What was once a small band of women volunteers and ambassadors for Washington University in the St. Louis community is now a society of more than 600 women celebrating its 40th anniversary.
The Women’s Society of Washington University (WSWU) will mark four decades of service to the University April 20 with a full day of activities, kicking off with the Adele Chomeau Starbird Lecture at 11 a.m. in Graham Chapel featuring Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent. (See story, Page 5.)
After the lecture, WSWU members will celebrate with a special luncheon in Francis Gymnasium, honoring past presidents, scholars and leadership award recipients.
In 1965, Chancellor Thomas H. Eliot asked Bird Brown, president of the Women’s Board of the WUSTL School of Nursing, to consider broadening the board’s interests to include activities on the Hilltop Campus. He was concerned about the inevitable closing of the School of Nursing and did not want this group of talented women to lose interest in the University.
Eliot’s concept was clear — an organization that “would bring the community to the University and the University to the community.” It was, after all, the 1960s — a time of chaotic events, war, social change and the generation gap.
Enter Mina Harrison, the society’s first president (1965-67), who worked closely with Brown to transform the board into a strong nucleus of women volunteers to be called “The Women’s Society of Washington University.”
Within just a few years, these women had opened and staffed the Furniture Exchange and the Bear Necessities shop, furnished Whittemore House, provided financing for several campus lounges, opened the Uncommon Market in a renovated closet in Umrath House, initiated an annual plant sale, and formed a close partnership with the Stix International House office.
These efforts were instrumental in creating a link between the University and women in the community.
“I felt at the time WSWU was formed that we could promote some harmony between the St. Louis community and Washington University students during that turbulent time,” said Dot Mullendore McClain, society president from 1970-71.
In the mid-1970s, The Women’s Society Scholarship Endowment was established for students graduating from a St. Louis community college.
“We had a very exciting dinner at Whittemore House; we sent out 100 invitations and didn’t know if anyone would come,” said Liz Studt, society president from 1974-76. “But they did, and we presented a check to Chancellor (William H.) Danforth to begin the scholarship program.
“It was an important moment because it showed that all those many volunteer hours could really help students in the future.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, thanks to increasing membership and profits from Bear Necessities, the Uncommon Market, the Furniture Exchange, and Helene Rode’s six years of volunteer business expertise, WSWU was able to increase the scholarship endowment to fully fund an annual two-year, full-tuition scholarship.
In 1995, with Caroline Loughlin as president, this endowment became known as the Elizabeth Gray Danforth Scholarship Endowment to honor “Ibby’s” 24 years of dedication to the University as first lady and her unfailing support of the society.
Through the excellent leadership of Loughlin, Mary Ott, Jane Mitchell, Mary Behnke and Betsy Douglass, the scholarship endowment now totals $1.25 million, and 29 students’ lives have been transformed by a WUSTL education.
In 1987, society President Sarah Wallace and Vice President Jean Hobler (1986-88) discussed with William Danforth the possibility of strengthening the educational focus of the organization. The society’s leadership board felt that WSWU members and other women in the St. Louis community would be eager to experience and support the academic vitality of the University’s faculty. The successful result was the establishment of the “Town & Gown Lecture Series,” five annual lectures featuring distinguished WUSTL faculty.
Then, to honor one of the University’s most highly regarded deans and to further the society’s educational mission, the Starbird lecture was established in 1988. This annual event features a woman speaker of national prominence.
In 1991, the society established a funding committee to provide a formal process for the selection and funding of campus projects that would not be possible without the society’s support.
As of this year, the society has provided a total of $228,968 for a wide variety of campus projects. Recipients have included the Service First and Summer Leaders Programs, the Social Justice Center, the WUSTL Opera, Visiting Artists, Health Promotion and Wellness, the International Spring Festival and the chancellor’s reception for international students.
In the mid-1990s, as more women joined the work force full-time, a decision was made to close the Uncommon Market and, a few years later, the Furniture Exchange. These decisions were based on having fewer volunteer hours available to staff these businesses.
However, with the bad came the good. A professional manager, Mary Hovland, was hired to run Bear Necessities, now the flagship business of the Women’s Society. Members were free to redirect enthusiastic volunteer energy to create new projects and sources of revenue to fund them.
The most recent example of this creativity is the increasingly popular “Composing a Life” program that allows professional women to honestly share their life stories with students.
To promote the increasing role of women in leadership positions, the society’s membership committee, chaired by Margie Jaffe, recommended in 1998 the establishment of the Women’s Society Leadership Award to recognize graduating women seniors who have made a significant contribution to WUSTL during their undergraduate years and who demonstrate exceptional potential for leadership. To date, 11 women have been the recipients of this award.
Harriet Switzer, Ph.D., secretary to the University’s Board of Trustees, has been the University coordinator of the Women’s Society since 1986.
“I grew up in St. Louis — the city means everything to me,” Switzer said.
“It is wonderful to be connected to a network of women leaders who are making a difference in St. Louis. I love the interaction with these talented and gracious women who bring professionalism and creativity to the business of the Women’s Society.
“I am proud that society members are ambassadors to share this great University with the community.”
Sharon Britt has provided critical service as the society’s administrative coordinator since 1996.
Current President JoAnn Sanditz said, “In this decade, our concerns are global — there is very little one person can do to improve world relations. But on a person-to-person basis, we can make a huge difference.
“The main goal I have set for my tenure is to enhance the link between the international students and WSWU. The new ‘Be Our Guest Dinner’ program is a perfect beginning. WSWU members will welcome international students into their homes for informal ‘get acquainted’ meals.”
Although times have changed, the goals of the Women’s Society remain the same:
• Identifying women in the St. Louis community to be of service to the University;
• Providing specific services to the University that would otherwise not be possible; and
• Providing intellectual/educational and leadership opportunities for women in the St. Louis community.
“The most significant changes in the Women’s Society that I have seen over the years are the addition of educational programs and the huge expansion of membership, as well as the increased support for the Elizabeth Gray Danforth Scholarship,” said Kitty Drescher, president from 1971-74. “The society has become an extremely active and exciting group.”