On Women’s Education by Ellie B. Rothman

Editor’s note: Former faculty member Ellie B. Rothman, Director Emerita of the Ada Comstock Scholars Program at Smith College, was the keynote speaker during the Northampton School for Girls’ 90th Anniversary Celebration on Oct. 17.

It’s my pleasure to welcome you all here this morning, for what looks like an interesting series of talks and opportunities to talk with your fellow alumnae from a spread of classes. Jeff Pilgrim and Penny Molyneaux (and perhaps a few others) are to be congratulated on putting it all together. I want to make sure that you all realize, appearances perhaps to the contrary, that I was not around at the time that NSFG was founded.

It’s a happy occasion, and I’m delighted to have been asked to speak to you. I’m going to try to say something meaningful about women’s education, though to do so in 15 minutes is daunting, to say the least.

First, I have a question: How many of you attended a women’s college? ….. We’ll come back to that.

I plan to tell you a bit about my own experience, leaving some time for questions so that I can respond to what you really want to know.

I’m not going to say anything about why Miss Whitaker and Miss Bement decided to found a school for girls in Northampton, MA in 1924. Perhaps Rick Teller will talk about that this afternoon. You all are probably pretty glad that they appreciated the importance of women’s EDC or you wouldn’t be here to celebrate your alma mater.

My own academic history did not include women’s education. I am the product of a standard co-ed public school system. I went to what I now think of as the late lamented Radcliffe College. It was technically a women’s college, but in fact it wasn’t. It was one of the “Seven Sister Colleges,” presumably the women’s equivalent of the Ivy League. However, by the time I got there, Radcliffe was already not really a women’s college, in that all of our classes except for about a dozen freshman sections were co-educational with Harvard. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, when the Ivies (and many other formerly men’s colleges) started admitting women, the 7-sisters (and other women’s colleges) were left scrambling. The same thing happened in independent prep schools. There was a perceived fundamental flaw in women’s schools admitting men, in that many men (our extremely talented archivist, Vassar alumnus Rick Teller, notwithstanding) did not flock to women’s colleges as women were flocking to men’s.

I landed at NSFG sort of through the back door. While staying home with small children, I put my name on a list of available tutors, because it was something I could do at home. I did quite a lot of tutoring in CHM, so when the CHM teacher resigned, Alan McMillen, headmaster at the time, asked if I would consider accepting the position. Frankly, I had never particularly wanted to teach in a classroom, and initially declined the offer. He persisted, and acceded to all of my conditions, one of which was that I would teach only half-time, so I was in the position of really having to accept his offer.

I taught CHM at NSFG from 1967 until it basically closed in 1971, and was part of the small faculty committee that met with a similar group from Williston Academy to try to iron out some of the difficult problems inherent in the merger of the two schools. Those of us from NSFG (a mixed-gender group) considered our mandate to be one of trying to protect the interests of our students in what we feared would be a hostile environment. I continued to teach at WNS for the first four years of the merged schools; I think anyone who was here at that time, in any capacity, will remember that it was in many ways a difficult time.

In 1975 I was offered the opportunity to become the founding director of the Ada Comstock Scholars Program (ACSP) at Smith College. There was some serendipity involved in that job offer as well, but that’s not relevant. The ACSP was designed by a small group of Smith faculty to offer the opportunity to earn a Smith degree to women beyond the usual college age. I built and directed the program until 1998, at which time I moved into a development position to raise money for it until my final retirement in late 2004. For a number of years I thought I had the best job in the world.

At least five NSFG alumnae, three of whom had been students in my CHM classes, earned Smith degrees through the program. The oldest woman to earn a degree was 86 at her Commencement; among other accomplishments, she had been the first woman to be appointed as US Ambassador to New Zealand. By the time I completed 23 years as Director, more than 1,800 women received Smith degrees. Since then, there have been almost 900 more.

While working at Smith I discovered the true meaning of “women’s education.” There is perhaps no obvious reason why a women’s college is a more comfortable place for a woman over the age of 22 to go to school. However, all of these students were asked, as part of their applications for admission, to answer the question: “What did you do when other people your age were going to college, why did you do it, and how do you feel about it now?” It was not intended to be an easy assignment. What we were primarily interested in was whether or not the candidate could write, but obviously the information in the essay also was relevant. And what we found was that often the reasons had to do with a lack of interest and/or success in school, usually exacerbated by families who did not support the idea of women going to college, or, worse still, were actively hostile toward it.

By the time they arrived at Smith, they had discovered, usually in a community college, that learning could be both rewarding and enjoyable, and some measure of academic success had improved their self-esteem. And the absence of men, who tend to dominate classroom discussions, allowed them to gain confidence in their ideas. This also applies, of course, to students of traditional age.

My experience at Smith allowed me the opportunity to meet many extraordinary and accomplished women. Among the 40,000 or so Smith alumnae are, of course, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Julia Child, and many more whose names you probably know. And there are hundreds more with lower public profiles but stellar lives and careers. And there are many thousands more who have lived highly productive lives both professionally and in their communities.

Over the years, there have been a number of initiatives at Smith to become co-educational; thus far they have been pushed back primarily by alumnae, as well as by some determined faculty. Those in the sciences tend to be particularly eager to remain a single-sex institution. Multiple studies demonstrate that a disproportionate number of women who earn Ph.D.’s in the sciences are graduates of women’s colleges.

Alas, the merger of NSFG with Williston Academy, as you all know, was one of hundreds of such mergers at the time. Those schools were perhaps the lucky ones; many other girls’ schools simply closed, the lack of students causing a lack of sufficient funds to stay viable, and no obvious “suitor” in the wings. This happened on both the secondary and college levels. There are now only 43 institutions in the Women’s College Coalition, 3 of which are in Canada, and 28 US girls’ boarding schools. I now believe, having experienced both systems, that the opportunity to learn in a non-threatening environment without the distractions of a co-educational student body with its mingling of social pressures with academic pursuits, is ultimately beneficial.

So, what does that mean for those of you, loyal NSFG alumnae, who have gathered here this morning to celebrate the founding 90 years ago of your school? Even those who did not go on to women’s colleges had the experience of single-sex classrooms as part of your foundation. Do you think it made a difference? Have you thought about what that difference might be?

I’d be happy to entertain any questions you might have.

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