Independent Minds

The photo on the left, circa 1919, shows college women in Texas doing what college women have always done: hanging out together, having fun.  Minus the nutcrackers and nightcaps, the image conjures fond memories of my own university experience, six decades later.

Readers are often surprised that Leola, the protagonist of my novel, ‘TIL ALL THESE THINGS BE DONE, has any hope of attending college.  After all, it’s the early 20th century, she’s an impoverished orphan from a rural Texas town and, more significantly, a woman living in a deeply misogynistic society.

Women students at the historically-black Tuskegee Institute, c. 1909.

But a hundred years ago, earning a post-secondary degree was no longer the farfetched aspiration for women that it once had been.  My own grandmother—the model for Leola—overcame similar obstacles to achieve this goal, something that would not have been possible only a couple decades earlier.

By 1920, thanks in part to improvements in K-12 education and the nascent women’s equality movement, white female students made up half of the college population.  University attendance by African-American and other women of color also increased during this period, though institutionalized segregation limited the number of schools from which they could choose.

Ironically for both my grandmother and her fictional counterpart (SPOILER-ish ALERT!), being forced to live in an orphanage far from home had an unexpected side benefit, allowing them to attend a better school system in a larger town, with more opportunities to participate in extra-curricular clubs, take higher-level courses, and earn scholarships. As in so many families, my grandmother’s educational achievement inspired subsequent generations of women to pursue higher education. By 1982, two years before I graduated college, more American women than men earned their bachelor degrees, marking a watershed moment in educational equity.

Women at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta U.), late 1800s. Not only was CAU the first Black college in the south, it was also the first HBCU to provide a dormitory for female students.

Today the college landscape is far different than it looked even forty years ago.  Race, ethnicity, and gender aren’t the barriers to higher education they once there, though the effects of historic racism, sexism, and economic inequality still exclude plenty of people from the so-called ‘college track.’ Ironically, the soaring cost of university tuition has caused many young people to question the value of a degree—and the one-size-fits-all prescription for success that my own generation took for granted.

Students at the College of Charleston, early 20th century.

At 19, my daughter, Sara, is one such person. Instead of dutifully tromping the now tried-and-true path from high school to college, she’s been testing the waters of life, gaining real-world experience, thinking about her future not just in terms of career or financial success but overall personal fulfillment.

It’s not easy and, sometimes, I feel anxious about it. Like moms everywhere, I want my daughter to lead an independent, meaningful life.  But maybe that’s the whole point.  As the first woman in her family to attend college, my grandmother forged ahead without a roadmap or templates, determined to live life on her own terms as much as possible. It was her way of disrupting a system that had been designed to keep women like her own mother subordinate, compliant, un-free. The fact her great-granddaughter has so many choices would seem a victory, indeed.  Go, Sara, go, I picture my grandmother cheering.  Take these wings and fly.

My grandmother, Eula, with the foster parents who helped her attend North Texas State College.



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