Since it’s founding in 1834 by Mary Lyon, Wheaton has a long history of cultivating women’s education and women scholars. Wheaton’s early years were devoted to offering a liberal arts education that could compare to men’s colleges of the time. Internationally, the first International Women’s Day was observed in 1911 and 70 years later, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution to expand the event to the entire month of March.
This year, Wheaton celebrated Women’s History Month through a variety of events including a Women’s Day luncheon, a Women in Science Panel and open Women’s Studies courses. Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies, Kim Miller said, “This month is tied into the strength of our Women and Gender Studies Program and our identity as a former women’s college.”
One of the events, the annual Women’s Day Luncheon was held on Thursday March 5 in the Woolley Room in Mary Lyon Hall. Associate Professor and Director of the ‘Study of Women and Gender’ at Smith College, Carrie Baker, delivered the lecture “Moving Beyond Slaves, Sinners and Saviors: The Politics on Sex Trafficking.” This discussed how activists, politicians, government organizations and the media portray sex trafficking.
Miller said, “The response to our luncheon is always very positive as we select a local feminist academic whose work is tied to a pressing international issue to come speak. Professor Baker was selected in part because of her work on sex trafficking, and currently a number of Wheaton students are interested in researching that issue. The luncheon is inclusive of faculty, staff, and students.”
This month also saw members of different departments open up their classes for visitors to engage in class discussions. The open classes included introductory Women Studies classes but also English, anthropology, philosophy, religion and history on topics ranging from ‘Sexism in Fairy Tales’ to ‘Radical Feminists’ and ‘Sexuality and Gender in the Law’ among others.
Miller stated that this initiative was taken to invite everyone into these classrooms and demonstrate the faculty commitment to centering questions of gender in our courses. She said that it gave staff, faculty, and students a chance to try out a course that they might not otherwise have the chance to do and this was an initiative that other colleges had duplicated.
The panel on ‘Women in Science’ was held on Thursday, March 19 and consited of Professor of Chemistry, Jani Benoit, Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology, Kimberly Peters and Alumna Grace Relihan ’12, who provides instruction for ornithology laboratory sections at Wheaton and plans to enter a PhD program.
Peters stated that this forum was important for students and their professors to communicate, share experiences, and identify issues that are important to women in the sciences. She said, “We still represent a minority in many scientific fields, and when an issue needs to be addressed it is much more effective when women speak with a unified voice. These ‘Women in Science’ groups help provide an excellent support and networking system, which will be particularly helpful as the students go on to scientific careers and graduate school.”
The panel discussed a variety of issues such as the importance of female mentorship, long-term planning for career and graduate school, differential treatment and minority status. All three panel members stressed that it was important to demonstrate confidence, and focus on work in order to generate respect and check negative social interactions with male colleagues. Peters said, “I personally believe that it is still a little more difficult for women to be treated as equals, and that we need to constantly work on reinforcing our value, but I also believe that this is changing.”
Peters also said that the aspiring female scientists who attended the event were engaged and asked insightful questions. She said, “It was very interesting to hear about their experiences as well. Some were negative – I was surprised to hear that a young male told a student that it was ‘cute’ that she was biology major – illustrating that we still have a long way to go!”