Commentary: Seasonal Disasters at Smith
Gloria Steinem on Smith in the '50s
By Allison J. Petrozziello '03
AJP: What was different about the traditional trajectory for Smith women when you went to school here in the '50s?
GS: It felt as if everything was different, but I'm sure that's not true. I'm sure there were individual students then who understood knowledge that wasn't mainstream. But the mainstream experience at Smith really was different. Administrators, professors, the president would say that they were educating women so there would be educated children. They would brag about having four times more male faculty than female faculty because it made it "serious."
Steinem speaks to women at a political gathering, c. 1970. Courtesy Smith College Archives.
The idea was that what women were learning here was similar to what was done at Harvard. That was a point of pride, instead of saying that actually, these students are going to mean something in the outside world that's a little different from the guys at Harvard, so maybe they could benefit by learning all of history, not just part of history.
It was really very different in the '50s, not all due to Smith, but because the '50s themselves colored everything. It was very conservative. People were trying to get women out of the paid labor force and into the suburbs. After the war, the idea was to get women to quit their jobs so men could take them. It was very conservative.
What about those social expectations for women, about getting married, having kids? Among your fellow students was it, "Oh I'll just get this education and maybe get a job and then settle down and find a husband"?
Yeah, maybe you had a job for a few years and then got married or maybe you got married right away. But the goal of the education was very often stated in the way that I said: "If we are ever to have educated children, we have to have educated mothers." So it wasn't about the paid labor force necessarily at all. I can remember worrying about the professors because there were so many [students wearing] these huge engagement rings in class, each one of which was [worth] more than the professor's annual salary. [Steinem laughs.] I worried about them! [I thought] they must really get depressed by this.
Now at the same time there were people who were leading different lives. Now Sylvia Plath was older than I, but [our years at Smith] overlapped by a year or two. Clearly she was a very different person. But the dominant atmosphere really bore little resemblance to what's happening now, although there probably still was more likelihood of debating in class because we were all women. The [culture] of sexual politics was not going on in the classroom.
On the board of trustees,
what kinds of issues come up that wouldn't have come up then
regarding students' lives, what
Well, if it remained the same it [would
have been] a "girls' school," not a women's college.
I went through a period of twenty years of being angry or disappointed
with Smith-in the way that you're most angry with your own family.
And she says, "No, you don't understand. We've taken over College Hall. We've occupied it." [Laughs.] I thought, "Oh yeah, things are changing."
By the time Ruth Simmons invited me to become a board member, her presence was clearly going to make a difference too. It was she as an individual as well as the way Smith has changed [that convinced me].
In my experience at Smith, feminism seems like kind of a given among a lot of people, but they think that there are more important issues to be taken up. Is this evidence of movements overlapping? Like last year, the Smith Labor Action Coalition fighting sweatshop labor was a big thing.
But without feminism, nobody is ever
going to point out that the overwhelming majority of people in
sweatshops are women and kids.
I think that's a sign of lack of self-respect. It's like saying, "It's just little me, just little female me." But we're part of every day; feminism transforms every issue. Every worldview benefits from having both eyes open instead of just one.
is published by the Smith College Office of College Relations
for alumnae, staff, students and friends.
Copyright © 2001, Smith College. Portions of this publication may be reproduced with the permission of the Office
of College Relations, Garrison Hall, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts 01063. Last update: 1/25/2000.
Made with Macintosh