Winona Branch Sawyer (1871) on "What Becomes of the Girl Graduates"
Winona Branch Sawyer was an 1871 graduate of Shimer College, then known as the Mount Carroll Seminary. She subsequently taught at the school for several years before marrying, moving west, and becoming the second woman to join the Nebraska bar. A close friend of Frances Shimer, she served as one of the initial trustees of the newly reorganized "Frances Shimer Academy of the University of Chicago" in 1896, and upon her death in 1901, served as Frances Shimer's biographer and co-executor of her estate. In 1926, she gave the college Sawyer House, the president's residence on the Mount Carroll campus.
The following is the text of the address she gave before the graduating class in June 1895, as reprinted in the August 1895 Oread.
The girl graduate is a product of this century. Only fifty-four years ago the first diploma was placed in a woman's hand. Last year 29,501 girls and women graduated from the high schools, colleges and schools for women in the United States. Quite an army! How much those diplomas represent. Years of work, years of hope. From the time the maiden of five trudges away to the kindergarten or primary school, on through the twelve years which terminate the high school course, and perhaps a supplementary four years of collegiate work, she has toiled and hoped for that crowning glory of which her diploma is the exponent. Then what becomes of her?
Notwithstanding the current impression that for the girl graduate commencements and weddings are consecutive events, statistics fail to corroborate the fact. In our own Alma Mater, one of the most venerable among schools for women, fifty two per cent. of the graduates have married, seventy-seven per cent. have been or are teachers. Apply these averages to the thousands and tens of thousands of girl and women graduates which are annually sent forth as teachers and home makers, and we can in a measure understand the secret of the stupendous strides in moral and intellectual development, throughout the length and breadth of this land, during the last two or three decades; why our schools are models for the world; and why the proportion of students who become graduates increases; why colleges and universities require million and billion dollar endowments to accommodate the seekers for advanced education; why conservative art salons of Paris have opened their doors to American artists; why American musicians are heard in European halls; why home making has become a regular profession; why women are prominent in literature, science and art; why they succeed as organizers and administrators; why waves of reform disturb the old-time calm of social and municipal affairs; why the whole standard of life and living is changed. For the higher the attainments the few reach the higher the many desire to rise. Progress is not determined by the amount of intelligence or intellectuality on deposit at any one time or place, but by its diffusion, and with the education of woman has come a diffusion and an intangible influence as permeating, as unobtrusive, and almost as universal as light through space.
These social changes, especially those which affect woman's work, have followed so closely upon the advent of the girl graduate, and the rate of progress has been so proportional with the increase of educated women, it is reasonable to conclude that they have been factors in producing these changes. Furthermore, it is not strange that factors so numerous and so potent should prove a disturbing element.
The girl who from five years of age till seventeen or twenty has been forming habits of observation, of tracing events to causes, of analyzing and investigating, takes these habits and possessions with her into the life she enters when she leaves school. She analyzes character and actions as she tested chemical elements. She applies to ethics and economics the same principles which underlie physical causes and results. She treats necessities as mathematical conclusions. Her knowledge of evolution convinces her that citizenship, the soul and pride of a free government, exists in the nursery and the schoolroom and can not be a gift at maturity. She has been prepared by years of logical reasoning to draw her own conclusions. Her scientific researches invade the laboratories of home and society. Her observation has been trained to see all relations of life in their true perspective. Whether married or single, the influence of the girl graduate, the educated woman, is not lost any more than the drops of rain which fall in the bosom of the great lakes are lost in the tremendous power of Niagara.
A fear has been expressed lest this higher education may unfit woman for home life. For the old-time home life of our foremothers, a life of spinning and weaving, of sewing and knitting, of brewing and baking, a limited servile round of duties, it does unfit her. Myriads of inventions and millions of never wearied machines have relegated much of this manual labor beyond her reach.
Increasing, broadening, quickening faculties does not annul the old-fashioned virtues and graces. It does not take from woman her garment of modesty nor despoil her of the pearls of truth. It does not les- sen her love and courage nor mar her ministrations with harshness. It does not make her less thoughtful for those nearest and dearest to her nor less capable and willing to be a helpmate or a guiding spirit. Instead of dependency it gives her courage and self-respect; instead of pettiness and pettishness, a wider range and firmer grasp; instead of spinning and weaving, a comprehension of the nature and extent of the laws of influence; instead of looms and spindles, a command over mental, moral, and physical powers. In the halcyon days of Rome it is said that women petitioned for permission to ride in chariots, wear purple and deck themselves with jewels. Now, woman asks for broader humanity, the royalty of knowledge, and the jewel of highest culture.
We find imperfections everywhere in nature, and it may be that there are recipients of diplomas who do not illustrate the highest ideals. If such be the case, failure is not due to an excess of education, but to deficient, defective or misdirected training.
Revels in the field of science, and acquaintance with men of genius, are of little avail, unless it be a companionship which suggests subjects of conversation more solid than gossip of society and sensations of the day. Artistic accomplishments are of little avail if they do not reproduce in the life of the student the rythm and purity and grace found in the music and canvas and marble of the old masters.
A thought I would emphasize is, that an aspiration or a preparation is not a life. One is the plans and specification for a building, the other the completed structure. A legend is told of a nymph who, obtaining a spark of fire of the gods, built an altar on a hill, which, like a beacon, sent out its light for miles around, and to which others might come and carry away sparks to kindle hearth-fires or to light other beacons. She also gave to nymphs, initiated in the mysteries of this heavenly flame, torches which they were to carry and whose magic fire, unless extinguished, would emit continuous rays of light converging at her shrine. She watched and ministered to this sacred flame until each home and every hill were lighted with promethean fire.
Forty-two years ago a light was kindled on this mount. For forty-two years the hand of Mrs. Shimer and her associate have kept it burning day and night. Thousands have visited this shrine and carried therefrom vestal sparks which gladdened happy homes. Many more have kindled beacon lights. On each commencement day the guardian of this light has given to certain chosen ones torches and her blessing, and sent them forth to impart to others the same beneficence which they received. From Maine to California, from lake to gulf, these torches have been borne even across oceans and to the islands of the sea. To each one of these wandering ones,
"Wherever they may rove or roam,To-night it is your privilege to receive a token of approval and a proof of your novitiate. Some of the light and strength and inspiration and nobleness of the life of Mrs. Shimer, her associates and assistants have entered into your lives. You do not depart hence as you came. New thoughts have been instilled, new aspirations awakened, new strength imparted, new visions given of what your life may be. You can not separate and classify these acquisitions and tell who taught you this, who gave you that, but the diploma you receive witnesses your possession. To-night your novitiate ends. Your Alma Mater will watch anxiously, lovingly, the line of light which marks your past. Think not, it makes no matter if your taper vanish. One spark extinguished, leaves darkness in its place. Each new thought which you may awaken, each new aspiration you may enkindle, each new impulse for good you may stimulate, flashes back to her a thrill of joy and makes the fire on her altar burn more brightly.
Her blessing, like a line of light,
Is on the waters day and night,
And, like a beacon, guides them home."
Each person has two educations. One which he receives from others and one which he gives himself. The latter necessitates a culture of brain and hand and heart worthy the name of higher education. To-night ends your first education.
You are now going out on life's great tide
To enter a school-room broad and wide,
Not where pupils are found by the single score.
But where millions are met with millions more
And so varied the classes in which they are found,
That they range from the lowest to the topmost round.
Yet in this school where the myriads meet,
There is full many an honest seat.
And the highest of these may always he won
Not alone by the rich, but the poor man's son,
For happily here, true, honest worth
Is esteemed more highly than pride of birth.
There are noblest themes that the mind can try,
And problems not solved by x and y;
There are theorems grander and more profound
Than Euclid did ever attempt to expound.
There are battles to fight, more important by far
Than ever were gained by force or in war,
There are victories many and dear to be won
Without booming of cannon or firing of gun.
There is evil to conquer, and vices to shun.
There is hatred to banish and love to be won.
There is error to vanquish and truth to uphold,
And a banner of light o'er the world to unfold.
In short, all around you, above and below,
There's a broad field of labor wherever you go.
And oh! how sublime, how noble the strife,
When worthily waged is the battle of life.
It is not to the swift, nor yet to the strong,
But to him who succeeds in conquering wrong,
Shall be given a crown with jewels as bright
As stars that emblazon the dark brow of night.
And the Teacher who governs this school, day by day,
Is He whom suns and planets obey.
He'll give you each lesson, He'll hear you recite,
He'll keep you by day and He'll keep you by night.
He is Teacher of teachers, the truth and the way,
The fount of all wisdom, the source of each day.
Go forth, then, and serve Him, His rules all obey.
Confide in His wisdom and you can not stray.
His ways are all perfect, His prizes are sure,
And when earth's have all perished, His ever endure.
Thanks are due to Aaron Garland at Shimer College for making this material available.