Celebrating 50 years of coeducation at Holy Cross gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and consider the amazing contributions that have been made by the women in our community – both here at the College and in the wider world. It also offers us a chance to reflect on the struggles faced by those women, and on ways in which we can and should do better. The fascinating conversation we heard during our Faculty Symposium on the 50th Anniversary of Coeducation highlighted historical experiences and current challenges. I have been asked to add my voice, as the longest-serving female member of the Department of Economics and Accounting, to this narrative. I hope you will be able to appreciate how much has changed in all this time.
When I arrived in fall 1989, I was the only woman in the department, with the exception of a one-semester overlap with a female colleague who then left the College. It was a pretty lonely place for me in a lot of ways! Many of my classes had no female students, or at most one or two. I suspect it was pretty lonely for those women as well. In the early years, some male students publicly (in class) and aggressively challenged my qualifications to be a member of the faculty. On the advice of a colleague, I changed “Prof. Rask” to “Dr. Rask” on my handouts, which elicited an immediate response.
Other students openly raised concerns during class discussions about my decision to work at all. They maintained that my place was to be home with my husband, and later with my children, thereby opening up more job opportunities for men. I heard the same sentiments from some colleagues at the College. In fact, one colleague explained to me in detail how scientific evidence proves that women and people of color have lower intelligence, despite the existence of a few outliers.
When I got up the nerve to tell someone higher up the food chain that I was being stalked and harassed by a member of the College community, I was told that I should change my wardrobe or consider finding different routes between my office and classroom. I was also told that “that’s just the way guys are”. Can you imagine having these conversations today?
On several occasions I seriously considered leaving the College. But I love to teach, and Holy Cross is committed to teaching as its central mission. I benefited from several tremendously supportive male colleagues and mentors who helped balance the pain of the more difficult times, and women from other departments generously reached out to me with empathy and advice. Most compelling, it was clear to me early on that my presence on the faculty was important to the few female economics majors. In fact, female students sought me out for advice and mentoring even if they had not taken a class with me, and soon students of color did as well. Just BEING a woman in the department opened a channel for students to ask questions about a wide range of life experiences, a channel of which they took advantage immediately: what does it feel like to be pregnant and working; how do I balance the demands of a career with raising young children; and what is it like to be so outnumbered in my workplace? I have been very open with my students over the years, finding that these stories resonate with them and help personalize and contextualize the concepts we are learning in class. What is economics if not the study of the choices we all make? On a few occasions, I brought my young daughters to work, placing pop-up tents in the front of the class so I could keep track of them while teaching. We had some hilarious moments, which the students remembered and appreciated for a long time. Teaching opportunities come in many guises.
The College and the department have made great strides since the early days. We soon hired Prof. Baldiga on the accounting side, and the two of us worked hard to establish a safe and supportive space for other women to succeed in our department. It is astonishing to realize that no woman was granted tenure in our department until 1996 (think about that for a moment – 24 years after coeducation began, and almost into the 21st century), but I am both proud and humbled to have finally broken that barrier. We all have worked tirelessly over the years to hire a truly gifted group of women and men, and they have transformed and uplifted the atmosphere in Stein, benefitting all our students tremendously.
Given my own personal experiences in graduate school and then as a new professor at Holy Cross, I know how important it is to have representation, and I feel good about the women and men that make up our department now. The Symposium participants stressed that other forms of diversity – racial, religious, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, to name a few – are also important components of a truly representative community, so our work is far from complete.
Throughout my 30+ years of teaching economics, I have been privileged to work with many amazing students, including some very impressive women. I continue to be a bit puzzled that our percentage of women students in the economics major remains consistently low, reflecting nationwide trends. European numbers are a bit higher, and I’d like to consider why that might be. This anniversary year offers the perfect moment for us to reflect on whether we are doing what we can and should be doing to make sure all students, including women and people of color, feel welcome and valued here.
Looking back at over 30 of the 50 years of coeducation, I am heartened by the steps the College is now taking to reckon with its past, and I’m proud of the great strides the department has made in shaping its future. The women and men who comprise the economics and accounting majors and department faculty are well positioned to continue this trajectory. I look forward to celebrating our future accomplishments.