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War and the Woman's College

“The only women that the authorities over here really want are the trained nurses. Where do college women come in? Yet college men started the American Ambulance.”

This remark was made the second year of the war by a distinguished college woman who had just come up to Rome from Corfu where she had been aiding in the resuscitation of the Serbians after their magnificent retreat. Having already served in two wars, speaking modern Greek, and being an English citizen by marriage, she had rare things to offer and was given the rare chance that comes only to those who are ready. But she felt even then that there ought to be a place in Europe for the work of American college women and she longed deeply to see them ranged by the side of their brothers of the American Ambulance doing something worthy.

This desire lay close to the hearts of many college women the first two years of the war. They had no feeling, of course, that the individual college woman had more to give than other women, and they recognized the many ways already existing in which they could help. But they had a conviction that there were dynamic elements in the college organizations themselves—great loyalties, deep affections, pride, gratitude—that might be capitalized to splendid ends. And they felt profoundly that the women’s colleges ought to bear their full share of strain.

And so when the call came for aid in the civilian districts of northern France it was no surprise to those who knew her best that this woman should come forward at once and ask her college to send a reconstruction unit to those districts. Thus came about the Smith College Reconstruction Unit, now an old story. It was got together, equipped and dispatched in an incredibly short time considering the innumerable details to be worked out. The unit was received gratefully by France; it was assigned to an important region; it has done its faithful best; it has made, we feel, a contribution.

It was the dream of its founder, who was also its first director, that the Smith unit might have the good fortune to blaze a trail for other colleges and that eventually there might be a service for American college women similar to that for American college men though necessarily less dangerous and sacrificial. Happily this has come about in large measure. The idea, once started, spread rapidly and aroused great enthusiasm. Undreamed of resources developed. Wellesley at once organized and sent a reconstruction unit, Radcliffe joining in. Barnard is sending a unit as rapidly as passages can be secured. Vassar, in addition to arduous plans of another sort that might well excuse her undertaking anything else, is nevertheless getting, ready a reconstruction unit. Two intercollegiate units of this type are in process of formation and other intercollegiate combinations are sure to follow made up of members of colleges hardly large enough or rich enough to send independent units. Bryn Mawr formed a service corps early in the war to be used as need arose. College canteens have been formed also. Barnard has sent one. Smith has sent one. Other colleges have them under consideration.

But now a second stage has been reached and another type of war service is being developed by the women’s colleges. There are at least two elements common to all, the utilization of the college plant itself for summer work and the expectation that those who train will devote themselves as a rule to our own soldiers as they come back, or, if not directly to our soldiers, to our resources at home.

Vassar is a pioneer here. For months she has been laying careful plans for a great summer camp for training nurses. The work to be done in the summer is highly intensive and will swing the candidates a long way on their path. They are then to be sent to hospitals all over the country where they will complete their training and at the same time relieve others. The value of this plan is too obvious to need remark. Never in the world has any woman been so wanted as the trained nurse is wanted now. Vassar is responding to an urgent petition. Wellesley, too, is responding to an urgent petition. The Women’s Land Army of America has asked her to undertake to train leaders of camps for women agricultural workers in order to meet the acute labor and food shortage for next year. It is proposed to establish a large number of these camps and the training of leaders is imperative. In her own training camp this summer, which reproduce the features of the later camps, Wellesley is to work out the most effective and economical form of camp, standardize the type of instruction and plan a coordinated scheme capable of rapid extension to the whole country. (Among other things, she is going to experiment in coordinating the size and type of farm implements with woman’s physique.)

The agricultural unit managed by college women was really initiated last year by Barnard College s experiment in Bedford, N. Y. This unit had a special feature; it was recruited in large part working girls of New York City and used women as leaders and supervisors. This unit goes on and has established a small camp under same management.

The colleges that are training nurses and cultural units have every encouragement from government. It is probable that the competent among their students will be used as rapidly as they are ready and doubtless in positions that carry remuneration, though this is not the incentive.

But there are several other forms of training contemplated that are in the nature of new experiments. They are particularly significant because, while they will serve war needs, they look quite specifically toward that future after the war that we cannot discern now even dimly but that we are bound to dream about and work for.

Mt. Holyoke, Bryn Mawr and Smith are the colleges concerned here. Mt. Holyoke is to occupy herself with women in industry. Her summer course is designed to train leaders to look after the health of women in industrial plants. Some months ago the government appointed a highly trained college woman, a physician, to have charge of the health of all women in government industries. This course belongs, in the main, in the department of preventive medicine, and has infinite possibilities.

Bryn Mawr is about to begin a year’s graduate course that also concerns women in industry, is to be carried on in cooperation with some large industrial institutions in New England and Pennsylvania. The course is a combination of theoretical work given at the college and ample practical experience, or field work, in these institutions. Its object is to train leaders for in plants. The first group will begin its training this summer; two other groups will be trained during the year. This course has important bearings the future.

Smith College, while not a pioneer in the work it is to initiate this summer, is about to launch an experiment that is perhaps more of a hazard than any of these others because the field in which it is to work is itself in its infancy. Smith is to have a training school in psychiatric social work. It is to be conducted in conjunction with the Boston Psychopathic Hospital under a subcommittee of the National Committee of Mental Hygiene. This subcommittee is made up of four well known psychiatrists and the president of Smith College. There will be two months of lecture work at the college combined with clinical work in the hospitals of the neighborhood, and followed by six months of practical work in different hospitals that maintain a psychiatric department. Students may select hospitals near their homes if they wish. Three principal courses are offered; one in applied psychology, one in sociology and one in social case methods. This school is for graduates, but also for others that have had technical experience.

“We shall be in great need of social workers who have been trained in psychiatric work,” states one of the committee. “The work of the psychiatrist, the medical man, is not sufficient. We need a corps which will act as a sort of clearing house for all the problems confronting the shell-shocked man. We need people who have specialized lot only in the usual field of social work but who have made an intensive study in psychiatry.” This specialist adds that if he can make use of a sufficient lumber of aids of this sort so that he may be freed to give himself to the part that he alone can do, he can treat some three hundred cases a day.

“What in the world is psychiatry?” many asked when the plan was first proposed. Used in this connection it covers all forms of mental disorder, from the light nervous shock to insanity in a serious form. The term “shell shock” has come to be a sort of blanket term covering all kinds of mental and nervous disorders.

Here then is another field for women who want to help in the rehabilitation of disabled soldiers, not only in the hospital, but later, when all sorts of work will be needed in order to get men back into the social system in some normal line. It is a field suggestive of the trained nurse’s yet quite different.

This is the immediate object of Smith’s plan. But an added interest lies in the fact that almost all “Modern methods of dealing with civic problems, from the training of little children in the home and school, to the most complicated of provisions for the well being of citizens in all lines, are based on this type of training, or should be. The need for trained social workers will be even greater after the war, and no social problem can be adequately forked out without some knowledge of applied psychology.

The women’s colleges are giving all sorts of special courses and amplifying their regular courses that train for government needs, such as chemistry, bacteriology and other science courses. And college women in large numbers have gone to France with the Red Cross or the Y.M.C.A. or into the countless associations over there. But this is a somewhat different matter. It is the part played by the woman’s college as an organization that this article is interested in.

To those who have watched the growth of women’s colleges for many years, this their latest expression is gratifying in the extreme. For years we had to devote ourselves to securing the same opportunities for women as for men. That period is, happily, long past. But of late men have been telling us that we have done nothing original, that we have lost great chances, that we spend all our force imitating men’s colleges and proving that we are their equals. Or, as a leading educator picturesquely put it some years ago, “The women’s colleges seem to spend all their energy trying to show that John and Jane are precisely alike, especially Jane! “This is witty and there was, at one time, truth in it. But it scarcely holds now. Or, if it does, it is because of the assumption that men, having had many generations, centuries even, in which to work out educational problems, have presumedly arrived at something intelligent enough to serve the other half of humanity. Especially as most of us feel that the college of liberal arts ought to train mental power and not specific professional aptitudes.

But all educational systems and ideas are now in the melting pot; no one can foresee the result. One thing seems clear, however, so far as the woman’s college of liberal arts is concerned. It is not likely to specialize much in the domestic vocations, though when men talk of an “original contribution” this is generally what they have in mind. Those vocations will be recognized and there will be provision for them, some, perhaps, at the colleges we are speaking of, but more at colleges planned for that purpose. The more kinds of colleges for women the better. Each has a place. We do not want Jane precisely like John but neither do we want Jane precisely like Julia. Certain of the experiments that this war has generated seem to many of us to foreshadow a few at least of the lines in which the women’s colleges will move. They will send their graduates more and more into the professions and the industries, and into those forms of social work that help to make life more rational and wholesome for all. And when the suffrage is extended widely, as it probably will be soon, the opportunities for women to serve their country not only with zeal but with intelligence are really thrilling to contemplate. The colleges will move slowly at first and in the dark, but when the call comes they mean to be ready.

This article originally ran in the July 6, 1918 of the magazine.