Inspiration for 1st Year College Women Discussion

Inspiration for 1st Year College Women Discussion July 1996


Query From Randolph Hollingsworth 03 July 1996

I write to you all to ask on behalf of a friend of mine who is writing a leadership program for 1st and 2nd year women at Midway College(the only women's college in Kentucky)...what books would inspire "young, unsophisticated"(her words) women who are probably not far from home but nervous about being in college when few of their circle of kin or friends have gone?



>From Elisabeth Laskin 04 July 1996

Jill Ker Conway's The Road From Coorain. A lovely book. In my opinion, the sequel was less successful. Also, how about Susan Allan Toth's Ivy Days? It's about a young woman from the midwest(if I recall correctly) who travels East to Smith College in the early '60s and has to deal with terribly sophisticated east coast types in trying to find her place in a fairly alien atmosphere. Hope these help.

>From Genevieve G McBride 04 July 1996

Jill Kerr Conway, ed, Written By Herself is an excellent collection of excerpts from autobiographies by extraordinary women. Many were in the situation of these students, but all--so it seemed to me--struggled against expectations of at least some among their families and friends. And even if the students' literary/literacy level is somewhat unsophisticated, they'll do fine with this book; my daughter, no reader started it when 11.

It is a hefty collection. If too long in its entirety, I suspect students who are assigned some of the excerpts may find themselves drawn into others on their own. And it's paperback to keep costs down(I expect that's almost requisite for these students, as it is for my urban counterparts).

And, of course, Conway's own autobiographies, especially Road From Coorain, regarding her struggle to get to college, can't be beat...especially when the students discover that she eventually became a college president.

Also of help with "unsophisticated" students of any age (more than half of students at my campus are more than 25, and none is a history major) to interest them in auto/biographies can be use of video early in the course. As I teach history of the media, I'm partial to Crusader for Justice: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, which was part of the PBS "American Experience" series, which students see before reading excerpts from IBWB's autobiography. (Actually, they only see an excerpt from the 90 minute video, too--I don't like to give up so much discussion time to watch TV!--and then I put it on reserve if they're interested in seeing the rest...and most are.)

Also especially useful to my students are readings in local and regional history--their locale, their region--rather than yet more emphasis on WASP women and men from the East Coast, who seem quite literally too distant to be taken as role models. I believe there was discussion earlier on this list regarding Kentucky celebrating a sesquicentennial or something this year or next? If so, there may be useful materials at your state society. Good luck to your colleague....from a first-generation, first-in-her-generation college student of a generation ago--and still learning.

>From J. Griffin 05 July 1996

...Having gone to a women's college in the 60s, I recall my sociology prof unrolled a very lengthy list on the first day of class saying: "These books are all written by women. It can be done. They felt as you now feel. I expect to find your name on this list at some point in my lifetime." I can tell you, that definitely got our freshmen attention. She posted the list on her office door and sheer curiosity brought most of us to look at it and, each according to their inclinations, interests, would then go to the library.

Second, the college held weekly "teas"(what can I say, it was the 60s), at which freshmen were required to go, required to dress in stockings and heels, and to the point, had an opportunity to talk with faculty, administrators and alumni where virtually the same message was sent...many women have been here before you, felt as you feel, worried as you worry, studied, succeeded, failed and tried again.

Third, every incoming student was given an exhaustive tour of the library and how to use it, so that we knew not only where to find books for class, but contemporary novels, magazines and records.

Fourth, most but not all freshman history teachers required us to read either The Washington Post, the New York Times, or any other major out-of-state newspaper and national magazine and come to class prepared to discuss one story of our choice and one of the professor's choice, which was a really interesting form of Russian Roulette. The "discussions" ranged from "Where is the President of the United States today?" to "What is the best seller on the New York Times Booklist?" The point: to look beyond ourselves to the outside world and pay attention and to read newspapers and magazines. For young people from small towns, looking at the pictures in something other than Life magazine was a major step.

Finally, the faculty and administrators were not just in class or offices, but visible all over campus, accessible, approachable, including senior research faculty and senior administrators, who talked with students in both organized(i.e. scheduled) and spontaneous lectures and discussions. So that aside from class readings, there came endless offerings of "have you read so and so" or "a good introduction to that would be..." or "There's an interesting article on that in the Journal of..."

Does this work for everyone? No. Did many quit, go home, unable to overcome the loss of familiar and home? Yes. Go to any class reunion and what you hear is NOT what books inspired them, but the people who encouraged, challenged, accepted, sympathized, and yes, even terrorized (my God, do you remember Dr. Anderton's final biology exam?"). No one remembers a single question from that exam (actually, I DO remember the agony of identifying 75 slides), but everyone remembers Dr. Anderton.

Of course, books inspire...everything from Nancy Drew to Plato. Some book, some scene, some phrase rings a chord in everyone. Music inspires. Art inspires. But inevitably, it is the person who led you to that book, that concert, that museum, the one who said it is OK to dream, that what you think or feel matters, encourages you to grow, to change, to look at the lives and thoughts of others that is the foundation. Signed: been there, done that, have a tee shirt.

>From Harriet Rafter 05 July 1996

What about Vera Brittain's Testiment of Youth? The first third or so of the book recounts Brittain's efforts to get a college education, and describes her experiences in Oxford before and after the Great War. Inspiring indeed, although a bit elitist.

Not about women & education per se, but The World of Our Mothers(ca. 1989-90) is an oral history of the experience of Jewish immigrants. One chapter is about education(missed, enjoyed, caught up with in later life). The women are vibrant and interesting, and the whole book a tribute to what can be achieved by ordinary folk like us if motivated by curiosity, passion or raw necessity. Please share your findings with the list; we all would appreciate the title! Good luck.

>From Helen M. Bannan 05 July 1996

A book many of my students in introductory women's studies courses have found inspiring is Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, a novel published in 1925, but reprinted and available in paperback. Set in the lower east side of NYC near the turn of this century, it is very different in place and cultural milieu than the young Kentuckians at Midway, but the struggle for an education for women, and the realization of its full cost, is easy for today's first generation of college students to identify with.