Review: Western College for Women

book cover

Western College for Women

Jacqueline Johnson’s book Western College for Women was a quick read. Before I start singing its praises, which I will get to, I want to disclose the facts that could bias my opinion. First, I live in Oxford Ohio the home of Western College and have a history degree from Miami University where Ms Johnson worked as the Rare Books Librarian. She is now the Western College archivist which I am sure helped her with this book. Second, she has worked with my wife on projects for the university. Now those are not my reasons for reading the book. I love local history, the past is most alive when you stand where it happened. I am interested in the history of education. In fact I have Narka Nelson’s 1954 book “The Western College for Women, 1853-1953”, which Johnson mentions, on my bookshelf but for some reason I have not yet read it. One reason could be that it stops short of what I considered the most interesting aspect of Western College’s story. Training the volunteers for Freedom Summer, another of my interests.

Western College for Women first held classes in 1853. It is hard to see even western Ohio as “the West” today but remember that ten years later the Civil War “Army of the West” consisted of soldiers from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Today Oxford is in the country, then it was in the wilderness, a college town carved out of beech groves in 1809. Johnson shows us the college as it develops and expands over the decades. I mean she literally shows us. The book has well over two hundred photographs coupled with informative captions all collected and written by Johnson. At first it surprised me that there was not more text. Johnson shows us the primary document, the photograph of the person, place, event, as it happened. This is good history.

Sometimes the picture is more persuasive than mere words. On page 34 we have a photo from 1891 of the Volunteer Band of the International Movement for Foreign Missionaries and the caption mentions “Lucy Dunlap from Thailand”. Without the photo we could assume that Lucy Dunlap was an expatriate’s daughter sent home to study. Thanks to the photo we see that regardless of the Western name we have real intercultural exchange happening here. I was in high school when Title 9 went into effect and I suffered under the impression that women’s athletics dated from then. This book showed me just how wrong I was. Another unexpected bit of history involves the stonework that is perhaps the most distinctive part of the Western campus, the stone work. Eleven bridges, an outdoor theater and the fireplace in the Western Lodge were all done by the same man’s company, African American stonemason Cephas A. Burns. As impressive as Burns stonework is even 100 years later I did not expect that a woman’s college in south west Ohio would hire an African-American contractor. Good history points out the unexpected. I found many unexpected facts in this short book.

Johnson organized the book by the terms of college presidents. The pictures show us the people and major events, as well as the changing reality of college life. Students rode around campus in horse drawn carriages, they rode bicycles to the next town six miles away, they protested for visiting privileges for their male friends. Johnson has put together an excellent selection of photographs and did the research to necessary to write informative captions. The fact that Lucy Dunlap founded the Satriwithaya School in Bangkok or that when the board of trustees approved Freedom Summer organizers use of the campus they specified it was for one time only were not found written on the back of the photograph or on the negatives envelope. Johnson had to research these facts and find a way to included them. A lot of thought and research in this book that is so well done that it looks simple. If you look closely you will even find a photo of 1962 Western graduate Donna Shalala, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. If I were to look harder I might find Ameerah Haq, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Field Support and a Western graduate. Maybe not. Western had to many important alumni to show them all in such a short book.

After reading Johnson’s book I am motivated to read Narka Nelson’s more detailed book but now I know that there is an updated edition that covers ten more years of Western College’s history. Now I think I need to hunt it down. This book should interest anyone who wants an introduction to the history of higher education in the United States, in particular women’s education. I am confidant that anyone who reads it will have at least one “I didn’t know that” moment. I did not learn if participating in Freedom Summer was what brought about the schools closing ten years later. That is something that won’t appear in a photograph. Only close examination of the financial records would show the truth about that.

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