Cornerstones Always

Fillae nostrae sicut antarii lapides…

That our daughters may be as cornerstones.

Since its founding in 1869, Chatham women have been welcomed every year with this motto, excerpted from Psalm 144:12. From a time when access to an academic education was the strongest barrier to a woman’s success in the larger world to now, when women have unprecedented access and yet still struggle to gain equality in pay, leadership roles, and media respect, this motto continues to provide the same firm, steady foundation to Chatham women that cornerstones provide for the palaces the verse exhorts us to be.

The argument is easy to make: If women have equal access, why do they need women’s colleges? In the month since the announcement was made by Dr. Esther Barazzone that the Chatham University Board of Trustees would vote on a resolution to make Chatham’s College for Women a co-educational institution, the question has been asked many times. And just as many times we, as alumnae, have been attacked for wanting to keep our little piece of the world just as its been for 145 years. We’ve been called man-haters and in one ridiculously low moment, pillow fighters, as if we went to college simply to have one long, four-year sleepover.

The truth is that most of us didn’t intend to go to a women’s college, and yet something about Chatham called out to us. Perhaps it was a particular program, or the professor that we met on a campus tour. Maybe it was the beautiful landscape, and the history of Pittsburgh that emanates from nearly every wall on campus. Whatever the reason, we chose Chatham, and, in some ways, it chose us just as much. The college alma mater includes a line saying, “we pledge our faith in you.” That faith goes both ways. We trusted Chatham with our educational foundation, and it, in turn, promised to make us worthy of that foundation. It promised to make us into cornerstones.

In 2000, 74 years after it had been commissioned from Louis Comfort Tiffany, a window was unveiled on Chatham’s campus, a full restoration having been complete after years in storage. On a book opened before a female figure is the Chatham motto, “Fillae nostrae sicut antarii lapides.” Centered on the window, for all the world to see, is the exaltation by the college (now university) that its daughters are prepared for something greater than they can even dream, just as the cornerstone holds the weight of the palace above it. Yet, if you look carefully at the window, you will notice something.

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In the arch around the woman, there are 13 circles with the names of artists, scientists, and writers. These are men that the modern world considers pinnacles of their various genres, but they are all men. In a work commissioned by a women’s college graduating class, the artist didn’t include a single woman in the list of the honored. In fact, he was so hard-pressed that he managed to put Shakespeare on there twice.

No one knows who had final say over the window’s design, or whether the lack of any celebrated women raised a commotion when it was first dedicated, but the fact that this window, even as a product of its time, fails to include a single woman held up for praise is exactly the reason that we fight so hard for the women’s college. Perhaps such a window today would have included women like Georgia O’Keefe, Marie Curie, or Mary Shelley. Perhaps not.

There is a quotation from Hu Shih that reads, “What is sacred among one people may be ridiculous in another; and what is despised or rejected by one cultural group, may in a different environment become the cornerstone for a great edifice of strange grandeur and beauty.”

We don’t ask all people to understand why we fight so strongly for women’s colleges, and our college in particular. Like a person standing outside, looking in, not all things may ever be clear. However, like real cornerstones, we don’t falter, and we will continue to be the women that Chatham prepared us to be, fighting for her survival.

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2 responses to “Cornerstones Always”

  1. Jim Ru says :

    When I looked at the photo of your window, something struck me about the names inhabiting the space. First of all, to dismiss them as “not women” ignores what remarkable men they were. Can’t women learn from remarkable men? But there’s also something else the arist is trying to tell you.

    Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

    Milton wrote about homosexual love, although he had to feel guilty about it.

    Michelangelo – Well where does one begin? Obviously gay and okay with it.

    Shakespeare – Well scholars say maybe, and probably bisexual. He stiffed his wife out of the will. The Sonnets have lots of male/male love. One hundred and twenty-six of them appear to be love poems addressed to a young man known as the ‘Fair Lord’ or ‘Fair Youth’; this is often assumed to be the same person as the ‘Mr W.H.’ to whom the sonnets are dedicated. So maybe that’s why he’s on there twice. It is after all Shakespeare.

    Plato – Plato argued that love between males is the highest form and that sex with women is lustful and only for means of reproduction. Only with men, can the Greek male reach their full intellectual potential.

    Pliny – I couldn’t find a lot about this guy, but… Pliny the Elder did not marry and had no children. In his will he adopted his nephew, which entitled the latter to inherit the entire estate.

    Homer – The first recorded appearance of a deep emotional bond between adult men in ancient Greek culture was in the Iliad (800 BC).

    Moliere – in his late 40s Molière fell in love with a 15-year-old actor named

    Michel Baron (1653-1729) Molière and his young male lover were together until the playwright’s death.

    Galileo – Well he had kids, but he never married the mother of those children and considered them all illigitimate. He spent a lot of time under house arrest by the Christians for saying the Earth revolved around the sun. Speaking truth to powerful religious leaders qualifies him at least as a civil rights activist.

    Petrarch – Again, never married. Wrote poems about horrible men who pursue women. He’s considered the Father of Humanism. Very late in life he is said to have fell in love with a woman, who is conveniently married, is not really described, and his poems to her are chaste. He died talking about the sins of the flesh. Typical of the Christian era, it’s okay to have sexual feelings as long as you feel bad about them later.

    Dante – Well he certainly wrote about homosexuality and was tormented by it, going back and forth about just how naughty it might be. Never is sodomy in Purgatorio judged to be unnatural, nor can it be since the aptitude to love is “natural” to human creatures (17.90-93; 18.22-27), and sodomy is one of the kinds of love. In this canticle, Dante departs, radically and astonishingly, from the orthodoxies of Catholic moral theology. Dante also loved the work of Virgil.

    And I will leave you with the work of Raphael. http://www.gay-art-history.org/gay-history/gay-art/gay-art-europe/homosexual-cupid-zeus-psyche-sanzio.html

  2. Rachel says :

    You can learn about the design of the Tiffany window and the Alumnae Association Committee that worked on the design in this article from the 1889 Alumnae Recorder: https://archive.org/stream/alumnaerec18881892penn#page/n143/mode/2up.

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