinary leaders in the 50’s and 60’s—Mary Ingraham Bunting, who served as dean from 1955 to 1960, and Ruth Marie Adams, who served as dean from 1960 to 1966. Like higher education in that decade, Douglass expanded, adding students, dormitories, and academic buildings. It changed its name from the New Jersey College for Women to Douglass.It increased its competitiveness, both in faculty appointments and in admissions, and it sharpened the focus of the curriculum. It was also a pioneer in defining new opportunities for women. During her years at Douglass, Dean Bunting had a feminist awakening. In the aftermath of Sputnick, she was invited to serve on an NSF panel charged with recommending how American could produce more scientists. (She was the one woman member of this panel.) The panel paid particular attention to the high school graduates in the top 10% of their class who did not go on to college. Ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent of these students were women. Despite the panel’s charge—to identify and develop more scientists–the men on the panel didn’t see women as part of the solution.In Bunting’s words, “they didn’t have any expectation that the women would be important.” This realization galvanized her, and she shaped two initiatives at Douglass, both firsts—one to identify and develop mathematical talent among New Jersey women, the other to create a part-time program for married women to return to collegeto complete their degrees. In these ways, Douglass contributed to the development of feminist awareness in the 1960’s. Moreover, it intensified its support for the academic and professional ambitions of its students, creating an honors house for students doing honors theses and increasing the percentage of students going on to graduate work from 4% to 17%.
But the 60’s were difficult times, culturally, for women’s colleges. They were devoted, in Dean Corwin’s words, to “plain living and high thinking.” At the same time that they encouraged the intellectual and professional aspirations of their students, they maintained a strict scrutiny of their conduct, a scrutiny increasingly out of step with the more liberal social mores in the 1960’s. The honor system at Douglass exacerbated this tension, with the obligation it imposed to report rule infractions.
At the same time that this tension was increasing at women’s colleges, men’s colleges—as the result of similar social forces—were moving toward co-education, determined to protect their competitive status in an increasingly co-educational world. In 1970, Rutgers took the step that New Jersey women had urged almost sixty years earlier—it admitted women.
The coming of co-education to traditionally men’s colleges created a sea-change for women’s colleges.Almost every woman’s college had a serious debate about co-education, including Douglass, but many chose, like Douglass, to remain women’s colleges. However, over the past 40 years, the number of women’s colleges has dramatically decreased, and their position in the landscape of higher education is very different now than it was when I was a student in the 1960’s.
So, in this changed landscape, what is the role of women’s colleges? Research shows that women’s colleges have produced a disproportionate share of the leaders across professional fields of endeavor. Women attending women’s colleges are more likely to major in scientific or technical disciplines, and they are more likely to major in economics than women students at co-educational colleges. What explains these outcomes? Womenattending women’s colleges have more leadership opportunities as undergraduates, and they see more women in leadership positions—as presidents, deans, and faculty members. Women’s colleges give powerful support to the idea that Mary Bunting was dismayed her male colleagues at the NSF did not share—that women do things of importance.
Nonetheless, many question whether there is still a need for women’s colleges, whether we haven’t arrived at a state of equality in which women no longer need the support of a woman’s college for their ambitions. I believe there still is a critical role for women’s colleges. Women are under-represented in the leadership of many fields. They constitute only 18% of the members of the US Congress, 10% of US governors, 23% of those elected to statewide office. Women constitute only 11% of those employed in engineering, and 4.2% of CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. Graduates of women’s colleges are so prominently represented in these numbers because undergraduate experience often sets a student on a path to leadership. Princeton recently conducted a study of women student participation in leadership roles because of a concern, forty years after co-education, that so few student leaders were women.
Women’s colleges have a particularly critical role to play in three areas. First are the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A recent federal study estimates that the United States will need one million more STEM graduates over the next decade than it is producing at current levels. This is still largely a gender problem–the same one that Mary Bunting observed in the 1950’s. Women major in the sciences in larger proportions in women’s colleges than in co-educational colleges, and they go on to graduate work in larger percentages. The research that has been done on the attrition of women in the sciences is remarkably consistent; women who drop out don’t do less well than women who complete their degrees; they are discouraged by a chilly climate and by peer hostility—obviously not factors at women’s colleges.
Women’s colleges also have a critical role to play in inspiring women to go into public life and to run for elective office. Research shows that by including women in politics, governing is more likely to occur in public view, not behind closed doors, and that the process if more likely to include consideration of the government’s full constituency. One study shows that, on a local level, female city managers are more likely than men to incorporate input into their decisions. Another study shows that female mayors adopt cooperative rather than hierarchical approaches to governing. In 2011, a group of women’s colleges collaborated with the State Department to create a new initiative—the Women in Public Service Project, with the ambitious goal of 50% representation of women in public service by 2050—worldwide. Douglass’s long history of commitment to women in the public sector, embedded in the story of its founding, makes this a key mission for the college.
It must be a global mission. In their influential book, “Half the Sky,” Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunnargue that the paramount moral challenge of the twenty-first century—equivalent to slavery in the nineteenth century and totalitarianism in the twentieth century—is the fight for gender equality in the developing world. This is an issue of both justice and economics. Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen has shown that the best indicator of the well-being of a population is the educational attainment of its women. By focusing on global gender equality, women’s colleges will educate their students to keep this issue central to public agendas.
During the debate about the founding of Douglass, one of Rutgers’ trustees asked derisively, “Who would want to cheer for the Women’s College of New Jersey?” On this ninety-fifth birthday for the Women’s College of New Jersey, we should all let out a cheer—for its courageous public beginning, for its founding connection to a social movement to claim public space for women, and for the many ways throughout its history it has defined and advocated greater opportunities for women.