I was incredibly saddened with the announcement of the closing of Sweet Briar College this week. It is heartbreaking on so many levels.
I remember being a teenager in the 1960s, when a young girl’s future primarily consisted of either (a) finding the right man to marry and, just as in the 1950s, expected to be a homemaker or (b) working as a secretary, teacher, or nurse — but only until she got married.
Women were not expected to speak up in class, to assert ourselves, to run for student government or club offices (unless the club was exclusively female).
Women were expected to let the men take care of things.
I was fortunate to have a mother who saw the inequality in all of this and because of her insight, and a few other reasons, insisted I apply to only state-supported all-female colleges.
At that time in Virginia the state-supported womens’ colleges were: Longwood, Mary Washington, Radford, and Madison. There were other all-female schools in Virginia, but they were private and significantly more expensive: Hollins, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Mary Baldwin, Westhampton, Virginia Union University, and Sweet Briar.
I was accepted by Longwood College (now University), which at that time had only 1500 total students. My own high school had 2500 students. But even though at first it seemed smaller, over the course of my four years there, I learned I had a voice. I learned women were as important as men to all facets of life, — whether in business, government, research, or anything else.
I learned to speak up for myself and stand for what I believed in, even though those independent beliefs often got me in trouble with the very mother who had sent me there!
I graduated from Longwood in 1970, at the beginning of the women’s movement. About half of my classmates got married that same summer and the other half went on to begin their careers.
I got married too, but also began a 40-year teaching career. I’m fortunate that I married a man who values both sexes and the contributions both can make to life. I won’t say things have been perfect, but after almost 45 years, we’re still together. I may have found even more of (or a new phase of) my voice later in life, but I firmly believe the all-girls’ environment at Longwood fostered my early self-confidence and contributed to its ongoing growth.
Changing times — sometimes good, sometimes not
If you check the number of women in government and major corporations you’ll find that a great many of them attended all-female colleges. The list is far longer than I can include here but range from actress Katherine Hepburn to founder and president of Children’s Defense Fund Marian Wright Edleman to ABC news correspondent Ann Compton to former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — and on and on.
Since 1970, and the passing of Title IX, the four state-supported all-women colleges in Virginia have all become co-ed with significantly large enrollments. And as for the private schools, Hollins gained university status, Westhampton was “absorbed” by the University of Richmond, Randolph-Macon Woman’s and Virginia Union both went coed, with only Mary Baldwin and Sweet Briar remaining small, all-female colleges. And now there is only Mary Baldwin offering single-sex undergraduate studies (only the MBC masters-level university programs admit males, who remain a very small proportion of campus life).
The role of camps
So what does all of this have to do with Camp Alleghany?
As a child, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to a summer camp like Alleghany. Perhaps if I had, I would’ve found my own voice sooner than in college!
Now, with the closing of yet another woman’s college, it becomes clear that Camp Alleghany, and other camps like her, are vitally more important than ever.
Young women need a place to be themselves, to stretch what they think they can do so they can find out who they really are and to test themselves. And where better than in an all-female summer camp where make-up and hair and clothing styles are far less important than pushing your limits in body, mind, and spirit? A place where young men, however delightful, are basically absent, neither a competitive force nor a social distraction. A place where each girl has the opportunity to lead. Where questions can be asked out loud without fear of looking stupid.
We were fortunate to be able to send our children to private school up to the high school level. The middle school, for the years our children attended, segregated math and science classes by gender. This helped the girls tremendously as they were less afraid to ask questions when the boys weren’t present. When we moved, and the children were put in public school, I know our daughter adjusted to the rigors of her classes better than some of her female classmates because of not only her middle school experience, but also because of what Camp Alleghany had given her: The freedom to listen to herself and the power to find her own voice — to be herself!
May Camp Alleghany continue to serve all its campers and staff well and help them, too, to add their voices to society!
— Bonnie Dawson, Director of Special Events, Camp Alleghany for Girls