I have read with interest the recent columns by Susan O’Daugherty about her experience at a women’s college in the early 1970s. While I did not attend a women’s college, I now teach at one, and wanted to lend a few words about what it is like to teach at a women-centered school. We are the last women’s college in Ohio, and one of only sixty left in only twenty four of the states in the United States, but I think that we bring a unique perspective to the education of women, one grounded on the tradition of the Ursuline Sisters who founded our school.
In Europe in the 1500s, there were really only three “career tracks” for women; a woman could be a wife, a cloistered sister, or she could be a prostitute. Being a vowed religious was the only of these options that allowed for a woman to obtain an education. Into the chaotic world of that time came an uneducated woman named Angela Merici, who, while she did not attend school herself, realized that educating women was the key to making the world a better place, to transforming the world, as she put it. And so she gathered a group of women around her who dedicated themselves to educating women. They began to call themselves the “Ursulines”, named after a saint from the early years of the Church who was popular at the time. Today, the Ursuline sisters have a worldwide presence and take an extra vow of Christian education, in addition to the usual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They run numerous high schools and many colleges, including Ursuline College, where I work.
While things have generally improved for women, the Ursuline Sisters continue to view the education of women as central to transforming the world. While we accept “a few good men”, we remain women focused, and still see our role as one of educating people to make a difference in the world. Such a radical view gives a special flavor to Ursuline College, and makes working here more than just a job. We put a special emphasis on educating for jobs that are transformative, such as social work and nursing. I have had the opportunity to see women in all stages of their lives, and have been touched by them and their stories. I have gotten to know very young women who had their whole lives ahead of them, women who were putting their lives back together after leaving abusive relationships, and women who were returning to school after their children were grown, claiming “now it is my turn.”
I have met many spouses of former students, and have celebrated milestones in their lives, such as births and baptisms. I have seen women bravely battle serious illnesses, and watched most come out on the other side of such struggles. Some, however, have not been so lucky. I recall one young woman who battled a debilitating illness her whole life, triumphing over it by obtaining an education, even when it meant learning to type with hands that had lost several fingers. As graduation approached, we held our breaths in hope that she would be able to attend. She did, and, only weeks from death, she walked, supported by her advisor, across the stage to receive her diploma as her classmates and the faculty stood in a standing ovation. I remember that I cried about that whole weekend, for both the struggle and the courage of this wonderful young woman who I was lucky to have in my class.
I have walked the road to adoption beside one student and have admired two students who adopted sibling groups of “hard to place” older children, bringing their families to numbers that were close to the double digits. I have seen women who had children in high school go on to pursue graduate work and I know of several children who sat through my courses in the months before they were born- one mom said that her unborn son liked my Number Theory class!
Despite the competition for graduate school admission, I see students from departments such as Psychology and Biology gain acceptance into Ph.D. programs and medical school on a regular basis. Math itself saw its first Ph.D. student only last year, but we look ahead to more such success stories. I sometimes wonder where I would have been if I had gone to a women’s college, and not been one of the only a few women physics majors in my program back in the early 1980s. Would the world have one less economist and one more physicist? I don’t know, but I do know one thing for sure.
I recall being a graduating senior of age 22, bound for a Ph.D. program complete with funding, and speaking of myself as a “girl”. I know for a fact that I would have chosen different language had I attended a women’s college!