Monday, April 23, 2012

Alma Mater (Review)

Title: Alma Mater: Design and Experience in Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s
Author: Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
Publication Information: University of Massachusetts Press, 2e (originally published in 1984)
Genre: History/Women’s Studies
Book/Event: I was pleased to see that Helen Horowitz, Emerita professor of history at Smith College, was going to be speaking at the Radcliffe Institute because I am an admirer of her work. The topic of the speech was:
It’s Complicated: 375 Years of Women at Harvard
Historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz will explore Harvard University’s relationship with women, which she describes as complicated. Her review begins with the University’s founding 375 years ago, when Harvard excluded women as students and teachers. For 200 years, the University conveyed education and prestige to a ministry and a rising merchant class. Beginning in the 19th century, women found innovative ways to attain higher education, but the terms of access required accommodation—even invisibility. Horowitz contends that the fight for equity began more than a century ago and remains a work in progress today. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust will offer brief welcoming remarks.

The book itself is fascinating. Fans of Carney’s House Party and Daddy Long Legs will, of course, love the sections on Vassar, but anyone interested in the college experience will enjoy the differing goals of the founders of these colleges and to what extent they were influenced by each other. The descriptions of the architecture are so intriguing they make me want to visit each campus with book in hand. I was delighted to meet Professor Horowitz after her speech and tell her my mother (who was with me) and I are part of a three generation Seven Sisters family. She autographed my book.
What I liked: It was nice to see the Radcliffe Institute hosting an event that was standing room only. The speech was entertaining and the audience was extremely engaged, and Professor Horowitz was very interesting. I agreed with much of what she said. Coming from Harvard where we are programmed to believe in our own superiority, it was very interesting to hear her theory that Radcliffe having been created in the shadow of Harvard (because that was all that Harvard would tolerate - not news to me) never had a proper model for empowering women students (the implication was that Radcliffe College was doomed to fail). In contrast, she praised Barnard as having thrived due to strong leadership that came to advantageous agreements with Columbia. I think Barnard has issues of its own, ever since Columbia started admitting women but the alumnae I know seem pleased with their experience. Perhaps I should have asked the president of Barnard when I contacted her last week, requesting that she write to Granny for her 97th birthday next Monday…
What I disliked: There were some interesting questions after Professor Horowitz’s speech (including one from Susan Faludi) and a few people wanted her to condemn the demise of Radcliffe College. She diplomatically said she would leave that topic to those most involved. My mother felt that the theme of the presentation ignored her belief that she had the best of both worlds – the academics of Harvard but the closeness of a women’s residential college. That was clearly true for her but several of her best friends resented the second-class citizenship and lack of mentoring.
Source: I bought this book many years ago due to my interest in women’s education.

No comments: