Sewanee celebrates 50 years of co-education during Homecoming

Sewanee women gather at the McGriff Alumni House during this year’s Homecoming celebration.

By Vanessa Moss and Claire Crow
Executive Staff

Since 1969, female presence on Sewanee’s campus has persisted and excelled. That persistence, and the many female accomplishments achieved since the inaugural class of women, was celebrated this homecoming weekend through the 50 Years of Women commemoration.

From October 31 through November 3, inter-generational panels, networking breakfasts, retirement receptions, art showcases, musical performances, galas and more were orchestrated for alumni and students to listen, share, and applaud the past 50 years. Nearly 1,000 alumnae returned for the celebration.

Sewanee’s campus in 1969 gained 103 newly enrolled women––the first female class of the University of the South. Women’s arrival to the Mountain, according to a then-Sewanee Purple contributor, Gene Ham (C’70), charmed the misty campus with “gentle, feminine flutings.” But by their senior year in 1973, those “feminine flutings” quieted slightly; the first female class had halved, their numbers whittled to only 50 graduates. 

A plaque commemorating the matriculation of full-time female students was revealed during a ceremony in the University Quad by Student Trustees Malicat Chouyouti (C’20) and Carol Shepherd Titus (C’81). 

Vice-Chancellor John McCardell spoke at the ceremony, stating that “The entrance of women as students in the College marked a seismic shift in the course of the University’s history—though the importance of the change is maybe better recognized from a distance.” He then specifically recognized the important role alumnae have played thus far in contributing to the growth of the University. 

Pioneering women at Sewanee shouldered enduring criticisms (see a 1970 open letter from a “concerned Sewanee gentleman”) and over-sexualization imposed by male students––Ham closes his welcome to female peers by assuring male students that “Simple, old time, unpretentious pornography still finds a market at Sewanee,” while implying that it hopefully soon wouldn’t be necessary.

Many of the obstacles facing women in 1969 were overcome in following decades, from inclusion in athletics to the School of Theology, but in other instances, advancement was slow.

Dr. Julie Berebitsky, professor of history and creator of the women’s and gender studies (WGS)  program, arrived in Sewanee in 1997. Her retirement following this academic year was congratulated by a reception at the Bairnwick Women’s Center on November 1, organized by a collection of WGS alumnae and Berebitsky’s coworkers.

At the reception, a handful of Berebitsky’s students reflected on her influence in their own lives, as well as her effect on greater campus. When she arrived in 1997, few other faculty questioned the denial of sexual assault and harassment on campus, and fewer faculty were interested in the creation of a WGS curriculum. 

“For many years she took quite a lot of abuse,” said Dr. Donna Murdock, professor of anthropology and WGS. “Backlash never stopped her. She built alliances and inspired student activism.”

According to Murdock, some of Berebitsky’s chief achievements were fostering women’s ability to thrive on campus, advocating for adequate support and response for sexual assault victims, and pushing for more racial diversity in her department faculty and throughout the school.

An oil painting of Berebitsky has been commissioned, funded by contributions from the first class of women to current students. The painting will be placed in a central location on campus, to acknowledge Berebitsky’s work done to challenge patriarchal structures, subvert the dominant masculine spaces and power of authority on campus.

Dr. Tam Parker of religion and WGS closed by praising Berebitsky for giving students and faculty the opportunity to love Sewanee, critique it, and call this place home. 

After an action-packed weekend, the 50 years of women celebration concluded with a gala held at the Sewanee Inn. Featuring keynote speakers Klarke Stricklen (C’22), Linda Mayes (C’73), and Meredith Walker (C’91), attendees listened to multiple compelling narratives from past and present female faces. 

Stricklen, a member of the Bairnwick Women’s Center and research assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, centered her speech around the first two African American women to attend Sewanee. In her speech, Stricklen recalls the triumphs and trials Theresa Weston Saunders and Stuwaski Broadnax experienced while at the University, saying how “their presence on campus paved the way for future black women like myself to persevere.”

Reflecting on speaking at the gala and her phone conversation with Saunders, Stricklen states, “It was truly a humbling experience to be afforded the chance to speak about a courageous woman I have come to know over just a few phone calls. Being able to share her story with the audience of women and men at the gala will forever be dear to my heart and I hope that her story will be remembered and cherished by all who know it.”

In the 1973 Cap and Gown, students Fay Kilgore (C’73) and Nancy Lamson (C’73) wrote that “it is difficult to speak of the experience of being a woman at Sewanee.” They then posed a thought-provoking question: “How can we speak of a woman’s particular place in Sewanee traditions based on the image of the Southern gentleman?” 

Five decades later, most would agree with Kilgore and Lamson that it is still difficult to speak about being a woman on the Mountain, as no two women share the same experience or view Sewanee in the same light. However, after five decades of progress paved by Sewanee women, these experiences are not based on one image of the Southern gentleman; instead, they are based on the many different images of Sewanee women that have developed in the midst of female trials and triumphs.