When Kathy Regan called and asked if I would be today's speaker I was knee-deep in worry about what I would say in my Baccalaureate Address-I really didn't have a clue! Kathy began by saying that she had thought of me before she learned of my other speaking commitment and would understand if I did not feel I could take on another responsibility during finals week. (After all I should be grading papers right now and writing my speech for Saturday.) However, I was in one of those "past overwhelmed" moods and said, "Sure, why not. Now I can have two talks to worry about."
I am still stressed over my talk on Saturday-I keep picturing myself at the podium of Trinity Church, which is a frightening thought-a large church by Geneva standards, lots of people, no black board, no chalk, no calculus to talk about, what can I say! Maybe I'll be sick. But surprisingly I have not worried about my speech today. In fact, I have to admit that I have looked forward to this because now, at the very end of my time on the HWS faculty, I have a chance to join you as a William Smith woman in saying goodbye to William Smith College.
You may not know that I am in the middle of a "William Smith" family. My mother-in-law, Mabel Cook Oaks, and my daughters, Kimberly Oaks Holmes and Kathleen Oaks Menn all graduated from William Smith as did I. My son Jeffrey is a Hobart alumnus, but he doesn't count today because I would like to share the stories of the women in my family so that I can talk about the changes that have taken place during the 20th century in the choices females have in their lives, and reflect on how these choices are used.
Mabel Cook, class of 1919, became a first-year student (freshman at that time) at William Smith when she was 17. In those days, bright students were allowed to skip a grade, so she entered college a year early. She always made it a point to tell us that, as a college student, she was a "town girl," one of a fairly large group of women who lived along the Auburn branch of the New York Central railroad which ran through Geneva from Rochester to Syracuse. In the early 1900s when Mom went to college the train stopped in Oaks Corners 21 times a day. So it was convenient to use the train to commute to William Smith each day and return home at night. According to my mother-in-law, there was a big distinction between "Town-" and "Hill-girls" even though they each paid the same tuition and received the same education.
Mom was a Latin and English major who excelled at school. In her day, all William Smith classes were held in Smith Hall, as were church services. Women were not allowed on the Hobart Quad or in the Hobart Library without an escort. There is no doubt that one of the primary reasons to educate women at this time was to prepare them to be homemakers. Even in her mid 90s, Mom was still angry that she had missed graduating with honors because her mother made her take a sewing class, which she hated and had not done well at. When I was hired at the Colleges in 1979, she could not understand that I taught for both Hobart and William Smith and she was shocked (and a bit scandalized) when she learned that we have dorms which house both women and men.
In 1919, when she graduated, women had few career choices-they could teach, work in social service, or get married. But in general, once a woman was married she did not work outside the home. Mom chose to marry. I once asked her why she did not teach Latin (as she had done the year before she married) during the first seven years of marriage when she did not have children-she explained that her father-in-law would not have allowed it. In contrast her friend Iola Smith, niece of THE William Smith and a biology major at William Smith, chose to teach. She remained unmarried and living in Geneva until she died in her late 80s.
As a young farm wife my mother-in-law found herself cooking three meals a day for her family and farm hands, she canned much of the food the family ate (and even food for the dog). In addition, she took care of our 15-room farmhouse. This essentially was her life for over 30 years. Now many people have loved a life on the farm, but not Mom. Aside from her children her only escape was writing. Today I would like to share her comments on the life of a farmer's wife (written around 1945 when she was in her mid-40s).
In spite of modern conveniences in the home the woman on the farm still works harder and longer for less than her town sister; she is still a workhorse, with a shiny new harness, for the best labor saving device of all is money, and there is seldom enough of that on the farm. She works in comparative isolation-no neighboring over the back yard fence for her-and isolation breeds ignorance, loneliness, boredom, for nothing but first-hand communication with other people keeps us alert, articulate, assured, interesting and interested.
She ended one of her essays with a short poem (I don't know the name of the author)
Some folks say there isn't any Hell
But they've never farmed
So how can they tell?
However, before we think that she graduated from college, married and was miserable for the remainder of her life, let's look at her choices during the last half of her life-a time that spans almost 50 years. Despite her fears of boredom, and ignorance, my mother-in-law was neither bored nor ignorant. To the contrary, she was curious, bright, and literate. She became interested in local history and by the 1950s had established a town museum in the upstairs of her home. She gave tours to local groups and individuals, and became the historian for the Town of Phelps-a position she held for more than 25 years. She wrote and had published four books on local history and continued to write well into her 80s. She gave numerous talks-even one to my seventh-grade history class when I was 12 or 13.
My favorite memories of her are the visits she made to our family on Sunday mornings after church. Each week she wrote an essay for us and read it to the children over breakfast. Sometimes these were funny like the one about the angry wife who nailed her husbands' beard to the porch floor where he had fallen after coming home from a drinking session with his pals. Or they related a bit of local history or an interesting story. I have a large stack of these which, now that I will have the time, I will to put together into a book to give to our children.
My mother-in-law led the type of life she was expected to until she was free to chose her own pathway-one that she loved, one that excited her, and brought her recognition for being the person who laid the ground work for our local historical society. This is true of many women of her generation. When I visited the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls after it first opened, I noticed that, with the exception of women in sports, every woman honored there had done her important work after the age of 40-after family obligations had been met.
I grew up in the same small, rural community as my mother-in-law. And even in the 1950s Phelps had not changed much from the time when she was my age. Certainly girls of my age had more freedom than our counterparts in the early 1900s, but we were still brought up to view our primary career choices as limited to teaching, nursing, or motherhood. When I was in high school one did not think of "girls" as becoming college professors. Furthermore, since I spent most of my high school years having fun rather than studying, it would have been unlikely that anyone would see my potential to be a professor even if gender were not the issue.
Like my mother-in-law, I was married at a young age. But, unlike her, I had not gone to college first. When I was your age I was a stay-at-home mom taking care of three small children ages 1, 2 and 4 and a rather large house. My husband Nate (who I am happy to say is still my husband after more than 42 years) was going to RIT nights in order to earn his engineering degree and I was busy with kids and housework. If anyone had told me at the time that I would end up with a Ph.D. teaching mathematics at HWS, I would have thought them crazy.
However, when Nate finished his degree, he suggested that I might want to take my turn at college. At first I was frightened-I think I was worried that I would fail. But I decided that I should have some education so that I would be able to support my children if anything happened to my husband. In the early 70s when I entered William Smith I walked onto a campus that was active with all sorts of protests-against the war in Vietnam, for women's rights, against pollution, for civil rights. Kent State had just occurred, riots had broken out on numerous campuses including one at HWS, and most people were forced to at least reconsider their views on gender and race. I had become part of an environment very different from the one I was used to and I loved it.
I found myself on a cusp (I love these math metaphors) in a change in women's choices-we were told that we could do anything. ANYTHING! WOW! But I needed to change and grow before I could even consider thinking beyond the box I had grown up in. At the time, just finishing my B.A. was the best goal I could consider. Even the Colleges had not changed with the times-they had a terrible time dealing with me on an official level because I was not a traditional student. So my grades were sent to my husband, who they thought was my father. When I made dean's list the Geneva Times reported that "Ann B. Oaks, daughter of Nathan Oaks of Oaks Corners … ." For my first few months at the Colleges I was not able to take books out of the library because they could not think of how they could give me an ID card that didn't include dining privileges. I even had to fill out a form on how I liked my roommate. I had fun with that one! I reported, "He's great except he hogs the bedcovers."
My neighbors were astounded that I would "leave" my family to go to college. An older woman who lived in my neighborhood warned me that if I did not stay home, my children would grow up to be delinquents and my husband would leave me. I grew tired of responding to the many people who asked what I did with the children when I was at school. At first I carefully explained that I arranged most of my classes when they were in school and that they played at a friend's house during the few hours a week that I could not be home when they were. By my senior year I lost patience and responded that I chained them in the barn, but left a snack and water nearby.
Even my parents, though supportive and proud, were a bit uncomfortable that I was not what they saw as a traditional housewife and mother. At first my father gave me articles and information on home study, I'm sure hoping that I would reconsider. When I made dean's list the first time, he bought me an oven for my kitchen, later on I received a set of pots and pans from him-I'm not sure he was aware of the significance of these gifts.
When I graduated I decided I wanted to teach high school mathematics, and because I would need a master's degree, I applied to graduate school at the University of Rochester. What I didn't realize was that I had applied to the graduate program in pure mathematics. Sandy Segal, the chair of mathematics at the time, saw my transcript and because of my excellent grades wanted me to begin the Ph.D. program in mathematics. I insisted that I only wanted my M.A. for permanent certification, so he suggested that I start the Ph.D. program, which would give me the option of continuing on to my doctorate. I was given a full tuition waiver and entered the university in the fall of 1975 determined to leave when I had an M.A.-which I did. I never once considered staying-I could not even entertain the thought of doing my doctorate at that time.
After I had worked in math support for a few years, Sandy called one day with a "proposal" -I replied that I was NOT going back to school. He said, "Just come have lunch with me-we haven't talked in a long time." Four years later I was graduating with a Ph.D. in math education and you know the rest of the story. At first my choices were limited by societal expectations. When these changed in the 70s, my own beliefs and expectations limited my choices. While I owe Sandy Segal a great debt for the support he gave to me, I owe a larger debt to William Smith for helping me to grow into the person I am today-a wife and mother of three, grandmother of six AND a professor of mathematics at HWS.
By the time my daughters entered William Smith, they took it for granted that there would be no restrictions on their choices. They were free to pursue any career that they wanted and that was the way they expected it to be. Kim graduated with a mathematics major and is the chief actuary for a new reinsurance company in Bermuda. She has done well in her career, which she loves, and she has a baby, Nicholas, who just turned one. Her life is full and she has a bright future. Kathy graduated with a major in economics and minor in math. When she finished school she took a job in Manhattan as an actuary for a reinsurance company-SwissRe. There she met her husband, Chris, who is an executive with the same company. They now live in Switzerland near Chris' family and have two children, Lily and Andreas. Kathy has chosen to be a stay-at-home mom until her children are grown and then will decide what she wants to do. I am very proud of both of my daughters-they have made the choices that were right for them and both are happy, productive adults.
While the latest AAUW report warns that the numbers of women in many traditionally male jobs is low, engineering and the computer industry to mention two, I can see very positive changes in my department and the science division as a whole. About 15 years ago I was at St. Cloud University to give a talk at a conference on women in the sciences. I went to a session describing a women's science group comprised of women faculty members who got together once a month to share their research and to discuss issues they found important as science professors. I thought this was a wonderful idea and was excited to bring it back to HWS. The only problem was that there were not enough women faculty members in the sciences to make a group. I had not realized how few of us there were.
I'm proud to announce that this year a women's science group was established as part of the Fisher Center for gender studies. We don't manage to meet as often as once a month, but when we do get together there are eight or more women around the table. In 15 years, the number of women faculty members in the natural sciences has gone from three or four to around 17. What wonderful progress.
Having the ability to make our own choices-to follow our dreams even if that means we stray from the role traditionally set out for women-is to me a basic axiom of the feminist movement. Being a feminist means that you have a choice as to whether you marry or have children-and either way, if the choice is right for you, it's a good one. Lately, I find that, along with my daughters, my women students take their rights for granted, and this is a positive sign that the change in women's roles is no longer considered radical or new. However, we must never lose sight of progress we have made and work hard to maintain momentum in improving the lives of women.
So when someone asks where you went to school say, "I am a William Smith woman, not a Hobart girl." Have a great senior week, enjoy the campus and your friends without the stress of finals, and keep in touch. We will miss you!
William Smith Senior Brunch
May 6, 2003