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.
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.