Young Alum Perspectives (’07)
A Women’s Mission?

By Brandie Ashe

When Mississippi University for Women was founded in 1884, it was, as many of us know, the first public, state-supported college established for women in the United States.

The University’s current mission statement still claims its dedication to “maintaining its historic commitment to academic and leadership development for women.” However, since the school became a co-educational institution in 1982, some have questioned whether a women’s mission is still necessary for the university, particularly in light of recent proposals supporting a “genderless” name change for the school. In an effort to explain the importance of maintaining a women’s emphasis at the W, I asked some of our recent additions to the Long Blue Line to discuss why the “Women” in MUW remains a relevant and necessary focus of the university’s educational programs.

As Leigh-Ann Thornhill (’07) points out, MUW represents a niche in the higher education market that has been diminished over the past few decades: “There are too few women's colleges left in this country,” she says. Leigh-Ann explains that to her the women’s mission helps students remember the sacrifices made by the women who fought to provide educational opportunities like the W to future generations. “It is part of our history, our legacy as educated women,” she explains. “The W serves as a reminder of truly how far we women have come in the realm of education.”

When interacting with students in her graduate program at the University of Georgia, Carrie Pate (’07) has noticed that an undergraduate education with a women’s emphasis makes a distinct impression. “Graduates of women’s colleges are very easy to spot—and they stand out in a good way,” she says. “Every woman’s college grad I’ve met has been so well-prepared.” Carrie understands that such an education is not suited for everyone, but echoes Leigh-Ann’s sentiments about the W’s unique position in higher education. “Students look for what makes a university different from the others, so striving to be like ‘everyone else’ by changing the name or the mission is not going to help enrollment, and it certainly won’t help students.”

Leigh Pourciau (’08) agrees: “It seems that the administration is operating under the assumption that our school will be ‘better’ if we transform into something we’re not – one of the cookie-cutter state universities. The W was the first public higher learning institution for women in the country! Not the city or the state, but the country!” she exclaims. “Why can’t we be proud of this and celebrate our unique heritage? Why can’t we continue to foster the distinct, small-school atmosphere that we students have been so lucky to experience?”

Stephanie Evers (’07) believes that the university’s mission plays a vital role in shaping students’ future endeavors. “I can’t imagine being the scholar and teacher I am without the influence of MUW,” she explains. “The W represents an oasis of free-thinking and genuine intellectual pursuit in a part of the United States that often suffocates these things. My students sometimes laugh at what they call ‘Ms. Evers’ feminist soapbox,’ but in all seriousness, I think the W’s history and mission as a women’s school makes the professors and curriculum more skeptical of what our society presents as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable.’ My time at the W prepared me to be a cultural critic, one of a teacher’s most precious responsibilities.” She continues, “The W has a community spirit unlike any school I’ve attended. They call themselves a family, and they mean it. I think this sense of unity comes from both the practical—the small size of the classes, people living and studying in close quarters—but also from a common mission.”

Erin Gioia (’07), a fourth-generation W Girl, points out that the need for that common mission has not changed since the school opened more than 125 years ago, despite advancements in women’s rights during that stretch of time. “Much of society would have us believe that a women’s mission is unneeded. ‘Women have achieved equality,’ they say. Yet there are still so few women in top executive positions in this country.” Erin believes the W’s mission remains vital in light of other national efforts to strengthen and enhance women’s educational opportunities. “Very few women enter into what are referred to as “STEM fields”: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The reason for this is, reportedly, that women are not interested or do not have the time due to other commitments. But many organizations, including some with federal grant money, are investing in programs which help women in management to network and get necessary training to prepare them to take on executive roles, or teach middle-school children about leading women in STEM fields so these girls know that those fields are open to them, too. We’re doing all this, but a women’s mission is obsolete? I don’t think so.”

Ashlynn McCarthy (’07) agrees that the passage of time and the success of the feminist movement has not erased the need for female-focused education. “When MUW was founded in the 1880s, it was a necessity in a time when the chances of marrying were slim due to the death of so many young men in the Civil War. But while the nature of that necessity has changed, it is no less necessary that we have a university that serves the functions that the W does.” Ashlynn asserts that the educational environment at the W encourages students to find previously unknown strengths, both academically and personally. “The W instills its students with a sense of self, of which self-confidence is a natural byproduct,” she explains. “The W provides a well-rounded education that focuses on the individual as well as the academics. This fosters a community of positive students who feel confident not only in their classrooms but outside of them and this, in turn, fosters great leaders and thinkers.”

Irene Miller (’08) also believes that one of the most important benefits of the W’s women’s mission is that it provides unparalleled leadership opportunities for female students. “Since the W is roughly 85% female, I think it is in the unique position to allow women to step up to leadership positions that they might otherwise not have the opportunity or confidence to approach in a more male-saturated student body,” she explains. “These leadership experiences give women graduating from the W the hands-on experience and confidence to seek and be prepared for more leadership positions in the real world.”

Kristen Taylor (’07) agrees: “Many great women have attended the W and gone on to do amazing things. The W must continue to focus on its priority of producing strong female leaders.” Kristen says that while the university will undoubtedly continue to evolve over the years, it is important to preserve and celebrate its roots, concluding, “As alumnae, we need to remember the true meaning behind MUW and continue to focus on women’s issues--and women’s successes--by keeping the mission alive for years to come.”

Brandie Ashe, Class of 2007, is an English major working towards a master’s degree at Georgia College and State University.