A conversation about women, 160 years in the making

By Sarah Holcomb

As over 130 students and faculty flooded the Billy Graham Center Wilson Suite for a breakout session during the student-organized “Where are the Women?” conference on Monday, chairs were in short supply. Dozens of students lined the walls or sat cross-legged at speakers’ feet, surrounded by mounds of jackets and backpacks as they munched on hockey-puck-sized cookies. Soon the adjacent session relocated to create more space.

The turnout confirmed what the event’s five organizers already believed: Wheaton College needed a campus-wide conversation focused on women.

Nearly 160 years after Wheaton’s first female graduate received her degree, 55 percent of today’s Wheaton students are women. The century following Wheaton’s founding saw the women’s suffrage movement and an influx of women to the workplace. Still, women continue to encounter unique challenges in academia, the workplace, the home and the church.

“Where are the women?” — a question many women ask as they enter male-dominated spaces, careers and conversations — served as the focus for the two-day conference which brought nine alumnae to campus to share their experiences. A dive into Wheaton’s archive reveals that students have been asking this question for decades.

Life for Wheaton’s first women

At its founding in 1860, Wheaton College was a progressive institution — one of a handful of coeducational colleges in the U.S. and the only college-level women’s program in Illinois. Wheaton’s founder and first president, Jonathan Blanchard, advocated for education open to all, regardless of race or gender.

Many of Blanchard’s fellow educators disagreed, believing women were not suited for advanced study, arguing that they lacked physical or intellectual rigor, that God did not intend women to study or that young women would corrupt the morals of their male peers.

Advocating both for the “natural equality of souls” and distinct gender roles, Blanchard wrote, “Adam and Eve got their education together in Eden; and … their sons and daughters should do so in the school, though the sons may name the cattle, and the daughters dress the flowers.”

Although female students graduated on the same level as their male counterparts, their courses of study at Wheaton diverged. Wheaton offered a “Ladies Course” and “ordinary college course,” described by Blanchard as “designed especially for young gentlemen, though the textbooks in the Young Ladies’ Course are the same, or nearly so.”

The “Ladies course” allowed “something for needlework and other things,” while omitting “something of languages and higher mathematics,” Blanchard explained in the 1862-63 course catalog, adding that students recited their lessons alongside male peers as far as their studies overlapped.

At Wheaton’s first commencement, seven students graduated, all men. Adeline Eliza Collins received her diploma the following year as Wheaton’s first female graduate. Until 1877, women received an “Artium Sororis” (Sister of Arts) degree, while other colleges awarded “Maid” or “Mistress” of Arts degrees, as it was deemed improper to call a woman a “Bachelor.”

Gender segregation extended to the course catalog, which listed women students separately until https://thewheatonrecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IMG_0048.webpistration decided to “interfile” the names in the 1870s. Although women accounted for only 21 percent of the country’s undergraduates at the time, over the next twenty years the percentage of female undergraduates nationwide would more than double.

As a result, colleges increasingly began hiring women — including Collins, the Head of the Female Department at Wheaton — to teach and counsel female students. According to research by scholar Patsy Parker on the historical role of women in higher education, hiring a “Dean of Women” gave college https://thewheatonrecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IMG_0048.webpistrators peace of mind that male and female students would stay separate.

Women’s roles in society

Divisions between sexes on Wheaton’s campus — whether in course requirements or extracurriculars — reflected the different roles in which they would presumably find themselves post-graduation.

A 1913 Record article applauded Wheaton alumnae who, “as a rule, followed that first and most important vocation of their sex, that of homemakers.” The article also noted, however, that “their labors have not been confined to their homes,” but alumnae were serving as missionaries, “stand-bys in church and community,” pastors and Christian workers, physicians and nurses, artists and businesswomen.

Dialogue over the next century challenged gender roles. Following the precipitous increase and decline of women in the workforce during and after the World Wars, in 1960 women comprised over a third of the labor force, compared to just five percent in 1870.

Still, one student lamented in a 1970 Record issue, “How many Wheaton women find that upon graduation prospective employers are most interested in their typing speed?”

From the late 1970s to early 1990s, a flurry of articles on women’s roles hit the pages of the Record, including a series on “Women and the Church.” Many wrote in to support the “women’s liberation movement” and urge on fellow students, while others supported traditional women’s roles. A survey in 1985 revealed that most students felt there was no need for an equal rights amendment.

When Lynn Cooper, Ph.D., professor of communication emeritus, began teaching at Wheaton in 1974 as a single 24-year-old, “it was definitely a patriarchal culture.” In the early 1970s, Professor of Music Kathleen Kastner remembers, “There was much more ‘maleness’ on campus — everywhere you looked; young women had much less of a voice.”

Students organized events to discuss women’s roles. At the “Women at the Crossroads” conference in 1986, 200 women students listened to female professionals discuss identity, two-career marriages, “women in a man’s world” and being a woman of God.

The next year, another conference responded to questions from female students on career, family and leadership. Students on the planning committee highlighted the need for women’s voices. “I put my time into it because I really believe it is an area where there needs to be a lot of thinking, questioning and observing of role models,” junior Christine Dorf told the Record in 1987. “I felt that there is a lack of discussion here on campus about the choices that women have today.”

Organizers of this week’s “Where are the Women?” conference brought this conversation again to the forefront, addressing the recurring, yet pressing, question in a twenty-first century context.

A 2019 report card

Today, nearly half of college professors in the U.S. are women, up from a third in 1987, while 32 percent are tenured.

Wheaton’s female faculty now account for 36 percent of full-time professors; they comprise 29 percent of tenured professors and 47 percent of tenure-track faculty, likely due to recent increases in female faculty. While women comprise almost half of assistant professors, less than a third of full or associate professors are women. Of Wheaton’s full time faculty, 13 are women of color (5.8 percent), including nine professors who identify as Asian, two as Black or African-American and one as Latino.

Both Kastner and Cooper recognized changes over the past 40 years. One of Kastner’s first students in 1972 constantly questioned Kastner, the first woman with a doctorate in percussion performance in the country, until he attended her recital one day.

While Cooper’s students generally respected her (“only once did a male student confront me in class as whether it was appropriate for a woman to teach a man”) she said she often encountered gender stereotyping by male faculty. “A male faculty member told me that it didn’t matter if I had a doctorate because ‘You’re a woman and have no credibility.’ While https://thewheatonrecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IMG_0048.webpistration was supportive, there were no females at this level or on the Board to advise women faculty.”

Today, “the College has also been responsive at most levels to address the needs of female faculty,” Cooper said. “I also think having a female Provost has been so encouraging and significantly helpful,” Kastner added. However, challenges like maternity leave, finding affordable childcare and male-dominated meetings continue to affect female faculty.

College https://thewheatonrecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IMG_0048.webpistration often fares poorly in gender diversity. Women hold 26 percent of college presidencies, but only 5 percent at Christian colleges and universities, according to 2010 data collected by Dr. Amy Reynolds, associate professor of sociology and director of Wheaton’s Gender Studies Certificate. Within the last two years, two women joined Wheaton’s senior https://thewheatonrecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IMG_0048.webpistrative cabinet: Provost Margaret Diddams and Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer Sheila Caldwell. Since 1920, only ten percent of Wheaton’s student body presidents have been female.

Reynolds encourages young women to not “box themselves in.” When it comes to structural change, her research advocates highest-level leadership at least half comprised of women of various racial identities, along with public affirmation, setting targets and putting policies in place to punish harassment and sexism.

On Monday, Amy Brown Hughes, Ph.D., sang a Hamilton track from the chapel stage as a refrain about women’s exclusion: “I wanna be in the room where it happens, the room where it happens!”

“Whether in church, workplaces or civic organizations, there will come a time, or multiple times, when a woman is in a meeting and asks herself ‘where are the women?’” Diddams told the chapel audience. “Or, in my case, over 30 years of educational and corporate settings, I still find myself asking: ‘Jeepers, am I the only one again?’”

Women in ministry

Female professors in Bible and theology face specific challenges. During Monday’s “Women in Ministry” panel, associate professor of New Testament Amy Peeler, Ph.D., said she’s often heard, “If you’re a woman, you don’t believe the authority of scripture.” “You don’t have to take my opinion,” Peeler added, “but I will go to town with you on scripture!” She invites friendly dialogue with students on women’s ordination: “We can disagree, but let’s get to know one another.”

As attendees packed into the Wilson suite, the scene looked familiar to history. On an April day in 1990, 160 students and faculty had crowded in the same space for lectures on women in ministry, organized by graduate students who “felt like the general position perpetuated on campus is a very conservative and narrow view.” A survey two years before found 19 percent of Wheaton students — and 48 percent of faculty — agreed that women’s ordination is biblical, while around 20 percent of both students and faculty were undecided.

The same year, Wheaton hired Nancy Calvert (‘82) as a Bible and theology professor to fill in for two professors on sabbatical, marking the first female hire in the department since the 1950s.“The department has long been in favor of having a woman, but a big concern is having a qualified person,” the department chair had told the Record.

Ironically, Wheaton College has a record of women in church leadership from its early history.

Wheaton student Fannie Townsley later became the second-known Baptist woman ordained and held evangelistic services across New England. Another early graduate, Juanita Breckenridge, became the first female Bachelor’s of Divinity (now known as the Master’s of Divinity) graduate from Oberlin Seminary. Although controversy broke out as she sought her preaching license, she was ordained in 1890. Edith Torrey joined the faculty in 1919 as the college’s first Bible and theology professor.

Panelists at the 2019 conference spoke about struggling to envision themselves in ministry, missing female role models, receiving support from professors and encountering resistance — whether being told to speak from the floor rather than the pulpit, or being excluded from meetings because of their gender.

“We’re missing half of the gifts of the church if we don’t fully involve women where they’re called to be,” Elizabeth Gatewood (‘09) said.

Caldwell shares this perspective: “It will be difficult for the church or institutions to thrive if women are undermined or excluded from prominent places and positions.”

Future hopes

All five conference organizers — senior Laura Howard, sophomore Katherine Beech and graduate students Eliza Stiles, Katherine Goodwin and Hannah Hempstead — have stories that led them to ask “Where are the women?”

Howard, a philosophy and theology double-major, remembers when, as a transfer student excited about Bible classes at her new Christian high school, she was warned by the woman at the front desk to “be careful how much you get into that kind of thing, because if you get too far into it, it will be difficult to find a man who can still lead you spiritually.”

Professor of Theology George Kalantzis initially connected the five students, who planned the event independently, from the budget to social media marketing. They secured enthusiastic support from campus offices to reach — and surpass — their $15,000 funding goal to host the conference. Convening in Kalantzis’ office between events, the group said they were impressed with turnout and how “we’ve been able to empower women without tearing down men.” The team hopes to make the conference an annual event.

Conference panelists included female medical professionals, church leaders, a development professional and a stay-at-home mother who discussed relational dynamics, sexual harassment, women in leadership and the ever-changing nature of women’s vocations. Panelists also addressed intersectionality and challenges facing women of color.

“I think there’s massive power in that we’ve flooded this campus with brilliant alumnae who are talking about what it’s like to be a woman and not shying away from hard questions, and saying, ‘I ask these questions, too, and this is where I’m at in that journey,’” Beech said.

Beech said a friend approached her during the conference to say, “It occurred to me today, I could do a Ph.D. in theology and that’s never occurred to me before!” Beech beamed. “I’m grateful this conversation is allowing people to even think those thoughts; it’s allowing women to see themselves in positions they might not have been able seen themselves before.”

“Imagination expansion is the goal, in many ways,” Howard added.

Maddy Preston (‘18) says she hopes the conference “gives women a better understanding of how to occupy spaces … boldly and confidently. And for men, an understanding of how to create and allow spaces for women in those areas.”

“In the future, I hope to see more conversations surrounding the intersection of sexism, racism and classism to encourage more effective problem-solving for all women,” Caldwell told the Record.

If history is any indicator, the conversation surrounding women at Wheaton — and the world — is far from finished.

Sarah Holcomb

Sarah Holcomb

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