Under a bright noonday sun on 23 September 2010, I experienced a quintessential Bryn Mawr moment. Our students had streamed out of labs, libraries and classrooms to gather on Merion Green. Cheering with anticipation, they welcomed the arrival of the College birthday cake, a splendid confectionary recreation of Thomas Great Hall and the Cloisters. One might reasonably have expected that the students who orchestrated this event would simply lead us in song and start cutting the cake. But in true Bryn Mawr fashion, they had invited Professor Kate Thomas of the English Department to mark the occasion with special remarks.
Kate delighted us with a lively disquisition, drawn from Virginia Woolf, about how important dining well is to thinking well. In describing her dinner at an Oxbridge men’s college, Woolf enthuses, “And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, [a] profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.”
“Having shared this rich yellow flame with the male scholars,” Kate Thomas continued, “Woolf then trudges back to her lodgings in one of the women’s colleges, which sadly offers no such comforts. Instead, they serve her brown soup and that most dreaded of deserts: prunes. ‘The lamp in the spine,’ Woolf laments, ‘does not light on [. . .] prunes’.”
Professor Thomas, whose research involves literary culture and food studies, finished with the rousing assertion that we at Bryn Mawr know that “when we join together to celebrate 125 years of educating women, we should serve not prunes, but cake.” Students cheered, broke into song and then dove into the birthday cake.
With a happy heart, I then made the quick dash to Goodhart to open our international anniversary conference, “Heritage and Hope: Women’s Education in a Global Context.” It was exhilarating to walk into the Mary Patterson McPherson Auditorium and find so many students, faculty, alumnae, friends and visitors assembled for the inaugural session. Participation in this conference was stronger and more enthusiastic than I could have predicted, and the many emails and notes that I have received in its aftermath signal its success.
The title of the conference, “Heritage and Hope,” was chosen with great care. It was wonderful to celebrate 125 years of Bryn Mawr’s heritage, its aspirations and accomplishments, and more broadly the leadership of women’s colleges and girls’ schools in expanding educational access and equity. It was equally exciting to look ahead with hope, anticipate all that we can be and all that we can do in the years to come. The education of women and girls has been and can be a powerful instrument of progress. Graduates of women’s colleges and girls’ schools have been a fearless force for change for the last two centuries. New female-focused institutions at all educational levels continue to be founded and to flourish around the world.
In her keynote address at the conference, U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer, summoned us, as institutions focused upon the education and empowerment of women, to become agents of global advancement. She asked us to exercise what I call our institutional agency, to be advocates for women whose lives are stifled by social circumstances and cultural practices that constrain and constrict. In the final speech of the conference, Nicholas Kristof, co-author with his wife Sheryl WuDunn of the bestselling Half the Sky: Turning Women’s Oppression into Opportunity, echoed this call to activism.
To meet this challenge we need closer connections and more robust affiliations with female-focused educational institutions around the world and with non-governmental organizations devoted to gender justice.
I am convinced that we are on the cusp of change and that this is a moment in which women’s education can align itself with powerful currents of progress. September marked the 10th anniversary of the UN Millennium Development Goals, which include gender equity and universal education among their eight mandates. During the same week as the “Heritage and Hope” conference, the UN General Assembly held a plenary summit to accelerate progress toward the 2015 deadline for these goals. Also convening in New York during that week, the Clinton Global Initiative made empowering girls and women one of the major themes of its annual meeting. I think we will look back on the fourth week of September 2010 and these three major gatherings as a turning point in the history of women’s education and the history of women’s advancement.
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