FIRST FEMALE FACULTY
It was not until the late 1960s that the College employed its first female faculty member, Maggie Pennington, who joined the College in 1962, teaching biology and botany over her 35-year career there, while also serving as its first and only dean of women, from 1967 to 1972.
“She was a woman of stature both in size and demeanor,” recalls Morrison, who joined the pioneering Pennington on campus five years later as part of a group of women who were offered positions in the early 1970s. “She was a really good mentor and she had that even disposition that made people trust her, so men did not object to her at all.”
Pennington’s success may well have paved the way for the eventual hire of other women. Her supportive treatment of her female colleagues also likely contributed to their success. “She was not at all a crusader, but she was extraordinarily nice to all the women who came after her,” says Morrison, while noting that Pennington was by no means a feminist.
“As a matter of fact, I was campaigning for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, so I asked her and Alva Stern [first lady of the College] if they would sign a petition,” she recalls, “and they said, ‘Heavens, no. We’re not going to vote for the equality of women. We are so superior to men.’”
As for Morrison, she saw fit to draw as little attention as possible to her gender as a young English professor in the 1970s, particularly after some early professional stumbles with a dean’s concerns. She managed to deflect, assuring him she had no plans to start a family. In her words:
Then, lo and behold, I get pregnant. So I am scared to death and slightly mortified. I had my first two children induced over Thanksgiving holiday so that I wouldn’t miss any school. My third one came on Good Friday, which was still a holiday at the College, and I would go back to school on Monday. I was the source of a lot of urban myths, but that was true. Then, my next big problem was childcare. So I went to Mr. Stern and said, “Can we have a nursery?” And he said, “Let’s get a committee and you can be chair.” So I started working on it and it was taken over and became the Early Childhood Development Center. That was wonderful, but, of course, all my children were in school by then.
In the early 1980s, the College formalized its curriculum on women’s studies when philosophy professor Cheshire Calhoun came to campus. She helped create a minor in the subject, by cobbling together courses from philosophical theory and other documents, as there was little academic work to support them.
“It was sort of making it up as you go along, which is sort of fun, but it’s also frustrating when you don’t have a body of scholarship that legitimates what is going on in class,” says Calhoun.
This eventually evolved into the robust Women’s and Gender Studies Program that exists today, offering a major in the focus and hosting an annual “Yes! I’m a Feminist” fundraising and awareness event.
As an academic, Professor Calhoun faced additional challenges in devising this new curriculum. Charged by her department head to create courses on philosophy and feminism, she quickly learned that she had her work cut out for her:
The kind of issues that I had to take up in this feminist philosophy class I think no one in their right mind would take seriously now. One of the more striking ones is the idea that women were by their very nature, biologically, unfit for certain vocations or certain areas of thought – this idea that they are worse at mathematics or aren’t capable of administrative positions. The disproportionate representation of women in different jobs wasn’t regarded as a problem because it was seen as reflecting natural differences. So I had to take up that whole view and try to provide a persuasive, reasoned argument against thinking that they were such natural differences and that they would justify discriminatory treatment against women. And nobody would do that today. There were also these opportunities to discover how bad the situation was for women in South Carolina. When I was doing background research to educate myself to teach in feminist philosophy, I read a lot of law, like actual legal statutes. Husbands were legally heads of households, regardless of whether they were providing an income or not. Wives were required to reside in whatever domicile their husbands had. These sorts of horrifying facts about a woman’s position actually made teaching feminist philosophy interesting in the South.
Today, women students swell the admission rosters, and faculty and alumnae of the College of Charleston land Emmys, discover exoplanets, save lives – and indeed pursue whatsoever calls to them. They do so by the scores, spanning fields, breaking glass ceilings and shining light on the limitless potential of a liberal arts and sciences education at the College. And, of course, they do so in pants if they so choose – as they will for many, many years to come.
“The College and our society have come a very long way,” says Kris De Welde, director and professor of women’s and gender studies (WGS). “The curriculum is far more multicultural, diverse and polyvocal in many departments. With some exceptions, women students, faculty and staff are taken seriously across the College such that the notion that women are biologically inferior is in the dustbin of history, where it belongs, and the WGS program is thriving with close to 80 undergraduate minors and majors.”
De Welde, however, is quick to add that there is always room for improvement. “There are many places on campus where inequity and inequality stubbornly persist, such as in service responsibilities that women, and especially women of color, take on: in pay inequity across fields; in the gender disparities of support staff; or in the representation of women and minorities in the highest levels of authority, such as on the president’s cabinet. We have work to do yet!”