An Arguably Artificial Portrayal of Their Truths
On March 2, 1946, The Herald-Tribune of New York, N.Y. published a photo and brief article titled “Lesson in Tradition for First Colgate Co-Ed” depicting a woman receiving a lecture on the significance of the number “13” at Colgate University; however, hidden in the university archives are more artifacts that uncover the significance of this photo and time period at Colgate. Initially, Colgate University was founded in 1819 by 13 men with 13 dollars and 13 prayers, and with this, they built an institution from which solely men could prosper. This male dominated environment lasted for more than a century, but in 1946 the tradition was broken. Through Howard Williams’ collection on women at Colgate University, one is offered a window into Colgate’s past. In his essay, “Colgate University Coeds” Williams uncovers who the first women to attend Colgate were, the opportunities that existed for them, and the significance of their presence in a masculine dominated environment. However, in my analysis of this artifact alongside other pieces in the collection, some concerns are raised about the validity of Williams’ message.
Constructed with a typewriter on a fragile sheet of paper that is frayed at the edges, William’s illustrates who the first Women to attend Colgate were and what the environment at the university was like. It states that the University was a “strictly masculine institution” where women were not eligible for an education (Howard Williams; pg. 1). In 1946, this tradition was broken for the first time as wives of veterans at Colgate were deemed eligible to study on campus – but incapable of receiving degrees from the University. On March 5 of the same year, Mrs. Helen Craven Mues, a 25 year old “former WAVE”, or volunteer in the navy, set foot on Colgate as the first female student (Williams; pg. 1). Along with four other women (Mrs. Claudia P. Nounnan, 22; Mrs. Alice Elizabeth Vesely, 23; Mrs. Mary Wallace, 19; and Mrs. Lousie Adele Lucas, 23) Mrs. Mues walked the campus of Colgate University.
To the men at the university, these women “would pass as a ‘typical coed’” as their hair colors in combination with their sweaters, skirts, anklets, and loafers were a “regular part of their campus attire” (W; pg. 1). From this, one can gather that the first five women at Colgate fit the ideal image of a female student and their achievements only support this. Mrs. Mues served in the navy, attended and was stationed at many schools including Cornell University and Columbia, and took a full course load at Colgate (W; pg. 2). Mrs. Nounnan was also stationed in the army, attended a college prior to Colgate, and was also taking a full course load (W; pg. 2). For Mrs. Vesely, her presence at the university demanded “more than ordinary attention” because she had attended the “rival,” Syracuse University and was a mother to a nine month old daughter all while taking a full schedule of classes (W; pg. 3). Furthermore, Mrs. Lucas had already achieved a bachelors in arts at the University of Oregon and both her and Mrs. Wallace were “concentrating in Spanish” at Colgate (W; pg. 3). From Williams' work, it is evident that the women who attended Colgate University were beyond eligible based on their accomplishments in the world at such a young age.
Due to the fact that Williams barely touches on the things that the five coeds were not able to do, one would think that their time at Colgate was perfect. First, Williams quickly passes over the notion that Colgate “does not plan to grant degrees to women so enrolled” (Williams; pg. 1). Moreover, it is noted that Mrs. Nounnan had a passion for “pep clubs and if Colgate ever allowed a coed cheerleader” she would have joined, but she was unable to do so during her studies at the school (W; pg. 2). Furthermore, Williams brushes lightly over the idea that the women “found the first day ‘agonizing’ because they feared that the men on campus would react unfavorably” to their presence. This was quickly debunked with a quote from Mrs. Mues saying, “They are very nice and never once have they been guilty of staring”(W; pg. 4). To Williams, “all five are enthusiastic about colgate” as they “thoroughly enjoy” what it has to offer (W; pg.4).
Nonetheless, looking through other artifacts in Williams’ collection raised skepticism for me about the truth behind the message of his essay. From the writing, it is clear that he wanted to portray a version of Colgate where the first women thrived and enjoyed themselves. In looking at the “Helen Craven Clippings” (1946) in the collection, the newspaper article described earlier with Mrs. Mues standing with two men noted as “campus leaders” can be found – written on the board behind them was the number thirteen (Williams, 1946). With one look at this artifact, I felt that the photo was staged to depict a nurturing and safe environment for women on Colgate's campus. Moreover, another article depicting Mrs. Mues, registering alongside Assistant Dean Jefferson, doubled down on the idea that “the boys are very nice and don’t stare at all” (Williams, 1946). However, this must be false as Mrs. Mues was highly sought after, as represented in another photo titled Me Next where it is said that Mrs. Mues autograph was in “demand among the men” at Colgate (Williams; 1946).
Analyzing these three artifacts combined with Williams’ essay on women at Colgate, I am apprehensive towards the thought that the first five had no qualms with the University. In his writing, Williams barely addresses any features of the school that had a negative impact on them, and when he does – he is quick to undo them. The insertion of his voice in the work also creates space between the truth and the illusion that is unable to be filled by the quotes that praise the university. Furthermore, the photos and captions added to the conversation almost seem as if they were engineered in a way that makes Colgate look exceptional and places the Women on a pedestal. This is reinforced by another photo depicting Mrs. Mues front and center in her German class (Williams; 1946).
While Williams’ Collection on Women at Colgate offers insight into what the university originally looked liked when the first five women were granted access to its facilities as well as who the first five were, skepticism on whether it portrays the truth of the women’s opinions on the school came from a couple of observations. Williams' essay only highlights the achievements of the women, their praise for the campus, and punctures any negative thoughts they had about the university with positive ones. Furthermore, with the addition of photographs, captions that describe them, and newspaper clippings, it seems as if the University was trying to paint a picture in which the women at Colgate were incredibly happy and satisfied. In the end, their satisfaction could be a reality, but the way it was presented was arguably artificial and leads me to question whether it was an accurate portrayal of the first five’s opinions on the school.
Williams, Howard. “Colgate University Coeds” “Howard Williams collection on women at Colgate University,” 1946
Williams, Howard. “Helen Craven Mues Photographs” “Howard Williams collection on women at Colgate University,” 1946
Williams, Howard. “Helen Craven Clippings” “Howard Williams collection on women at Colgate University,” 1946, Herald-Tribune
While it is not necessary to do this for this paper, I would like to acknowledge my peers in WMST 301 for their terrific ideas in discussions and overall input in the class. While I did not use any of their ideas in this essay, their contributions helped me to formulate my own ideas which have been sewn into the essay above. I would also like to thank Sarah Keen in the Archives of Colgate University who helped guide me through this short research process as well as Professor Taryn Jordan for their assistance and guidance.
Furthermore, I would like to acknowledge that much of the resources I have been using as well as the facilities that I have benefited from are located at Colgate University. Colgate University is situated on the Oneida Nation’s land, one of the nations of the Haudenosaunee people.