The evolution of a women’s college education: three generations reflect

February 6, 2019 at 6:28 PM

Sue Ewing, Radcliffe alumna; Martha Ewing Nix, MHC ’80; Rachel Nix, MHC ’20

My grandmother, Sue Ewing, grew up as part of a prominent family in New Orleans, Louisiana, accustomed to the slew of traditions and expectations of women in the South in the 1940s. Deeply immersed in the social life of New Orleans, she recalls the Carnival Ball — a celebration where the upper echelon of society gathered for a lavish ball — being one of the most exciting events of the year. “I thought that New Orleans was the center of the universe,” she remembers. “Although, I was curious about what else existed.”

She initially planned to attend Sweet Briar College in Virginia, until a teacher encouraged her to venture beyond the South and apply to Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As one of the Seven Sister colleges — the female counterparts to the then all-male Ivy Leagues, which also included Mount Holyoke — Radcliffe enjoyed close proximity to its brother institution: Harvard College (now University). While the rest of the Seven Sisters remained exclusive to women, Radcliffe students lived and dined on a separate campus from Harvard men, but attended almost all of their classes at Harvard.

My grandmother took her teacher’s advice and journeyed north to attend Radcliffe. “I was absolutely gaga with what I saw,” she reflects. “At my private school in New Orleans, there were no people of color, no diversity, nobody but others from the same social milieu. Harvard Yard had people from all over the world: people of every color, race and religion. I wonder if my amazement showed.” Growing up in the South, segregation and deep social stratification was all that my grandmother had known. Entering this new, wildly diverse world was life-changing for her: “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she confides.

After graduation, she returned to New Orleans to appease her parents but couldn’t shake the experiences that she had in Massachusetts. A year later, she was offered a summer job in New England. It was her ticket to a new freedom. “I had grown up and changed since I left for college,” she says. New Orleans, once the center of her universe, felt mundane in comparison to the vast diversity she had experienced in Cambridge: “I knew I could never live in New Orleans again.”  Following her summer job, she found employment conducting research at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she worked until marrying my grandfather.

More than seventy years after my grandmother entered Radcliffe, I began classes at the first of the Seven Sisters, Mount Holyoke College. When I first arrived, I didn’t come alone: I came guided by the knowledge that my mother had also walked this campus. While I had only visited campus once before, I still recognized Abbey Chapel and Blanchard Hall from pictures in family photo albums. Before I joined the Mount Holyoke community, I had seen the legacy of a women’s college education play out in my own life: my mother — a red pegasus from the class of 1978 — is strong, loving, compassionate and one of the smartest people I know. She exemplified what it meant to be an independent, self assured woman — attributes she credits Mount Holyoke with cultivating.

After graduating from an all-girls high school, a women’s college seemed like the natural progression for my mother. Mount Holyoke gave women a voice. To her, the College was and remains crucial to the development of young women: an unparalleled opportunity to grow and learn outside of the male gaze while surrounded by other ambitious, driven women. At a time when women were still impacted by society’s domestic expectations, Mount Holyoke provided an environment for women to speak out, to be loud and unapologetic in their self-determination. Mount Holyoke profoundly shaped my mother and, by doing so, shaped me before I had even set foot on campus. The legacy of the College is one that trickles down: the women who walk through our gates go out into the world empowered, ready to lead and equipped to shake the world.

When I interviewed at Mount Holyoke, I was asked who in the world I most admired. I could sense that she was expecting the name of a famous politician or a renowned change-maker. I answered honestly: Martha Ewing Nix, my mother. If during my time at Mount Holyoke, I could cultivate even a fraction of her kindness, relentless pursuit of truth, compassion, curiosity and tenacity, I would be happy. I knew Mount Holyoke was the place to do that. It’s her legacy. It’s my legacy. It’s the Mount Holyoke legacy.

The Seven Sisters look vastly different now, compared to the era when my grandmother attended. Radcliffe College was fully integrated into Harvard University in the 1960s and no longer exists as an independent institution. Meanwhile, Vassar College went co-ed in 1969. Barnard College, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley and Mount Holyoke have remained independent women’s colleges. In the last century, the Seven Sisters have become notorious for their social activism and politically active student bodies. While only 2% of students attend a women’s college, graduates of women’s colleges represent more than 20% of women in Congress and 30% of a Business Week list of rising women stars in corporate America. Women’s colleges have also done pivotal work in closing the gender gap in STEM, graduating nearly double the amount of female STEM students as co-ed institutions. In fact, among all baccalaureate colleges, Mount Holyoke produces the greatest number of women who go on to earn STEM doctorates.

Mount Holyoke’s commencement activities include the Laurel Parade, in which graduating students carry a laurel chain and wear white as a nod to the early twentieth century suffragists. I love traditions like this because they remind me that change occurs thanks to the work of women who come before us and who believed in a more equitable future. One of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had at Mount Holyoke is becoming a part of the community, a community with a deep understanding that women are most successful when we lift each other up. I cannot emphasize how empowering, inspiring and impactful it is for young women to enter a space where almost all positions of leadership are filled by women — from the president down. When girls are brought up in spaces where the majority of role models are men, there begins a socializing cycle that instills the idea that leadership is exclusively for men. Women's colleges shatter that notion.

I would not trade my time at a women’s college for the world. Every day, I am part of a community of smart, ambitious women,  and every day those amazing women — my peers, advisors, professors and mentors — remind me how powerful it is to be a woman with a voice. I am continually inspired by the words of our founder, Mary Lyon, “Go forward, attempt great things, accomplish great things." I intend to, thanks to Mount Holyoke.

Pictured above: a portrait of Sue Ewing taken during her years at Radcliffe College; Martha Ewing Nix ’78 in front of the Kendall Building at Mount Holyoke; Rachel Nix ’20 during MHC's Convocation.


Rachel Nix ’20

Written by Rachel Nix ’20

Rachel, a politics major and sociology minor, is a marketing assistant in the Office of Advancement and a contributor to the MHC Forever blog. Hailing from West Virginia, she serves on MHC’s Admissions and Financial Aid Advisory Committee, is deeply involved with social justice initiatives and loves spending her free time with friends, reading on the green or trying to pet Jorge, the goose.