Feminists who support women's colleges in the 1980s perceive these institutions as places where women learn leadership. They see them as training grounds for strong, independent women, not as places where women can shelter themselves from the competition of a man's world. They prove their point by stating that women in the forefront of their professions have mostly been the products of women's colleges. These present defenders should look back a few decades for a realistic reminder of the context in which women were educated and regarded in the 1950s.
A few years ago, the 25th reunion of Wellesley's class of 1954 made poignantly clear the differences then and now in perceptions of women as leaders or dependents and created considerable divisiveness among classmates with varying thresholds of sensitivity on the issue.
For most students at women's colleges in the '50s, the transition from daughter to wife was predictable and unquestioned, even through four years of education intervened between roles. It was later, as the mystique of the '60s took over, that the '50s emerged in perspective as the transition period it was.
The decade of the '50s was truly a pivotal era for women, the decade when values seemed to have spun around, so that getting on the treadmill in the first half of the decade and following the accepted pattern of acquiring a husband and several children no longer met with approval, either cultural or female by the 1960s.
Too many women got married at 21 and had three or four children before they were 30 because it was the thing to do. By the time they were 40, these same women could not understand why they had done this. Their life patterns made no sense at all when they now felt most attracted by the satisfactions they would find in careers.
The conflicts of women graduating from college in the '50s exceeded those who came before and after because of their unique position in time--straddling two quite distinct cultures and the imperatives thereof. This has proved a long and difficult stretch for those who have chosen to change direction.
For these women, who were underprepared vocationally, though well-educated, the responses were a mass return to school for advanced degrees, sometimes a break with the 1950-style marriage partner and some leave-takings of children. Even as the '50s women responded to the challenges of the new socioeconomic milieu, they knew they were 10 to 20 years behind.
What a shock then to the women who had slowly reeducated and retrained themselves to learn that their husbands had received a definitely odd, anachronistic letter sent under the auspices of their 25th class reunion committee, but written by a class husband who never bothers to identify his wife.
The correspondent writes to other class husbands on his law firm letterhead asking them to donate to Wellesley in honor of their wives' upcoming reunion. It is a friendly letter, but its language conveys perfectly his image of a wife as a pleasant and necessary addition to a man's life.
The letter has so little connection with who women are and what they do in the present that it appears quaint:
You married a Wellesley '54 and so did I. Like me, you have undoubtedly found your years together to be many things, as varied as the individuality of the women themselves.
For me, they have been laced with a Wellesleyite's special sense of perspective, humor and challenge, which together with an unwillingness to accept the existing order as the only order, has produced stimulating company and some surprisingly involved and worthy projects.
I urge you to focus on something you may not have thought much about--your wife's contribution to your lives over the years is to some degree a reflection of what Wellesley contributed to her. . . .
(There follows some information on tax deductions, etc.)
Talk it over with your Wellesley '54-- they're not bad at talking--and plan your gift now, perhaps as a Christmas or birthday present . . .
Reactions to this letter ranged from amusement to outrage. It had apparently been used regularly as a fund-raiser for previous classes without provoking much comment, but by now it jarred too many sensibilities.
The tone of condescension proved too much for one alumna, who wrote back on her office letterhead to inquire whether Harvard 1954 would solicit wives in a similar manner, assuming, of course, that their spouses provided the stimulating company that Wellesley women did. For another woman, whose husband had moved out some time before, the letter was irrelevant; it arrived during a divorce fight when he had refused even to pay the kids' camp bills. One husband thought the letter so peculiar he did not tell his wife that he'd received it.
For the most part, alumnae found the letter to be out of synch with their lives and relationships, now 25 years removed from the college campus. It marked the end of an era; it wasn't worth getting upset about. It had only historic interest.
The college development office and class officers strongly defended the letter in response to criticism. But it was a last stand. Everyone knew that this sort of letter would never be written again. The transition was over.