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Mount Holyoke College marks 175 years

Students, alumni and guests gathered at Mary Woolley Hall on Thursday to mark the college’s 175th anniversary with a variety of speakers noting the college’s founder and distinguished alumnae.

Providing women with an opportunity for “vitality and usefulness” was Lyon’s vision, but she could not have imagined how the school would evolve over its 175-year history, said college President Lynn Pasquerella, a 1980 graduate. “Our diversity is one of Mount Holyoke College’s most vital assets,” she said.

Poet Emily Dickinson found “an ease and grace” at the college that surprised her, she wrote to a cousin, according to Martha Ackmann, a lecturer in gender studies. Dickinson, 16, spent a year at the then-Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and found the experience life-altering, Ackmann said.

“It was her first taste of independence” and she learned to make her poetry “more accessible” so she could reach a wider audience, the scholar said.

Another alumna, Frances Perkins, the first female secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, helped establish the Social Security Administration, unemployment benefits, a federal minimum wage, the Civilian Conservation Corps and other aspects of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, according to Daniel Czitrom, a history professor.

“I’m confident she’d be pushing us still,” he said of Perkins, who died in 1965 at age 85. “She’d be appalled at so many women and children in this country living below the poverty line.”

“Mount Holyoke women not only graduate with diplomas, they graduate with a sense of responsibility on their shoulders,” said Sadiqa Basiri Saleem, a 2009 graduate who addressed the audience from her native Afghanistan via YouTube.com. Saleem, founder of Oruj Learning Center in Kabul, which provides education to young girls in remote villages, said world leaders are recognizing that women “should be fully engaged in the decision-making,” to help their countries navigate global challenges.

“When women have power to make decisions, they typically make smart decisions,” Saleem said.

Despite women’s achievements, “we still have far to go,” Pasquerella said. A recent United Nations report shows women worldwide are still lacking in economic equality and political power, she said. In the U.S., pay for female managers is only 73 percent of their male counterparts’ and only 4 percent of the country’s major corporations are headed by female chief executive officers, she said.

Celebrating the college’s anniversary this week was particularly appropriate “when women had so much influence on the outcome of the (presidential) election and a woman broke the glass ceiling by being elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts,” said state Rep. John W. Scibak, D-South Hadley, referring to the election of Elizabeth Warren.

Select Board Chairman John R. Hine said South Hadley has “a partnership” with the college, with many town residents employed by Mount Holyoke and the college sharing resources with the town. South Hadley High School graduations have been held at the college amphitheater for the last two years.

“We do have a long history together,” he said.

Etta Walsh can be reached at ewalsh.gazette@gmail.com.

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