Telling Stories

The Hankey Center makes connections between past and present through the history of the College.
By Brian Speer

Filed in the Wilson College C. Elizabeth Boyd ’33 Archives, a February 1942 edition of the Billboard carries a passage by Ellen Jacobi ’43 in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor that could just as easily have been written after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “There has been an awakening in the past few days,” Jacobi wrote. “It is not enough just to wake up. It is too easy to fall asleep again as soon as the alarm is shut off. We have all shut our ears to warning. We have all said, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Now we know it can happen here. Hysteria won’t help. Sensibility won’t help unless it’s backed up by something constructive. Are we going to doze again …?”

Drawing connections between the past and present can play an important role in liberal learning. As poet Robert Penn Warren said, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”

In establishing the Hankey Center for the Education and Advancement of Women in 2003, the College created a home for the C. Elizabeth Boyd ’33 Archives. But the mission of the Hankey Center aims much higher. Beyond being a historical repository, the Hankey Center was founded with a vision to position the center as a national resource on the education of women and girls where researchers can pull from Wilson’s history. At Wilson, the center already serves as a resource, as well as adding to the academic experience and intellectual life of the College.

The role of the Hankey Center in the academic program has two main aspects, said Amy Ensley, director of the Hankey Center. First, is “individual research by students, where they’re learning to evaluate primary resources, analyze and synthesize data, and then present it,” she said. “The other aspect is to create curriculum packets with documents from the collection and analysis for [high school] teachers to use.” Ensley is currently building partnerships with area high schools in order to create connections to implement the use of Hankey Center-based curriculum packets.

Ensley uses a range of resources from the Hankey Center in teaching a section of the First-Year Seminar to help students learn critical thinking, communication and writing skills. “Students read selections from sources and analyze the difference between an autobiography written with hindsight versus something written contemporaneously,” Ensley said. Students then conduct research in the archives to compare and contrast their own experience against that of the authors they have read.

This past fall was the first time Ensley had a man in her First-Year Seminar. “It was interesting to hand out the assignments that were all 100 percent focused on women’s history and contemporary women’s issues,” Ensley said. “They had to read ‘The End of Men’ by Hanna Rosin, which they evaluate critically. All of his presentations focused on women. I think there’s tremendous value in educating men in an environment of strong women, with a history of strong women. I think our society will be better for that.”

Kay Ackerman, associate professor of history, is quite familiar with the Hankey Center and the Boyd Archives. When Boyd , a former registrar and volunteer archivist, retired in the mid-1990s, Ackerman added the title of part-time archivist to her job, serving in the role for about three years. The archives has a lot to offer, especially “for those interested in women’s education,” Ackerman said. “Courses I teach from 100-level up to the senior thesis use the archives in the Hankey Center.”

Ackerman’s U.S. History Since 1945 course includes an assignment called “American History in the Wilson Archives,” and requires students conduct research in the archives to find items relating directly to events covered in their course text. “What goes on at Wilson is not only the history of Wilson College, but it’s part of the bigger history of the country and the world,” Ackerman said.

The students culled the archives and found Wilson people involved in the environmental movement and connected to the National Organization for Women. They found Billboard articles discussing President John F. Kennedy’s decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis, documents concerning Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun as commencement speaker in 1972 when Roe v. Wade was before the court, and the recently donated collection of Patricia Vail ’63, who went to Mississippi with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

A June 1964 letter in the archives from Vail to her family conveyed, in a way history books cannot, the atmosphere of being in Oxford, Miss., after three others from the organization disappeared and months before a federal investigation would unearth their remains. “At the moment there is evidently nothing at all in the way of protection between us and the ruthlessness and whimsy of Miss. officials,” Vail wrote.

The Hankey Center has “this amazing collection,” Ackerman said. “There’s a lot of material there for scholars.”

Sarah Wilson ’10 is one such scholar to take advantage of the archives. Wilson—a volunteer at the Hankey Center between the first and second years of her master’s program—was looking for a topic for her thesis when she came across the Margaret Criswell Disert Collection. “I knew it [the collection] was there, but I kind of discovered it for myself,” Wilson said. “I became very interested in her life and her influence on the College. She was this really incredible woman that I knew very little about.”

“My research was very much driven by the archives,” Wilson said of her thesis, “Margaret Criswell Disert: A Story, the Undercurrents of American Feminism Before 1960.” “I used her story to describe various changes that happened in women’s culture in America in the ’40s and ’50s—from her role as an administrator at Wilson College to being one of the first 15 women chosen to be an officer in the Navy WAVES during World War II. She came back with all these new ideas about the role of women in American society. I used her speeches to illustrate these views and how they were similar to those that would show themselves again during the women’s movement of the ’70s.”

“Daily in the Navy, I marveled at the tremendous power generated by a group of people, disciplined, organized, working together toward a common end, and achieving almost incredible results by their cooperative effort,” Disert said in a 1946 Founders Day address. “I hope never to lose the vividness of that impression. I have come back convinced that somehow we must intensify our cooperative efforts in educating these, your daughters, for more intelligent, more enlightened, more active citizenship than some of us in the past have practiced.”

In addition to Disert’s speeches, Wilson used the personal correspondence of Wilson President Paul Swain Havens, faculty files, the scrapbook collection, the photo archives and the material culture collection in her research. “There’s something for everybody,” Wilson said. “Students often think of archival research as having to be done at larger institutions. Well, there are a lot of really great things in our archive that haven’t even been looked at yet.”

The priorities of the Hankey Center are now squarely centered on its future. “I think the mission [of the Hankey Center] will be the same, the way that we accomplish it will be refined,” Ensley said. “Having the resources to present information will be a strong focus.”

“Over the past 10 years a tremendous amount of work has been done to organize materials and create exhibits,” Ensley said. “We have been a traditional archive with a list of the general items that we collect. But, when you direct someone to your website and you’ve just got a list of general records, is a researcher really going to travel to come and see documents they’re not quite sure about?”

An initiative to systematically digitize the collection is now underway. While there have been small-scale digitization projects in recent years, a comprehensive archival database software package is now in place along with updated computer equipment that will allow new Wilson College Archivist Leigh Rupinski to begin working on organizing and presenting the entire collection as a digital resource.

“The strength of the archive is definitely as a resource for the history of women in America,” Wilson said. “Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia has a great women’s history archive, but because it’s Bryn Mawr, it deals with more upper class women’s history. And Wilson College had a lot of middle class students. So it’s a slice you won’t find at the ‘Seven Sisters.’ I know the archivist is going full force, but organizing a collection is a long process.”

In addition to the education of women, another strong point of the collection is the stories “about what these women did with their education and how that changed across time,” Ensley said. “For the early generations who had to fight for the right to be educated, they had real careers.” Alumnae went on to distinguish themselves as accountants, lawyers, journalists, including the Class of 1901’s Hannah Patterson, who served as director of the Women’s Department of Holmes Investment Securities of Pittsburgh, and Pauline Morrow Austin ’38, who worked on the secret radar project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during World War II.

The Hankey Center is more than an archive, however. Staff members are involved in a range of initiatives for the Wilson community and beyond. The center puts on the Science in Society Seminar Series, where prominent women in math and science discuss their career paths. It also organizes a number of Women’s History Month events, including a high school essay contest, women’s history speakers and exhibitions. Ensley—who serves as a guest speaker on women’s issues for historical societies, community organizations and women’s conferences—also organizes a lab day that brings about 50 local schoolchildren to Wilson to explore the sciences. “I give a professional development workshop for the children’s science teachers on classroom methods of including girls and encouraging girls in math and science,” she said.

When thinking about the question of how coeducation affects the Hankey Center and how the staff members approach data collection moving forward, Ensley gets excited by the possibilities. Are the majors that women take affected as the composition of the student body changes over time? And the possibility of being able “to compare the young men that go here—and we have examples of a hundred women’s colleges that merged with men’s colleges or went coed—to see if there was a way to survey them. Because you still have a lot of careers that are primarily [dominated by] women, or they think of being feminized. Like veterinary medicine. But to see if there is a difference between what our young men study and those that have just gone to a coed liberal arts college that has always been coed,” Ensley said.

Ensley is energized when she looks at the direction of the Hankey Center. Developing partnerships, integration into the curriculum, genealogy research by families of alumnae, and especially, the digitization of the collection, will allow the center to bring its stories to as many people as possible.

“Right now, all of these stories are hidden,” Ensley said. “Having them be told, whether that's an online exhibit or a physical exhibit; whether it's encouraging researchers who have similar interests to come and discover things on their own, or having the stories there for students to explore, that's just exciting.”

Accessing History

Archivist helps bring history to life


Wanting to find out more about his late mother, a man and his wife visited the Hankey Center recently in search of information about the 1941 graduate. Wilson College Archivist Leigh Rupinski showed them yearbooks, class photos, scrapbooks and news articles of the woman’s years at Wilson. The couple “were thrilled” to find out about her life at Wilson, Rupinski said. Helping to bring someone’s story to life through the collection is one of the things Rupinski loves about her job.

Rupinski began as Wilson’s college archivist last October. A history enthusiast, Rupinski volunteered at libraries when she was younger. She continues to enjoy working with books, archival collections and helping people at the Wilson’s C. Elizabeth Boyd ’33 Archives.

“The point of having all this stuff is so people can come in and use it,” Rupinski said.

The 24-year-old Grand Rapids, Mich., native graduated last spring from the University of Michigan School of Information with a master’s degree in information. She received her bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Rupinski, who worked in both universities’ archives, has training and experience using digital collection management software to organize archival materials and display images of them online. She is also well-versed in creating “finding aids,” documents that list information about subjects as a guide to help users find what they’re searching for in an archival collection.

The job at Wilson “was exactly what I was looking for,” Rupinski said. “I like working in an academic setting. There is a lot of opportunity to work with the collection in different ways. Digitizing, preparing exhibits, handling the materials—a little bit of everything, which makes for a more exciting day.”