​Sewanee Women: ‘Diamonds Are Made Under Pressure’

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

The panel discussion Sewanee Women Then and Now featured four current students and five alumnae ranging from the class of 1974 to 2019. Held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of women students at the University, the panel shined a light on disconcerting moments alongside gratitude, inspiration and awe.

Margaret Barton, C’78, recalled a professor who opened class with “Welcome gentleman and girls.” A woman classmate advised her, “Never accept a date after Wednesday or you’ll look hard up, and always wear full makeup to the library.”

Elise Spainhour was a freshman the second year Sewanee admitted women. “I tried to find out which professors were user friendly and would tolerate women. Some faculty didn’t want women here. I lucked out. I only had ‘one.’” Spainhour went on to emphasize how supportive the all-male political science faculty was when she decided to attend law school. “It was a shock at Vanderbilt to deal with chauvinists. I didn’t get that here.”

As President of the Women’s Dorm Council, Rosemary Drake, C’80, launched plans for an inter-dorm swim meet. The coach in charge of the pool quashed the event, telling Rosemary “I’m not going to have women throwing up and fainting in my pool.” Dean Mary Sue Cushman got things back on track.

Malicat Chouyouti, C’20, started out as an economics major, a male-dominated field. “I was often the only black and/or woman. I experienced the erasure effect. People pretend you don’t exist and seem surprised when you say something…‘Oh, she’s kind of smart.’”

“I’m often the only international student in class,” said Mandy Tu, C’21. “I’m from Burma and have a unique perspective on colonialism. I need to gauge when to say something and when to step back. I haven’t figured out the middle ground.”

“I spent the first two years mad,” admits Maria Trejo, C’20. She stressed the importance of “Theme Houses, where you can be yourself. The Queer and Ally House was the first safe space I encountered. If it hadn’t been for that, I don’t think I would have stayed.”

The dorm was the safe space for early alums like Spainhour and Barton.

“We didn’t have a space for sorority meetings, coffees, and speakers,” said Elizabeth Niven, C’85, who worked to help women realize the dream of the Bairnwick Women’s Center.

An audience member observed women were often “the activists on campus.”

“It takes a lot of brain space to balance activism and academics,” Tu said, acknowledging “the reliance on student initiatives.” As President of the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding, Tu launched a Representation Project to ease the experience of international students like herself.

Chandler Davenport, C’19, came to Sewanee as a Posse Scholar from Washington, D.C. She initially found her community among other D.C. Posse Scholars “who had the same culture back home.” Then Chandler encountered women of color “who didn’t come in with a community.” She helped found Black Queen to create a space for those women.

What were the unique take aways for Sewanee women?

Spainhour, currently a Kentucky Circuit judge and senior family court judge, cited “intellectual freedom.”

“Women of Sewanee shaped my spirit and pushed me to do things I never imagined,” said Chouyouti, who serves as a student trustee, a role she never envisioned for herself.

“For every difficult person who said something mean to me or underestimated me, there are five supportive people,” said Tu.

“I’m the only woman in the history department at the school where I teach. I’m not intimidated. I’m used to being the only one,” Davenport insisted. Her advice to current and future students: “Embrace the discomfort. Diamonds are made under pressure.”