When history professor Kathy Roper finished her doctorate at Stanford and became a professor at Saint Mary's in 1969, there were only a handful of women on the faculty and a grand total of zero in the student body. The College was still ensconced in more than 100 years of all-male tradition and unaccustomed to women in the classroom.
That first year, Roper shared a desk in a cramped Dante Hall office with professor Theo Carlile, another woman who'd recently been hired to teach in the Integral Program.
"I don't know if they put us together because we were two women," Roper told an audience of more than 50 students and faculty at a Nov. 12 Community Time Forum who gathered as part of a series of events to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Women's Studies Program and the 10th anniversary of the Women's Resource Center. "I was surprised even to be interviewed for the job and didn't think women were part of the community."
Almost 40 years later, Carlile and Roper are revered figures in their respective departments at a college where more than 60 percent of the students are women. As part of a retrospective on women's studies and the Women Resource Center at Saint Mary's, Roper and Carlile joined a panel of women professors discussing triumphs and challenges during their years on the faculty. Other panelists included Paola Sensi-Isolani (anthropology); Kusum Singh (communication); Glenna Breslin, Janice Doane, Sandra Grayson and Carol Lashof (English); Shari Otto (kinesiology) and Sally Stampp (psychology).
Several cited the mentorship they received from Mary Doyle Springer, the College's first tenured woman professor who passed away in June.
"It's sad she's not with us for this," said history professor and panel moderator Myrna Santiago, who noted that each year the Women's Studies Program gives the Springer Award to its top senior thesis.
Panelists also related some of the challenges that confronted women professors at Saint Mary's and other colleges as more women began teaching at universities in the 1970s. Some male colleagues asked pointed questions about female professors' abilities to be professors and mothers simultaneously and paid excessive attention to women's physical appearance.
But the bond these female professors formed with their students - male and female - took precedence and made up for the problematic moments with colleagues who were less accepting of women.
"For me, the most important thing was always the relationships with the students," Sensi-Isolani said. "I'm a godmother to three of my students' children."
As more women began attending and teaching classes at Saint Mary's, several asked questions about the College's Great Books curriculum - both what books should be read and how to read them. Feminist approaches to literature and philosophy initially met with considerable skepticism, according to many of the professors.
"For a while there was an opposition to women's studies - a belief that only â€˜the universal' was valid for discussion." Grayson said.
In 1993, a women's studies minor was established at Saint Mary's with two core courses. Twelve years later, a women's studies major followed. Meanwhile, critical approaches were brought to bear on the Great Books and Collegiate Seminar texts. It's still not an easy process, according to some panelists.
"There are still books on Seminar reading lists that are not taken as seriously and are quicker to be cut," Lashof said. "There's an impression that they're on the lists because they're by women."
Panelists also reflected on the creation of the Women's Resource Center, which came about in the late 1990s during a period when female students mobilized around the issue of sexual assault on campus. Today, the center is located in Assumption Hall and offers an array of student programs and services.
Early female pioneers on the faculty and support from important figures at the College have done a great deal to make the campus more welcoming, according to several panelists.
"When I came here, I walked into the welcoming arms of a sisterhood," Doane said.
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Photo by Gorbachev Lingad '10