What’s On My Mind: Celebrating women’s history and impact

"What's On My Mind" illustration of Chancellor Nicholas S. ZepposWomen’s History Month is an essential, uplifting and cautiously optimistic mark of progress. The very genesis of this month—now so clear in its importance—was rocky in itself, requiring avid lobbying and activism to even get it on the calendar. It wasn’t until 1980 that Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring National Women’s History Week (then not even a full month!); it then took another seven years for Congress to designate March as Women’s History Month.

Only a few years earlier, in 1978, Vanderbilt opened the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center, a dynamic campus resource that celebrates the history of women at our university and continually advocates for the changes that make Vanderbilt a better place to live, work and study for every member of our community, regardless of gender. From encouraging honest conversations about sexual assault and harassment to exploring the double standards surrounding women in academia, the Women’s Center provides tools to combat the contradictory expectations placed on women, ultimately enabling more meaningful opportunities for professional, personal, emotional and intellectual growth throughout our campus.

From our current survey efforts to the initiatives Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is leading to programming for Women’s History Month, Vanderbilt is committed to ensuring our campus provides an inclusive and equitable environment for all. Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan Wente’s Women’s Initiative, which launched in August, is partnering with faculty, students and postdocs to focus on the status of women on campus. And the Provost’s Steering Committee for Initiatives Focusing on the Status of Women, part of the Women’s Initiative, announced earlier this month that it would focus on four areas: campus climate, professional practices, family policies, pay equity. This committee is working in partnership with the Staff Steering Committee for Women’s Initiatives. Both steering committees will work together and simultaneously to determine solutions to issues facing women at our own university and across higher education.

These committees are just two examples of the endless ways in which women are leading at Vanderbilt. To name just a few, Ruby Z. Shellaway was recently named Vanderbilt’s general counsel, Melissa Gresalfi was named dean of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, Consuelo Wilkins was named associate dean for health equity at the School of Medicine and vice president for equity at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Peabody College senior Meredith Waites was named as the recipient of the prestigious Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship.

Kathleen Seabolt is leading the evolution of the Vanderbilt Child and Family Center—a campus resource close to my heart that we continue to enhance and expand. In 2018, under Kathleen’s leadership, the center reassessed its commitments to the accessibility and affordability of childcare, education research and lifelong learning. Our ultimate goal is to make VCFC an even more obtainable and robust resource in supporting the professional progression of many faculty and staff. It’s a mission we’re still focused on, and I encourage you all to share your thoughts and feedback through the survey underway on this topic.

These leaders are building upon the rich legacy of the women who have been trailblazers in the long history of our university. This month, Emerita Professor of French and Comparative Literature Patricia Ward gave a lecture about the personal story of Kate Lupton, the first woman to graduate from Vanderbilt, whose path to graduating in 1879 was a fascinating yet sobering reflection of the ways in which women’s education was undervalued in 19th century America and well into the 20th century. It would be another 88 years before Dorothy Wingfield Phillips became the first black woman to receive an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt. We must celebrate these women who paved the path for so many others while also recognizing the many obstacles that they faced along the way.

We are making movement toward gender equality, but our work will never be done. Every day, we are confronted with the ways—both blaring and nuanced—that society still devalues women. As Provost Wente, herself a trailblazing pioneer as the first woman to serve as Vanderbilt’s provost, wrote in her Open Dore newsletter, we must find ways to ensure women are empowered to find and use their voice and to amplify those voices to advance our community. We must remember that Women’s History Month is not about delineating or offsetting women’s contributions from the history we all share. Instead, it is a stirring reminder: that through constant focus on inclusion, equality and wholeness, great communities thrive and great progress is made.