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The Coordinate Tradition

In Celebration of the William Smith Centennial
by Debra K. DeMeis, dean


William Smith College is a place where women matter and where women’s leadership has been cultivated since the College’s founding in 1906.  For 100 years, the College has provided an environment that presents opportunities for women to develop and realize their capacities to be change agents on campus and in the wider world.  Our Centennial anniversary is the perfect moment to acknowledge those women leaders who have opened doors so that each succeeding generation of students can lead more fulfilling lives and to imagine the future for Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Anna Comstock
Scholar and feminist Anna
Comstock helped William
Smith refine his ideas about
a coordinate education.

Women’s leadership was instrumental in the founding of William Smith College.  It is no coincidence that the College was founded in upstate New York, near Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the suffrage movement, when women demanded to have their voices matter in the political world by gaining the right to vote.  William Smith was a strong supporter of women’s education, and some of his closest female friends were leaders in the suffrage movement.  As suffragists championed the right of women to vote, they also advocated for women’s education so that women could be more fully prepared to express their opinions and participate in the political decision-making process. Through his association with suffragists Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter Anne, William Smith began to develop his dream of creating a women’s college, a dream that would lead in 1906 to the founding of William Smith College.   

The legacy of women’s leadership continues into our more recent history as the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought dramatic changes to Hobart and William Smith. Women, influenced by feminist leaders such as Betty Friedan and Dr. Pauli Murray, the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanded a greater voice in the decisions that determined their lives, including decisions about careers, education, motherhood, and marital rights.  The ideals of the feminist movement matched the mission of William Smith, and the College experienced a period of dramatic growth, both in size and stature.  Prof. Valerie Saivings, professor of religion at the Colleges, began one of the first women’s studies programs in the United States.  William Smith women claimed a greater voice and presence in all aspects of campus life.  William Smith athletes began to play under the College’s new mascot, the Heron, and William Smith students founded the Wave, an alternative newspaper, to ensure that women’s voices were heard on campus. Women created spaces of their own as women of color founded a theme house named Umoja, and the Rebecca MacMillan Fox Women’s Resource Center opened in Miller House.  With these changes, women’s leadership helped to keep the Colleges true to their mission.

William Smith Leaders

100 years later, William
Smith women are still
leaders, like this student,
participating in the 2004
March for Women’s Lives.

William Smith College has maintained a coordinate relationship with Hobart College since 1906 and that relationship has benefited both women and men.  Throughout the Colleges’ history, the model of coordinate education has served as an example of the strong and positive interconnections that exist between women’s and men’s lives. While founded to provide women with a sound education, William Smith College also enriched the education of Hobart men.  With the creation of William Smith College, Hobart men had the opportunity to expand their academic pursuits into the fields of sociology, biology and psychology because William Smith’s gift included the establishment of advanced departments in those areas. Similarly, the questions of the feminist movement opened new doors for men.  The option of coed housing arrived on campus and with the change Hobart men and William Smith women began to create new relationships based more on equity and respect.  Women’s redefinition of femininity encouraged men to begin to challenge the traditional choices that defined masculinity and to envision new options in the world of work and family.  Consequently, both William Smith women and Hobart men could imagine relationships such as “dual-career couples” and career options captured by the phrases “stay-at-home dad” and “professional mother.”  As women assumed leadership roles and brought changes to the campus, they also impacted the lives of Hobart men and enriched their experiences while at the Colleges and in their years after graduation.

The legacy of William Smith College is a place where women, their voices, and their leadership have mattered for 100 years.  The history of the College is a testimony to the importance of strong leadership and the way in which leaders act as catalysts for change.  The vision and action that women brought to the College and shared with the wider society have been instrumental in the growth and vitality of the Colleges. In partnership with Hobart College, William Smith College has provided generations of women with the opportunity to cultivate and exercise their leadership. The history of the College shows that all of us are born with the capacity to be a leader, and that great changes occur when we accept the responsibility to be change agents in the communities in which we live.   Just as for each generation before us, the College’s challenge is for all of us to be leaders and imagine new ways of learning and living.  Let us remember all those who have made this anniversary possible and let us toast all those who will lead us through our next 100 years.


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