Beneath Thy Guiding Hand: A History of Women at the University of Delaware – Foreword
This book should come with a warning: Once you have read it, the southwest corner of campus will never look the same to you again. That area was the site of the Women’s College, whose original buildings were Residence Hall (now Warner Hall) and Science Hall (now Robinson Hall). When the Women’s College opened in 1914, it represented hope, promise, and opportunity. Almost thirty years had passed since the end of the University’s first attempt at “female education” (1872-1885), and women were looking forward to being able to earn college degrees in the State of Delaware once again. Unlike the Victorian-era experiment with co-education, the establishment of the Women’s College led to the appointment of a substantial number of women administrators and faculty members. Its strongest advocate, Emalea Pusey Warner, later became the first woman member of the Board of Trustees.
That is the good news. The bad news is that the opportunities presented by the Women’s College were tempered by the imposition of fierce restrictions. The only academic programs available to women were Arts and Science, Education, and Home Economics. Virtually all women students who were not living with their families were required to reside on campus, where Dean Winifred Robinson and her faculty enforced strict curfews and proper female behavior. In the early years of the Women’s College, the dean and faculty, like most of the students, lived in the residence hall and remained unmarried. They were also expected to act as chaperones and to participate in the numerous ceremonial group activities that characterized college life for women in that era. Delaware College, the part of the University in which male faculty taught male students, afforded much greater personal liberty to both students and staff.
It would, of course, be possible to respond to these facts by thinking, “Well, that’s the way the world was in those days. Bad as some of those arrangements may sound to us, they were probably better than anything women had known before, and things have improved steadily since then.” Unfortunately, this linear notion of straightforward progress, though appealing, is not accurate. One of the most important themes of Beneath Thy Guiding Hand is the pendular motion with which the status of women has swung, forward and backward, in society at large and at the University of Delaware. For example, although the nineteenth-century period of co-education did little to establish women as administrators and faculty, it did give female students more parity with their male counterparts than members of the Women’s College later enjoyed. Similarly, when the University dissolved its separate college for women after World War II and began educating women and men together-a decision that looks, on its face, like a move toward greater equality-the status of women actually worsened because many gender-specific practices remained in effect, while the number of women in nontraditional fields and in leadership roles decreased.
Some of the policies and practices associated with the Women’s College and with the era immediately following its dissolution seem so outlandish by today’s standards that it would be easy to dismiss them as phenomena of the dim and distant past. Among the University’s current employees, however, are people who were undergraduates here when the situation for women students and staff was quite different than it is now. One of them is the author of this book, who retains vivid memories of sign-out books, May Day pageants, and other practices that survived from Dean Robinson’s time into the 1960s. Moreover, to retired faculty and staff who worked at the University when it became co-educational in 1945 and to senior employees who have been here for twenty or thirty years, much of the content of this book is not “history.” It represents the personal experiences of living women and men who recall a time that was not, after all, so terribly long ago. We cannot hope to understand either the intensity with which some members of the University community promote changes in women’s roles, or the passion with which others resist those changes, unless we remember how very recently things were so very different.
One or two of the early presidents were supportive of certain kinds of progress for women-William Purnell (1870-85), for example, strongly favored co-education-but, like the culture as a whole, the University administration did not even begin to think in terms of full gender equality until the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first major advances of this period were made under the leadership of President E. Arthur Trabant, who, among other things, established the Commission on the Status of Women in response to strong activism on the part of women students, faculty, and staff. More recently, President David Roselle and his administration have made a concerted effort to improve the climate for women, particularly with regard to campus safety, job opportunities, and working conditions. These initiatives have not gone unrecognized outside the University community; for example, for the last two years, representatives of the University have been invited to speak at the annual national Conference on Sexual Assault on Campus, where the University of Delaware is considered a national leader in campus security procedures. Similarly, the 1992 Middle States evaluation report of the University stated: “Women are playing substantial roles as participants in decision making, leading one team member to observe that the campus has the best climate for women of all the institutions visited.”
Having had the privilege of chairing the Commission on the Status of Women from 1990 through 1992, I am acutely aware that evaluating the position of women at this University is much more complicated than it might appear from a consideration of one or two isolated issues. The statistics presented in two of the commission’s recent annual reports and summarized at the end of this book are capable of generating a wide variety of interpretations, to say nothing of starting any number of arguments. Like our forebears, today’s students and employees cherish a broad range of views on the roles, expectations, and treatment of women–and it is that difference in attitudes, more than any other single factor, that underlies today’s most important gender equity issues.
The major problems facing women do not, I believe, stem from the central administration or from written policies. Certainly, there are still some areas in which administrative fiats or changes in documents are having an effect or could have one; but the strongest and most persistent reason women are still so far from achieving parity with men is not to be found in written guidelines, but in the lack of collegial acceptance of women in new roles. Such acceptance is vitally important to continued progress toward equality, but it is difficult to assess and impossible to legislate. What is needed is the kind of consensual attitude change that can occur only as a result of thoughtful, reasonable interactions among colleagues as more and more women become established and familiar figures in roles that were, until so very recently, always filled by men.
The last chapters of Beneath Thy Guiding Hand mention significant improvements in the status of women on campus in recent years, but they also point out continuing inequities in such areas as admission to non-traditional fields, promotion through professional staff levels and faculty ranks, and appointment to upper-level positions. As this book illustrates, any progress that is made can be reversed, so it would be naive to assume that all future movement will necessarily be in a forward direction. If, however, women do maintain and increase the gains they have made since World War II, the day may come when young people will find the last chapters of this book as startling as some of us now find the earlier ones. Offering separate classes for women students? Limiting the degrees they are allowed to earn? Dictating the marital status and living arrangements of women employees? Clustering women in lower-paying, lower-prestige jobs? Dividing academic fields into those that are “male-dominated” and those that are “female-dominated?” Assuming that any woman in an important administrative job must be there because she is a woman, not because she was the most qualified applicant? If I had to give a short-hand, operational definition of “success” for the women’s movement today, it would be this: That people reading this book fifty years from now will be as bemused by the last three questions as some of us are by the first three.
Commission on the Status of Women, 1990-92
Professor of English