The Last Page

Alumnae News: Then and Now

By Cynthia G. Oates

Four times a year, I compile news from my college classmates for the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly. It’s generally a fun job as classmates send letters, pictures of their children, and birth announcements. Career changes, cross-country moves, and family news predominate. Women also write when they have seen other classmates at weddings, on the streets of New York, or at alumnae gatherings.

When my husband’s grandmother, Frances Ward Olmsted (Vassar ’25), died a few years ago, she left behind several boxes of Vassar College memorabilia. And, although there were a few pictures and letters from Frances’ class of 1925, most of the boxes contained information about her mother, Vassie James, Vassar class of 1897. According to family lore, Vassie was named after the college because of her mother’s fondness for her years there. (Fannie Shouse James graduated from Vassar in 1874.)

Searching through the contents of the boxes, I was delighted to discover two large scrapbooks containing notes, letters, and newspaper clippings from Vassie’s years at the college. Between the brittle pages of one of the books, I found a 1917 Vassar College Alumnae Bulletin. A glance at the words written by women in the class of 1897 reveals a startling similarity to the words of women writing to me today.

Like my classmates, these Vassar alums sent news of their families, their work, their travels, and their visits with classmates. Much like my contemporaries, many women of the class of 1897 felt they had "no news that would interest the girls." One woman wryly put it, "Of information I have none, since I’ve neither married, nor am I engaged, don’t care a cent about voting, and have not even had an operation or been to Europe."

Some women in the class of 1897 felt inadequate if they could only claim to be mothers. "My life is not exciting," wrote one. "I do nothing of consequence beyond taking care of Louise…I wish I had more news but I have found a comfortable rut and am peacefully jogging along it."

Those who were not married, yet had careers, also felt that they had "nothing new and interesting to tell. The same old busy round of teaching and home duties sounds so very tame." Like other college-educated women at the turn of the century, many Vassar graduates made their careers educating others and struggled with issues that seem timely today. As teachers they wanted equal pay; as women they wanted the right to vote. Like today’s women, they were active reformers, involved in church and community.

To be sure, there are some differences between the women of today and those at the turn of the last century. A common theme in today’s alumnae group is the struggle to find balance between home, family, and work. Classmates with young children write of the difficult decisions to leave fast-track careers, opting for slower paced, family-friendly jobs. Single moms write of their own struggle to balance their lives. Some women seem to have achieved "Superwoman status," successfully combining work, family, and community without missing a step.

As with the Vassar women of 1917, many of my classmates are reluctant to write to our quarterly. Then and now, these women seem burdened by high expectations placed on them by themselves and by their schools. Women who graduated from college at the turn of the 19th century were a privileged group, and many took seriously their roles as early Progressive reformers. A hundred years later, my classmates — mothers, wives, and professionals — apologetically claim they have no real news. "No cure for cancer here," one stay-at-home mother of three wrote recently. But like our educated predecessors, we do have news: We have found our own "comfortable rut" as we, too, peacefully jog along the paths of our worthwhile lives.

Cynthia G. Oates (Holyoke ’79) is a part-time instructor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.