The Promise of Women’s Leadership: Uncommon Women for the Common Good
When Mary Lyon opened the gates of academia to women, she sought to provide access to excellence in higher education for all women, regardless of socioeconomic background. She did so with the conviction that challenging women to excel academically would enhance their ability to contribute meaningfully to society’s greater good. The question I put before us today is whether the historic mission envisioned by Mary Lyon has been fulfilled. I recognize the danger in asking this question, for I might be seen as putting myself out of a job if I draw certain conclusions. Nonetheless, as your President and as a philosopher I am convinced that this is a critical question to pose at this point in the College’s history. In both capacities I am and shall remain committed to the pursuit of truth. With this in mind, I want to argue that, for all of our achievements and despite the greatness of Mount Holyoke, Mary Lyon’s historic mission has not been fulfilled.
The skeptics among you might be wondering how I could possibly contend that Mary Lyon’s mission has not been fulfilled. After all, women in the United States have greater access to higher education than ever before. Since the year 2000, women have comprised 57 percent of students on American college campuses and are one-and-a-half times as likely as their male counterparts to graduate and to earn advanced degrees. This differential boosts their salary potential to the point where young, single, urban women in their twenties for the first time are earning more than their male counterparts. Such data could suggest to some that women’s colleges have outlived their mission. A more comprehensive survey of the facts, however, suggests precisely the opposite: that women’s colleges are contributing directly and in some cases driving the statistics of success behind the next generation of women leaders in this country.
Just three weeks ago, a Washington Post article by Selena Rezvani cited research indicating that graduates of women’s colleges outperform their coeducational peers in speaking their minds, attaining their career goals, and achieving more happiness. Additional studies by the National Survey of Student Engagement show that women at single-sex colleges are more engaged than those attending coeducational institutions. They are more likely to participate in active and collaborative learning and student-faculty interactions than their counterparts at coeducational institutions. Moreover, women’s college students report greater gains in understanding themselves and others, and are more likely to contribute to the welfare of their communities.
The continuing relevance of women’s education in emergent leadership is not confined to campus and community engagement. Upon graduation, we hold proportionally more leadership roles in business than our counterparts at coeducational institutions. More than one-third of female board members at Fortune 1000 companies are women’s college graduates, despite the fact that women’s colleges represent less than 1 percent of female college students nationwide. Similarly, women’s college graduates comprise 30 percent of Business Week’s list of rising women stars in corporate America. In government as well, 20 percent of the female members of Congress attended women’s colleges—again, a proportionally significant presence in our nation’s leadership. And in education, women’s college graduates are more than twice as likely to earn Ph.Ds than our peers at coeducational institutions.
In light of this data, which suggests that America’s female leadership is proportionally saturated with graduates of women’s colleges, my question as to whether we have not fulfilled Mary Lyon’s historic mission might appear to be on very shaky ground. And before I defend my assertion, I confess that its ground appears even shakier when we consider the accomplishments of Mount Holyoke’s own affiliates across a staggering array of professional and creative fields. The suffragist Lucy Stone. Freedom Rider and first tenured African American woman in the Harvard Medical School, Gloria Johnson-Powell. The poet Emily Dickinson. America’s first female Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. The successor in her role, Elaine Chao. Groundbreaking physician Virginia Apgar. Playwrights Wendy Wasserstein and Suzan-Lori Parks. America’s first woman governor, Connecticut’s Ella Grasso. Current deputy chief of staff for President Obama, Mona Sutphen. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s deputy chief of staff, Suzie George.
By now you are surely questioning my skills as a philosopher, if I can genuinely doubt the success of Mary Lyon’s historic mission in light of such extensive and obvious achievement among Mount Holyoke alumnae. After all, in her Washington Post article Rezvani contends that graduates such as ours have been schooled in self-agency as a result of the fact that women’s colleges undermine the female tendency to wait for men to take action, empowering women instead to take action themselves. Mount Holyoke’s recent recognition by the Princeton Review as number one in the country for classroom experience speaks not only to the extraordinary talent of our faculty but the extent to which women on our campus are challenged to excel by their peers.
So why any doubt as to the continuing relevance of women’s colleges? Rezvani admits that, despite our obvious success in cultivating female leadership, “there is something of an image problem that may threaten the sustainability of these institutions” (Rezvani 3). Before we conclude that women’s colleges represent an anachronism in an equitable society, let us remember that image problems for women’s colleges are nothing new. When Mary Lyon went door to door with her green velvet purse trying to provide access to higher education for women, she did so in the midst of widespread ideological resistance to women’s education. Indeed, the early generation of college women were derided as “Bluestockings.” So what is a “Bluestocking?” The moniker originated in the mid-eighteenth century when a group, predominantly women, who were living in London decided to engage in literary discussions modeled after the salons in Paris. Wearing plain clothes as a sign of their serious-mindedness, the Bluestockings challenged the dominant ideals of femininity and domesticity, and by the end of the century, the term referred to any woman interested in the life of the mind.
Such women were said to “unsex and degrade themselves by their boisterous assumption of man’s prerogatives and responsibilities” (Peril 29). An 1851 encyclopedia even went so far as to describe the Bluestocking as “a pedantic female who sacrificed the characteristic excellence of her sex to learning.” An article in the Journal of Heredity decried colleges admitting women, insisting, "If we have forces which are drawing off the best blood of the American stock and sinking it into the dry desert of sterile intellectuality and paralytic culture, let us know the facts and let these magnificent colleges face them and the race responsibilities involved."
Given these fears about the end of civilization, it is not surprising that among the earliest topics for population research in the U.S. was the demographic behavior of women’s graduates. Investigators examined the social consequences of education for women with the prediction that extinction, at least for this class of women, was inevitable due to an inability or lack of desire to replace themselves. These concerns are harbingers of contemporary assertions of “image problems” by those who view women’s colleges as bastions of liberal-lesbian-radical-feminist activism.
Only 2 percent of women entering college today even consider applying to a women’s college. Does this come down to an image problem? Perhaps it does. In light of what women’s colleges can offer to female students seeking higher education, the tension between our graduates’ obvious success and the presumptions of our potential applicant pool creates a paradox to examine. When my colleague Chris Benfey asks in his essay on Emily Dickinson’s Mount Holyoke, “Where can an intellectually ambitious young woman go today and listen to her own voice?,” I have no doubts about the answer. Her voice is more audible at a women’s college. As your President, I promise to lead the way in untangling the paradoxical gap between the promise of a Mount Holyoke education and the awareness of female applicants as to its power.
More pressingly for our purposes today, however, a far more difficult paradox stands before us. Does the possibility that we have not fulfilled Mary Lyon’s historic mission all come down to an image problem? No. The problem of mission fulfillment is much more serious and far-reaching than a matter of outreach and marketing. Rather, it rests on the fact of the deeper paradox between the educational strides women are making in the United States and the circumstances of women around the world.
If we take seriously Mary Lyon’s enjoinder to view women’s education as inextricably linked to moral purpose, we must look beyond the education of our own students to the education and empowerment of women beyond our own borders. For surely, the nature and scope of abuses inflicted on women globally warrants universal attention. In their award-winning book, Half the Sky, Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof tell the stories behind the mind-boggling statistic that “more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century” (WuDunn and Kristof xvii). Just as slavery was the central moral challenge of the nineteenth century, and the battle against totalitarianism was the major challenge of the twentieth century, the authors maintain that “in this century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world” (WuDunn and Kristof xvii).
Taking up this challenge is daunting. Just consider these facts: Of the more than 77 million children around the world who do not attend school, 57 percent of them are girls (CARE). Women, mostly in rural areas, represent more than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults, and the fastest-growing segment of those infected with HIV/AIDS in America are African American women and girls. The strongest predictor of HIV infection is not race, however—it is class. The reality is that each of these statistics highlights the “feminization of poverty” and the fact that the majority of the 1.5 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day are women.
Women need to be empowered through measures to increase social, economic, and political equity that will in turn bolster access to fundamental human rights. As we know from our own civil rights movement, passing laws is not enough in the face of overriding cultural, social, and political forces that make exercising these rights impossible. In order to promote women’s leadership and political participation, to strengthen women’s economic capacity, and to stem violence against women, we must turn to education. It is incumbent upon all of us in higher education to exert pressure on those who deny access to education for women. We need to overturn those economic structures that reinforce a division of labor in which women and girls spend up to six hours a day gathering water and firewood. We must prevent girls from being subject to harassment from both classmates and teachers because of a sexism that is too frequently reinforced by school officials. This is not mere rhetoric or a plank in the platform of a specious political equity. Impacting the education and literacy rates for women and girls will have an overarching effect of reducing the mortality rates for children overall and for girls in particular.
One hundred and seventy-three years after its inception, Mount Holyoke continues to be recognized worldwide for its outstanding academic programs and for its conviction that women’s education is central to the promotion of social transformation. At Mount Holyoke, by fostering the alliance of liberal learning with purposeful engagement in the world, we encourage a community of thinkers who understand how to identify and respond to complex problems in an increasingly globally interdependent world. We will continue to produce some of the world’s best scientists, social scientists, artists, humanists, and leaders in both the academic and extramural communities. But let me be clear: while we intend to affirm an enduring commitment to promoting academic excellence and the achievement of women in American colleges, we will endeavor to ensure that this is not done in ignorance of, or worse, at the expense of, women around the world. Only then will we have fulfilled Mary Lyon’s historic mission.
I am truly honored and humbled by the privilege of being able to serve my alma mater as we work to provide access to excellence in higher education and nurture the promise of women’s leadership in an effort to promote social justice. I am grateful to each and every one of you for being here today and for taking the time to join me in this celebration. Now the hard work begins. Over the next academic year, the Mount Holyoke community will be engaging in an integrated strategic planning process to assess our mission and identify common objectives and shared values in our quest toward moving Mount Holyoke to new heights. Together we shall attack our paradoxes: the paradox in the gap between our institutional achievements and our image in the marketplace, yes, but most pressingly the paradox between women’s achievements in America and the state of women in the rest of the world.
In facing these challenges, we have significant strengths upon which to draw, including a talented faculty and dedicated staff; the richness of an exceptionally international and diverse community; a powerful, global network of alumnae; and a legacy of visionary leadership. The sense of sisterhood among Mount Holyoke women transcends time and place, creating a bond that is indestructible. Each of us knows that no matter where we are in the world, a Mount Holyoke alumna will be there to welcome, inspire, laugh, cry, and through the most trying times, lift us when we stumble, as we inevitably do, in our journey through life. Our mission stands before us; together, our voices in vigorous renewal. We shall face our paradoxes as only the daughters of Mary Lyon can, with assemblage of wits and a firm sense of purpose that rise in collective conviction. Our paradoxes, far from denuding our continuing relevance, will strengthen our resolve and resituate our mission, from college to nation to world. I thank you all!
(Note: This printed text may vary from the speech delivered.)