“What shall I be?” Hannah Braden, daughter of Sara Birnbaum Braden ’92, contemplates photographs of President Emeritus Mary Patterson McPherson, Ph.D. ’69, on the cover of the Fall 1997 Bulletin.

Children and Work

Children and work—it’s a hot topic, always has been, probably always will be. Voices from without, and especially voices from within, beat in a woman’s ears. In this issue we feature alumnae authors who responded to our call for articles last November.

When Mawrters speak of combining children and work, a creative and intellectual need is often being addressed as much or more than an economic one. The Spring and Summer 1981 Bulletins, which are among the most popular issues ever, were devoted to responses from alumnae to a questionnaire on Children and Work. Not much has changed: There were no easy answers and much personal conflict. Perceptions differed concerning the messages about careers and family life that alumnae felt the College gave. It is documented that M. Carey Thomas insisted she never said “our failures only marry” and tried her best to correct the report. Nevertheless, “the idea has been absorbed into the Bryn Mawr bloodstream,” the editors wrote.

According to another survey conducted in 1980 by the student Committee on the Purpose of a Women’s College, 72 percent of the Classes of 1980-83 expressed an intent to have children and 76 percent to be employed full time. But almost 60 percent felt that a mother should not work at all while her children are infants and 25 percent felt that they should be at home until their children are 6. After that, 40 percent thought that part-time work is suitable until the children are 12. “It will be interesting to read—in a Bulletin printed in the year 2000—how they worked things out,” wrote the editors. We have not conducted another survey, but most of the alumnae whose essays appear in this issue graduated in the 1980s.

Although Bryn Mawr’s Child Study Institute does not conduct specialized research on working mothers, it did recently survey alumnae who majored in psychology over the past 15 years. Of the 33 percent (116) who replied, 19 had children, four were mothering full time, eight were working full time, and seven were working part time. Leslie Rescorla, professor of psychology and director of the Institute, stresses that “the most important reality about combining career and motherhood is that the ‘right’ balance between being at home and being at work differs for every woman, and that what seems a good arrangement at one point in time may no longer be satisfactory or rewarding at another time, when professional obligations or opportunities change or when children reach a new developmental stage.”

One of the letters that requested this issue quoted from the 1971 Convocation address, "never forgetting, in scholar-motherhood, as Mrs. MacIntosh used to warn us, that the hand that rocked the cradle kicked the bucket." The Convocation speaker, Emily Townsend Vermeule '50, Ph.D. '56, herself a mother and supernormal classicist, had used the quote to close an exhortation hilariously patched together from homilies and platitudes. "Mrs. Mac" is Millicent Carey McIntosh '20, mother of five and dean and president of Barnard College from 1947-1962. The only married woman with children to head a women's college at that time, McIntosh in fact considered the "obstacles thrown in the way of careers for mothers" one of the "major failures of our civilization," according to Ruth McAneny Loud '23 in a 1947 article for the Bulletin. (It must also be said that McIntosh had, as Loud wrote, the advantages of "a good brain and the chance to develop it; unusually promising children; a secure life; the choice of prize jobs open to women; and perfect health.")

We welcome comments from readers on this issue and hope to publish correspondence and additional essays on this website. Please write to the Editor at jtremble@brynmawr.edu or Alumnae Bulletin, 101 North Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010-2899, or 610-526-5228 (fax).

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