Just the other week I watched the movie Mona Lisa Smile, which takes place at Wellesley College in the early 1950’s. The campus and students seemed familiar – my mother finished Mount Holyoke College back then and I followed her a few decades later. The Seven Sister Colleges were Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, and Radcliffe. Only the first three remain independent women-only liberal arts schools today, or more specifically, colleges that admit individuals presenting as female.
Amherst, just ten miles from both Mount Holyoke and Smith, was still men-only back in my day. I can recall my relief in discovering most young men finally reached or surpassed my height. I even took a course at Amherst called “Mysticism and the Moral Life;” let me just say there was no eligible man for me in that class!
My recent purchase of a book written in the 1970’s by Elaine Kendall entitled Peculiar Institutions: An Informal History of the Seven Sister Colleges has prompted additional memories of my undergraduate years. Besides a first-rate education, I made friends for life. We’d gather over “milk and cookies” in our flannel Lanz nightgowns while taking study breaks, talking about our hopes and dreams. (Did you know Lanz of Salzburg still makes nightgowns? Christmas is not that far away . . . . hint-hint!)
My back-up choice was a coed college, but I was pleased to be accepted at Mount Holyoke first. I was born an introvert so as a freshman I tended to remain quiet in my classes. Over the four years I became more vocal, which I attribute to the supportive all-female environment. Even though many of my MoHo classmates followed a STEM career track, we all benefited from our liberal arts training: learning to think independently, question, and communicate well. Some may consider a single-gender school anachronistic; it simply is not – even today it remains an excellent choice for many young women.
My classmates and I graduated on the waves of major change for women. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, a MoHo alumna, wrote the play Uncommon Women and Others specifically about these changes. More women were testing their abilities to have both career and children. Some sought a positive impact on global issues. Some became leaders in the LGBTQ community. Some lived all of the above and more. As for me, I knew I wanted to work in a professional capacity, but it took time to find my way, obtain additional education and eventually reach senior management. My generation had more choices than my mother’s.
There are more waves coming. My views on women’s issues continue to evolve, and I credit the Seven Sisters for this.