Co-Directors of the Bairnwick Women’s Center reflect on 50 Years of Coeducation at Sewanee

By Adriana Jones-Quaidoo and Quinn Needham
Contributing Writers

On the fiftieth anniversary of women in the college, we, as a community, have intentionally decided to embrace and acknowledge the growing pains that have brought us to the present day. We have committed to reflecting, listening, mourning, celebrating, and truly appreciating all the amazing women who have graced Sewanee’s campus. 

It was in this spirit that nearly 1,000 alumnae returned to the Mountain for Sewanee’s 2019 Homecoming weekend to formally celebrate Sewanee Women, including those who passed away over the years and those who didn’t get to graduate but still came and conquered the Domain. The weekend was also a recognition of the “firsts”: Dr. Linda Mayes, Sewanee’s first female valedictorian (C’73) provided the keynote address at the gala, and the first black women to matriculate, Theresa Weston and Warrena Stywaskee Broadnax, were also recognized. 

During the weekend we as co-directors of the Bairnwick Women’s Center organized a “Sewanee Women Then & Now” panel alongside the Women of Sewanee group. As a cohort, we hold ourselves and our organization accountable to our mission to educate and empower the Sewanee community by promoting social justice, equality, and raising up the voices of those who are silenced. The panel was a great reflection of these values, and through an open and honest dialogue the nine phenomenal Sewanee women, four current students and five alumnae, gave their testimonies which highlighted and emphasized generational growth that has occurred over the past 50 years. 

The co-sponsor of the panel, Women of Sewanee, is an alumnae group that came to fruition through Facebook. This group provides a safe space for women to connect and candidly speak of their experiences at Sewanee. Additionally, the group spearheaded a campaign to commission a portrait of Professor of Gender Studies Julie Berebitstky. By funding Berebitsky’s portrait, Women of Sewanee aims to bring recognition to the exceptional contributions of female professors at Sewanee. 

As we reflect on the 50 years of Women celebration and consider where we currently are as a community, there are some things that we would like to address while considering the state of Sewanee. 

To begin, it is our observations as current students that international alumnae, black alumnae, and alumnae from the 90’s and 2000’s were not fully represented, included, or supported. As a result, the celebration failed to be representative of all the diverse identities of women who have matriculated through the college over the last 50 years. This begs the question: how can we better support the alumnae who leave these gates and inspire them to return? Great strides to this end are already being made as the weekend marked the inception of Sewanee’s first Black Alumni Association. 

The planning of the 50 years of Women celebration began almost a year ago and for months, and current students wondered and worried about where they fit in to this yearlong celebration, as for the most part, they did not have defined roles in the planning process. This is reflected in the fact that current students were not invited to Saturday night’s gala until Klarke Stricklen (C’22), Elon Epps (C’20), and Malicat Chouyouti (C’20) advocated to have current female leaders included at the event. 

In the spirit of celebrating student voices alongside the voices of the women who came before, the University should be more intentional and develop a forum for current students, alumnae, and faculty and staff to utilize when planning events like these, as well as a centralized and inclusive alumnae network in order to build a stronger and more cohesive community.

Additionally, the Women of Sewanee organization that formed via Facebook has the vision and passion to build the community that current students and alumnae are hoping to develop. However, there have been concerns over the group’s governance and its interactions with current students, faculty and staff over the past few months as a result of muddled communications between the various groups. 

This is largely because the University does not have a centralized women’s alumnae association or systems of support in place to create spaces for dialogues between alums, students, and faculty. Again, we see this as an opportunity for growth and collaboration between the creators of the organization and the current Sewanee community of women to ensure that we are all invested in a shared vision for Sewanee’s future. 

In the end, the weekend was a powerful commemoration of the progress Sewanee women have made thus far, and a reminder that we as a community have a ways to go. When we return to celebrate 100 years of women in the college 50 years from now as alumnae ourselves, we hope to come back to a place where alumnae, students, and faculty of all experiences and backgrounds can truly dwell together in unity.