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Students Share the Story of the First Women at Merrimack

Merrimack College students are taking a closer look at — and helping to tell the compelling story of — the first female students and teachers at Merrimack College.

As part of Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Debra Michals’ Fall 2021 US Women’s History course, students took a deep dive into the McQuade Library archives to examine primary historical sources to illuminate the unique experiences of the first decade of women at Merrimack.

Developed by Professor Michals, Merrimack’s US Women’s History course challenges students to explore the complex history of women in the United States, uncovering the evolution of women’s roles in American society and exploring the intersection of race, ethnicity, class and culture in shaping women’s historical experiences. Each semester, Professor Michals assigns a Women’s History Project based on relevant historical milestones or current events.

Inspired by Merrimack’s 75th anniversary, Professor Michals asked students in her Fall 2021 course to complete a special Merrimack Women’s History project, concentrating on women at the College between the years 1947 and 1960. Students worked in small groups to select a particular area of focusfashion, social life, education, connection to work and family and moreto serve as a lens through which to tell the story of women at Merrimack and what it reveals about women’s roles in this era.

Professor Michals explains, “The overarching theme of this particular project asked, ‘What was it like to be a part of that original cohort consisting of a tiny number of women against a very large pool of men on campus?’”

To develop their projects, students worked in close collaboration with McQuade Library’s Head Librarian Lyena Chavez and Reference/Access Associate Gabrielle Womack to identify key primary resources and supporting secondary resources that would assist in illustrating their selected area of focus. Lyena and Gabrielle even created a new training workshop for the students to help educate them about primary resources and how to engage with them.

Armed with a better understanding of how to conduct their research, students pored over library materials in search of evidence to bolster the stories they sought to tell. “It was important for the students to understand that the stories of women at Merrimack during this time would not be as easy to find and understand as those of the men because they were in the minority,” Gabrielle notes.

Students studied archival materials including a Coediquette Booklet (which outlined standards of decorum and dress for female students), bound issues of Merrimack’s The Warrior (the original name of the College’s student newspaper), the MC Catalog from 1954-1955, historical photographs, yearbooks and more.

“Working with primary sources from McQuade’s archives made Merrimack’s history come alive for these students. Students not only explored pictures and newspaper articles, but were challenged to probe deeply into social context, and ask questions about the complexity of representation,” Lyena shares.

Students’ selected areas of focus covered topics ranging from women who wrote for the campus newspaper, the role of the Dean of Womanhood and the limited selection of majors available to women during that time.

Overall, the students enjoyed the opportunity to engage with archival materials and learn more deeply about what life was like as a woman on campus in the College’s early years, encountering many surprising facts about gender roles and expectations. Professor Michals shares, “The students were blown away when learning about the College’s separate roles for women and all the discussion about how women should speak and the clothes they should weareven how they should go about inviting a young man to attend a campus dance.”

The completed projects took the form of Google Sites online exhibits and accompanying essays. The Google Sites exhibits have been published online and are available for viewing as part of this year’s Because We Believe 75th anniversary celebration.

The exhibits were such a success that Professor Michals has asked students in her Spring 2022 US Women’s History course to create a second set of exhibits, moving the history further by covering women at Merrimack in the 1960s and 1970s. She also has plans to coordinate a third section of the project, focusing on women at Merrimack from the 1980s through the present.

View the Women’s History Project Exhibits

Merrimack’s Women and Gender Studies Department

Listen to the Living Out Loud: Storytelling for Social Change Podcast