Celebration of 50 Years of Women
by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer
If we consult tradition, the milestone 50th anniversary is all about gold, but for Jacqueline T. Schaefer, paper reigns supreme and always has. It is what brought her to the Mountain back in 1967, when she became one of the first female professors at the University, and it is what has kept her here since she retired in 2003.
These days, Schaefer, professor emeritus of French and comparative literature, spends most of her time pouring over books and journals, researching for her next project. Every now and then, she breaks to remember how Sewanee has changed over the years. With the celebration of the 50th anniversary of women at Sewanee taking place this weekend, now is one of those times.
Schaefer’s time in Sewanee began a full two years before the first class of women students was admitted, and she said when women were welcomed to campus, the tone changed dramatically.
“It changed the atmosphere for the good of course,” she said. “It became much more serious. The boys made it really a big thing that they didn’t really care all that much, but when the women came in and showed they were eager to learn and perform, the boys woke up because they didn’t like the idea of being outperformed by the women.”
Professor emeritus Gerald Smith, whose first week on the job coincided with the first week the women students were in classes, said the same.
“In general, the mood was pretty upbeat, but it was also kind of a spectacle. As the young women were moving in, there was a group of guys from KA and they were lining both sides of the sidewalk as the women were taking their luggage in. They were hooting and whistling, and making remarks that would get them banished from campus today,” he said. “In class, it was completely different. From day one, it was clear that these women were a force to be reckoned with — they knew they were under the gun, and they were ready.”
One of those students was Judy Ward Lineback. Her older brother had gone to Sewanee, and through visiting him on campus, she fell in love with the Mountain. Fifty years later, that love remains alive.
“I just knew that was where I wanted to go and didn’t care about any other schools. I didn’t even apply anywhere else,” she said.
Woody Register, professor of history and director of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, said that though the celebration of Sewanee’s women is deserved and overdue, so is the acknowledgement that not all was peachy.
“We’re covering 50 years here, and I know that the most thoughtful of people don’t just sing hymns to Sewanee, even as they cherish and value the education they had here and in many cases the social experience of education here,” he said. “There is no one Sewanee woman who stands for all, just as there is no one Sewanee man who stands for all, although we might imagine that there is. It is important to remember that with the admission of women, for a long time, there lingered still the idea that women, their concerns, and their interests were here by invitation only. Women at Sewanee were seen as guests at the table, and that was a hard attitude to displace.”
Pan Adams-McCaslin was among the first class of women at Sewanee. Through her Sewanee experience, she became the first in her family to graduate from college.
“Sewanee made something more possible for me and opened doors that I would never know,” she said. “What I found and continue to find is that the foundation I got at Sewanee, the skills I learned in thinking and processing, the ongoing community of friends that are still sustained through the years — those things serve me to this day.”
Adams-McCaslin added that though her time on the Mountain was transformative, there are moments that stand out as in need of closure, for both her and her classmates.
“I appreciate the fact that they are honoring the class because it certainly changed the dynamics of the school for the better,” she said. “But it wasn’t all wonderful, and to say that it was for the sake of the celebration is not telling the full history. There were women in our classes that continue to make a difference, and we share in that pride, but for many of the women, there is healing that needs to happen. I hope there will be room for that among the celebrating.”
To Hayley Shelton, who graduated in 2004, it is partly because of those difficult moments the first class of women had to endure that she is so grateful to those who came before her.
“These women were the ones that took up that mantle and paved the way for us to be able to do fun things, but also to actually have a place in the sciences and on campus to create our own programs and bring in female faculty. These are women who, for whatever reason, have not received equal recognition even though they did everything the guys did, but backwards and in heels,” Shelton said. “We truly owe everything to that first class of women, the class after them and the class after them, where we grew in ranks. They made it clear women were not going to be ignored, and women were going to flourish. It is because of them so many women have been able to.”