The 100 Years of Women weekend gave students and alumni the opportunity to reflect on the role of women in the history of this campus. From the first Dean of Women to the induction of our current female President, women’s voices have been an integral part of William & Mary.
The Hispanic Studies Program at William & Mary teaches far more than just Spanish language and culture. One thing that many students take away from it is a growing passion for activism. From historical case studies to discussions of contemporary social issues, the program encourages active listening and engagement. This engagement is taken outside of the classroom and into the world.
This summer, a Hispanic Studies student decided to engage more directly with her school’s past through research. Jo Weech is a current Hispanic Studies and International Relations double major at the College. Her areas of focus include human rights work and education. Using the 100 Years of Women weekend as an opportunity, she researched the history of student protest and activism at the school since the introduction of women in 1918. This research was shaped by tools she learned from her Hispanic Studies courses; tools in deciphering memory, historical narratives, and archival records.
Although William & Mary is a historically conservative campus, it does have a rich history of student activism and protest. One of the main outlets used to voice social movements was the student paper, The Flat Hat. From reading past Flat Hat articles, as well as other newspapers, Alumni Gazette editorials, and oral history transcripts, this activism becomes clearer. Initially, most student movements were focused on internal issues of the College. Tensions have been present for years between the Board of Visitors, faculty, and the student body over issues of admission. The admission of women in 1918 was controversial. Supported broadly by students but not by as many alumni, coeducation may not have occurred if it wasn’t for low enrollment after WWI. Later in the 1950’s, the issue of admission was brought up again with changes in admission standards. In the 1960’s, they were brought up again alongside the racial integration of the College. They have continued to change under our more recent presidents, as well.
Changes in institutional policy had ripple effects among the student body. Students have written editorials for and against admission policies as well as policies for new athletic programs, construction plans, speaker events, chancellor appointments, and student resources. They have organized sit ins, silent marches, vigils, and speeches. Although initially rallying for issues internal to the College, William & Mary students have also engaged with national movements, such as Civil Rights and protesting the Vietnam War. Much of the most recent activism on campus gives voice to issues that the institution has been struggling with for decades.
Why is it that activism is not more actively remembered in our campus history? With many alumni present on campus for the 100 Years of Women weekend, Jo had the opportunity to speak to former students from different periods of the College’s history. She found that many of these women did remember at least one active demonstration taking place during their time here, if not more. But it took some remembering for those demonstrations to come to mind. For many past and current students, activism may not be at the forefront of this campus identity; however, it is a part of that identity–and it is one with a long legacy.