Fashion & Style
In the days before coeducation at the college level became widespread, Sweet Briar, the small liberal arts women’s college set to close later this year, was more than just a finishing school for Southern women before they became wives.
Anna Chao Pai is the granddaughter of a Chinese warlord whose family inverted the usual immigrant trajectory when they arrived in this country in the 1940s.
“Riches to rags was the evolution of their American experience,” Dr. Pai said recently. A geneticist and professor, now retired, Dr. Pai, 80, was part of the class of 1957 at Sweet Briar, the small women’s liberal arts college just outside of Lynchburg, Va., that has announced it will close in August.
At first blush, Dr. Pai’s profile and career seem at odds with the stereotype that has long been affixed to midcentury graduates of Sweet Briar: as Southern belles (perhaps accompanied by their horses) polished to a high sheen for careers as wives, mothers and volunteers.
Yet the Pink Bubble, as Sweet Briar women have long called their alma mater, has also nurtured generations of feisty professionals, many of them working in the sciences, who attended the school before the era of widespread coeducation at the college level.
Since March, when the school’s board suddenly said it would close the college because of dwindling enrollment and strapped finances, a campaign to save it has pursued legal and other actions with increasing gusto and success; last month, the Commonwealth of Virginia sued to keep the college open. Last week, a judge ruled that, for a period of 60 days, the board could not close the school using funds solicited for its operation.. The campaign #Save Sweet Briar has raised $1 million, and another $10 million has been pledged.
Against this backdrop, the experiences of Sweet Briar’s postwar graduates, who have been galvanized by the campaign and are reconnecting on Facebook, email and by phone, paint a vivid picture of an era marked by conflicting cultures: one that was still defined by hostess houses, white gloves and the “ring before spring” doctrine that cast women’s colleges as mere finishing schools, and one with a commitment to educating women for roles far from the home.
In 1960, The New York Times published an article with a headline that read, “Road From Sophocles to Spock Is Often a Bumpy One.” It reported on “the problem,” as the president of Barnard College put it, of the educated housewife: her anxiety, frustration and claustrophobia.
Phyllis Levin, its author, likened her subjects to “a two-headed schizophrenic” who “used to talk about whether music was frozen architecture, now she talks over frozen food plans.” Noting that the right to vote had been won in 1920, Ms. Levin pointed out that “the modern woman” was only 40 years old, and lamented her descent from the ivory tower of academia to “push-button kitchens, supermarkets and finished basements.”
Ms. Levin said recently that she had forgotten the furor her article and others raised (Betty Friedan noted her piece in “The Feminine Mystique”) but does remember being asked to do a book, a proposal she turned down, she said, “because I didn’t have a solution to the problem.”
When Nora Ephron, who graduated from Wellesley College in 1962, returned for her 10th reunion and wrote about it for Esquire, she railed against the school for producing women marked by a kind of “glazed politeness,” as she put it, and recalled a dean’s advice to her to take a year off after school and devote herself to marriage.
“There was a lot being debated then about women’s essential nature,” said Miriam Horn, whose 1999 book, “Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age with Hillary’s Class — Wellesley ’69”, profiled the members of Hillary Clinton’s class. “On the one hand, women’s colleges were under pressure to prepare women to be these wonderful helpmeets, Jackie Kennedy types who were cultured and had social graces and could carry on intelligently about world affairs. On the other hand, they were in classrooms where there were no men. Theirs were the voices that mattered; they learned to raise their hands and keep them up. They had leadership roles. For some, it blew open their world and gave them a sense of their own capabilities. For others, they bought into this idea they were there to catch a Harvard man.”
Diana Robin, a classicist and scholar in residence at the Newberry Library in Chicago who was part of the class of ’57 at Sweet Briar, said jokingly that as an East Coast girl (she grew up in New York City and New Jersey), she would have felt more pressure to find a mate, as she put it, at one of the Seven Sisters schools up north.
Her sister went to Radcliffe, but Dr. Robin was sold on Sweet Briar because on the day she visited, Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 was blaring from a dorm room. A music major, she stayed up all night discussing Schumpeter, Keynes and Proust with her classmates. She remembers having dinner with her professors and being told how important her work was to their own research.
“This knocked me off my feet,” she said, adding, “when I left Sweet Briar, there was no question that I would go on to graduate school.”
Jo Ann Soderquist Kramer, class of ’64, said that when she arrived for her freshman year, she and her roommate each unpacked identical framed 8-by-10 photographs of their high school sweethearts and set them carefully on their bureaus. She also recalled being driven all the way to Massachusetts one football weekend (the sweethearts were Amherst and Williams men) in a white Cadillac with a hired driver named Coffee Jackson.
But Ms. Kramer, now 72, said her ambitions were never in conflict; she went on to become an aerospace engineer, the first woman to receive a master’s degree in engineering at the University of Virginia, and spent her career as a director at General Dynamics.
“I’m fearless because of Sweet Briar,” she said. “It made me an independent woman.”
When Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp arrived at Sweet Briar one rainy January day in 1966, there were no reporters to greet her — she had met them earlier. She was the first black student to attend the college, which sued the Commonwealth of Virginia to desegregate the institution.
Dr. Yeargin-Allsopp had wanted to be a doctor for as long as she could remember, and she recalled the barriers against students of color that tripped her up before college. (She went on to medical school — the first African-American woman at Emory University School of Medicine — and is the chief of the developmental disabilities branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
“I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and even the public library was off-limits to me until 11th grade,” she said. “This was the South, and yes, we had to travel with a potty chair when I was young because we couldn’t use the most convenient bathrooms. They were designated for whites.”
Sweet Briar welcomed her, but did so warily.
“People were kind to me,” she said, “but I was given a single room that first year. Probably no one wanted to room with me.”
And her transition to this new world was not without its challenges: “I had never had my own microscope before, and in biology class they gave us each two. I was initially too embarrassed to let on that I did not know how to use them, and I tried to fake it.”
The relatively safe bubble of Sweet Briar occasionally burst in Lynchburg. When the student government held a social at the country club in town, Dr. Yeargin-Allsopp was barred from attending because she was black.
“Although the college had changed, the rest of the community hadn’t,” she said.
Still, she added: “I learned to recognize my own strength, to recognize the kindness and generosity of others and it deepened my personal faith. I spent a lot of time in prayer and reflection.”
One of Dr. Yeargin-Allsopp’s classmates was Frances Morse, who was raised in Georgia, the only girl in a family with three brothers.
“The expectation was that I should be a demure Southern belle and have a bunch of children,” she said. “I had to go to my brothers’ Little League games and sit on the bench. There was no outlet for the things I was good at or wanted to do.”
She recalled being uncomfortable at the dinner table at home when the talk turned to desegregation. “I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, but I didn’t join in,” she said. “I didn’t know how to express my thoughts.Young women weren’t supposed to speak up.”
“Marshalyn came my junior year, and it was no big whoop,” said Ms. Morse, 69. “I don’t know if it was conscious on Sweet Briar’s part to make it no big deal. That’s just how it was. Penny” — Dr. Yeargin-Allsopp’s nickname then — “showed up, it was like, O.K., she eats Cheerios for breakfast just like the rest of us.”
At Sweet Briar, Ms. Morse was president of the student government and played on the junior varsity basketball and tennis teams.
“In high school, I could only be vice president because the president of the class and of most organizations was always a boy,” she said. “I couldn’t be on a team except as a cheerleader. So Sweet Briar was eye-opening to me.”
After college, Ms. Morse headed north to Cambridge, Mass., where, with the help of one of her math professors at Sweet Briar, she was hired by M.I.T. to work on the Apollo program.
“I’m sure it was because the government was on their case to hire more women and I was cute and had a Southern accent and wore miniskirts,” she said.
Her next job was at Harvard, where she worked as a programmer for a professor (the only programmer in the department at the time, she said), teaching herself code on computers that filled entire rooms. In the 1990s, she went back to school, earning a master’s and doctorate in education at Harvard, where she wrote her thesis on the gender gap in computer education.
Georgene Vairo, class of ’72, grew up in Queens, the oldest of six and the only girl. She had wanted to go to Wellesley, she said, but her mother discouraged her from applying to any of the Seven Sisters schools.
“She said I’d be discriminated against because of my last name,” said Ms. Vairo, 64. “God knows what they thought of me when I came to Sweet Briar. I couldn’t understand the girls who lived across the hall from me. Their Tidewater accent sounded like Old English. I had landed in a different universe. I couldn’t believe I had to wear white gloves to dinner.”
Ms. Vairo rebelled instantly, she said. Clad in an army jacket, jeans and combat boots, she boycotted everything, including her classes, to protest the war in Cambodia.
“So my grades were not great,” she said. One day she was summoned to the dean’s office. “Georgie,” she remembered the dean saying, “you have not made a hit socially or academically. How would you like to transfer to Princeton?” (The Ivy League school started accepting women in 1969.)
“I said, ‘How would I get in?’ She told me not to worry, that it had been arranged, to just go. Being stubborn, I refused.”
In the next three years, she worked hard, was elected president of the student government as well as the Glamour magazine representative for the school. She accepted that honor, she said, “wearing my usual uniform, the bluejeans, army jacket and boots.”
Though she was later at the top of her class at the Fordham University School of Law, for years she wondered, “Did I make a mistake not going to Princeton?” But she realized that if she had attended a school “that was perhaps more politically evolved than Sweet Briar was, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” she said.
Ms. Vairo is a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and was the chairwoman of the Dalkon Shield Claimants Trust.
“Women’s colleges aren’t for everybody, and maybe I would have been fine anywhere,” she said. “But at Sweet Briar I learned to be a rabble-rouser.”
As a high school student in Battle Creek, Mich., Mimi Fahs dreamed of Wellesley, but it was freezing cold the day she visited. She saw Sweet Briar in the spring, “and, oh my God, what a contrast,” she said. Dr. Fahs, now 65 and a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, was in Sweet Briar’s class of ’71. Her first day, she plastered her freshman dorm room with anti-Vietnam War posters. As it happened, her roommate, who was from North Carolina, had friends who were fighting there.
“But there was an acceptance and a respect between us,” Dr. Fahs said. “Every woman there was respected and taught to have strong opinions. I spent my junior year in Paris, and came back to a campus that was up in arms about the invasion of Cambodia. The Princeton boys came down to lead us, but we were Sweet Briar women and we had learned to be leaders. We stayed in charge.”
The Sweet Briar finishing-school moniker hit her only once, when she was at graduate school back in Michigan, where she earned a doctorate in health management and policy. “What were you doing at a place like Sweet Briar?” her adviser asked.
img src=”http://www.sinoaccess.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/23SWEETBRIAR_english-superJumbo.jpg” alt=”23SWEETBRIAR_english-superJumbo” width=”1424″ height=”1899″ class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-963″ />Michela English, 1971
By the late 1960s, colleges and universities across the country were struggling to remake themselves, roiled by social revolution, the civil rights and antiwar movements and the nascent feminist advances. In the fall of 1967, Dr. Fah’s classmate Michela English arrived in Lynchburg wearing the uniform of young women everywhere: Pappagallo shoes, a Villager dress and a circle pin.
“But within a short time,” she said, “we were all shopping at the Army-Navy surplus stores and scaring the hell out of our parents.”
Yet, even after the students successfully challenged the college’s dress codes and honor rules, Sweet Briar remained a protected place: rural, female, tiny.
“So on the one hand,” said Ms. English, 65, “you felt welcomed into a family. The flip side was you couldn’t be invisible. Everyone was forced to engage.” Which meant quickly developing critical-thinking skills and debate techniques, and taking leadership roles in student government.
Ms. English first thought she might go to law school, but ended up at the Yale School of Management, after which she went to work for the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Now, she is president and chief executive of Fight for Children, a nonprofit in Washington.
“I was filled with social reform zeal,” she said. “It was a big thing for my parents, who had not gone to college, that I was going to college. It was really a shock to them, the change between how I was when I went in and when I came out. So we had some rough years.”
So did Sweet Briar’s president at the time, Anne Gary Pannell, who Ms. English said was so worn out dealing with the strife on campus that she retired when the class of 1971 graduated.
img src=”http://www.sinoaccess.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/23SWEETBRIAR_booth-superJumbo.jpg” alt=”23SWEETBRIAR_booth-superJumbo” width=”1536″ height=”2048″ class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-967″ />Mary Morris Gamble, 1950
Mary Morris Gamble Booth, class of ’50, traveled to Paris with Sweet Briar’s first junior-year program, which drew students of both sexes from across the country, including, that year, 15 Yale men. It was 1948 when they set sail, and Ms. Booth recounted how one of the Yale men kept trying to sneak up to the first-class deck from third class.
“He was wearing white bucks and the British crew did not approve of white buck shoes, so he gave himself away,” she recalled.
She said she was not quite paying attention when Secretary of State George Marshall articulated his Marshall Plan at Reid Hall, Sweet Briar’s Left Bank headquarters. Nevertheless, she ended up working for the program in Washington.
“This year, I’m chairman of our 65th reunion,” Ms. Booth, 87, said sadly. “When they asked me last year, I said: ‘Sure, how hard can that be? Last year I think four people showed up for their 65th.’ Of course, this year is going to be a mob scene. It’s sort of an alpha and omega. Our reunion, and the last graduation.”
Correction: April 30, 2015
An article last Thursday about Sweet Briar and some of the women who graduated from the college misidentified its location. It is outside of Lynchburg, Va., not in Lynchburg.