SPS Today: Reflecting on Co-education
Summit Brings Female SPS Community Together for Weekend of Conversation
Jana F. Brown
Nestled in the Chapel of St. Paul, a group of alumnae and current female students and faculty joined together in singing the School Hymn. Their collective voices provided a fitting start to a day devoted to the women and girls of St. Paul’s School. As they walked between the Old Chapel and The Friedman Community Center for a day of panels and discussions, several women commented that it was the first time they could remember a rendition of “Love Divine” that did not include male voices.
The alumnae returned to St. Paul’s to join with current SPS girls and current and former female faculty in sharing their stories, reflecting on co-education, and envisioning a future for the School in which women feeling as empowered as their male counterparts is the norm. The two-day event for women began on Friday evening, April 12, with a reception and dinner for attending alumnae at Crumpacker Boathouse, where Dr. T.J. Dumansky, humanities faculty member and chaplain, delivered a keynote address on the importance of history and intergenerational storytelling.
Once gathered in Raffini Commons after the April 13 Chapel service, participants launched into a series of panels and discussions, including a conversation between three alumnae mothers and their SPS daughters. Participants included Laurel Abbruzzese ’86 and her daughter, Chloe ’22; Lisa Hughes ’78 and her daughter, Olivia ’19; and Alison Cody ’88 and her daughter, Isabel ’20. Hilary Bedford Parkhurst ’80, herself the mother of three SPS graduates, acted as moderator. Topics discussed in the mother/daughter panel included an assessment of the SPS experience – past and present, the benefits of single-gender housing for girls, and the pressures on alumnae as they enter the world beyond St. Paul’s
The morning’s second panel featured a discussion between students and faculty on the lived experience of women at SPS today. Faculty panelists included Alisa Barnard ’94, chief engagement officer and executive director of the Alumni Association, Myra Singletary, associate director for college advising, and Laura Hrasky, math teacher and adviser to the Student Council. Student participants were Katharine Henderson ’19, Mary Grace Beastrom ’21, Olivia Carter ’19, and Emily Abbruzzese ’19. Student Council President Estela Lancombe Franca ’19 acted as moderator. Questions posed to the second panel rang with familiarity from the first, including: What is it like to be a girl at St. Paul’s? How has being a woman affected the way you see the world at SPS and elsewhere? The student panelists referred to the “sisterhood” that exists among the female students of St. Paul’s, particularly in the single-gender dormitory environment. They spoke of the fledgling Young Women’s Club as a space for females on campus to come together and of “taking the good with the bad” when it comes to being female at St. Paul’s. The good includes, for those who are members of the girls crew program, a daily e-mail from their male coach that opens: “Dear Strong, Powerful Women.”
“Those little things in our everyday life,” one of the girls said, “make being a woman on campus feel awesome.” On the flip side, the students talked about areas in which there is room for improvement. “One thing SPS needs to work on,” another girl added, “is understanding that, while we are co-ed, the culture is oriented toward the boys here. It’s not a conscious thing. It’s still a male-oriented campus, and I would love to see that shift more.” Other topics included the status of healthy relationships on campus, how to embolden young women amid the social pressure of boarding school, and the School’s current policy on sexual intimacy.
“This is an empowering space,” said one of the students on the panel. “Seeing the women here today, having events like this, is helpful. There is a cycle of support. Feminism means equality across genders.” In the afternoon, Interim Rector Amy Richards introduced a 90-minute “visioning exercise.” Attendees self-selected into small groups around their chosen topics. They were instructed to suggest action steps for the School toward achieving the recommended goals. A designated facilitator then reported each group’s consensus. Discussion topics included role modeling for younger generations; sisterhood; women of color; empowering female students and cultivating female leadership; dismantling the class hierarchy; empowering LGBTQ+ sisters; alumnae networking; and healthy relationships on campus.
In her closing remarks to the women and girls assembled, Richards remarked, “I sense a heightened awareness of the significance of role models in general and the impact role models have upon those whose identities are outside the majority. We at SPS, in envisioning this future, need to step forward and be those mentors and provide that type of support system.”