By Ryan Semerad
This past Saturday, a panel of distinguished female alumni shared their collegiate experiences with a roomful of people in part of Union’s yearlong celebration of the 40th anniversary of co-education. Anne Marie Nabi ‘70, Estelle Cooke-Sampson ‘74, Valerie Hoffman ‘75, Kelly Williams ‘86, and Adrian Jay ‘98 spoke about what Union was like when they attended and how it shaped their lives.
The mood of the conversation was light as the women reflected on their experiences. Nabi was part of the first class of female graduates—she was the only woman in her class picture. During Nabi’s time, Union offered two sections of class: the day classes and the night classes. Female students only took night classes prior to Nabi’s groundbreaking entrance into the daytime section. That transition, prompted by Nabi’s adviser, signified Union’s switch from an all-men’s college to a truly co-educational institution. Nabi warmly reflected on this momentous occasion as the time she “joined the man.”
Cooke-Sampson, a physician in Washington D.C., said her gender was not a big issue while she was at Union. “Union, for me, symbolizes other things – gender was the least important issue,” said Cooke-Sampson. “[My professors] didn’t see us as male or female.”
Hoffman, a partner at a national law firm that focuses on employment discrimination, echoed Cooke-Sampson. She said gender was not nearly as controversial as race during her time at Union. However Hoffman, the first woman to win the Bailey Prize, has endowed a lecture series entitled “Feminisms for the 21st Century” to promote feminism and improve gender studies on campus.
Speaking about her co-educational experience in general, Hoffman said, “It was great. We got to see men as friends or peers—not just objects, potential dating partners or husbands.”
Williams, the director of the investment firm Credit Suisse, described her college experience as a means to an end. She said her experience learning alongside men was invaluable. It taught her how to work with men, both as peers and as mentors. Williams said, “in the professional world, it’s important to know how to work with men.” However, being a woman is Williams’ greatest advantage. “When I walk into a room, I stand out. I’m not just another man in a blue suit,” Williams said.
Jay, the Chair of the Student Affairs Committee and CEO of Double J Creative, said “gender lines were very blurred” during her time at Union.
But in her professional life, Jay said there have been many more gender-related issues. However, Jay said “if you want something you have to go for it [in the workplace].” As Williams said “to stand out can be uncomfortable and intimidating, but it can be your greatest advantage.”
The panel discussion was organized by Senior Director of Campus Diversity and Affirmative Action Gretchel Hathaway. There are many more events to celebrate this historic year for women at Union. The next event will be on Founder’s Day when Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, will come to Union.