Feminism Through the Ages: Women’s History Month and a look back at Women’s Experiences in SSSAS’s history

By Amelia Duncan’ 22, Amanda Edge’ 22, and Catherine Onorato’ 22

Since March is National Women’s History Month, it’s important to reflect on the treatment of women not only on the national scope but through the more focused lens of our school community. The women’s fight for equality has taken many different forms over time, whether it be fighting for the right to vote, the right to work, or the right to be paid the same as men. This being said, it’s important to understand the experiences of women in our own community, as well as to see how they have evolved over the years. 


It was only in the recent past when St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes Schools were two separate entities: St Stephen’s School, and St. Agnes School. St. Agnes was an all-girls K-12 institution located on what we now call the lower school campus. We spoke with St. Agnes School alumna, Amy Hanley’ 87, mother of Bridget’ 20, Ellie’ 22, and Claire’ 25. She reflected on her experience at the St. Agnes Upper School as one which provided her with a strong sense of self and the necessary confidence to succeed in college and beyond saying: “I went to college feeling confident and not overwhelmed by the mix of boys and girls and post-college when I went to business school and it was only 25% girls I probably felt more in the minority and more affected by the ability to speak up in school, but overall [St. Agnes] just gave me more confidence.” She elaborated on the leadership opportunities that St. Agnes provided her saying, “ probably ⅓ of the girls in my class had a leadership role and I think they really were preparing us to not take a backstep in college and post-college, because so many of us were in charge of the judicial council or sports teams or class presidents and in many other areas of student life.” 


Another interesting difference was the dynamic of sports at St. Agnes. Mrs. Hanley touched on how rather than vying for the same attention as male sports, “competition was never really with the boys, it was within St. Agnes.” She added, “everyone was assigned a color, either green or gold, and they would have sports competitions in the fall or the spring and it was a huge, spirited, competition.” 


To see how the values of St. Agnes continued on past its merge with St. Stephen’s, we talked to St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes alumni Susan Clare Duncan ‘13 who recalled that the most prevalent gender-based issue at the time was the dress code. Reflecting on how the girls, in general, were treated over their clothing, Susan Clare explained one of her most impactful memories from the upper school, “I remember one day a teacher gave a presentation to all the girls on what not to wear in CPAC, while the boys had a fun meeting about sports or something. A senior girl stood up and said ‘Excuse me where are we supposed to get these clothes?’ They were ridiculous.” Duncan went on to discuss how the clothing that the administration wanted them to wear was unreasonable and inaccessible. 


Likewise, Mrs. Hanley also touched on the fact that during that time, gender inequality was not talked about frequently neither at St. Agnes nor outside of school, because women’s issues weren’t at the forefront of social issues at the time. Mrs. Hanley recounts “I can't remember any conversations really about [feminism]. I mean it's such a pressing issue now and probably was back then, but we were kind of unaware at the time. The focus was more on the drug problem, AIDS was at its peak, and the Cold War. I don't remember gender issues playing a big role at the time.”


When asked about how many female students valued being a feminist at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes, Susan Clare had an answer similar to Mrs. Hanley, “Those who identified as a feminist were in the minority, I can only recall two.” Contrarily, one thing that both Mrs. Hanely and Susan Clare corroborated was that the prestige and respect of certain girl’s sports, such as lacrosse, were maintained even after the two schools merged. 


Another aspect of St. Agnes that carried through the merger, was the sense of academic safety and equality that has allowed students to grow in the classroom. Mrs. Hanley discussed this with us in the context of the confidence St. Agnes gave her and her counterparts before entering a world that’s harsher towards women, as did Lindsay Howard’ 22. Lindsay recalled her experience at the middle school and unpacked her thoughts on how the administration tries to create an equitable environment saying, “they try and make the learning opportunities safe and equal for both genders” in reference to single-sex math and science classes in middle school.  


However, Lindsay did note, similarly to Susan Clare, that the dress code disproportionately affects female students and leaves them more susceptible to objectification. Moreover, while St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School has set up women for success in their lives after graduation for many years, there is still work to be done in making the community more gender-inclusive.