The context was a window by Louis Comfort Tiffany at Chatham University, which was given to Chatham’s ancestor, the Pennsylvania College for Women, in 1888. It is an allegory of women’s education, with a stained-glass version of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl and the names of great writers, thinkers, and artists in wreaths surrounding the subject. This is Herr von Hindenburg’s comment:
It is a pity that, at a women’s college, they couldn’t find a single female author to include. Dickinson, Hildegard of Bingen, Austen? Are there any better examples who might have been held in more esteem at the time?
The answer is probably not, and yes that is too bad. But it is a fact of the time. Emily Dickinson’s poems had not yet been published in 1888. Jane Austen was a popular novelist, and popular novels were a lower form of art—we do not find Cervantes or Fielding on the window, either. The only female author among the classics and moderns who could possibly have stood with the names in that window was Sappho, whose reputation as the greatest of lyric poets stands out as a striking anomaly in classical culture.
But in context the choices were good ones. When the Pennsylvania Female College was young, its students and alumnae were very conscious that giving women an education equal to traditional male education was a new thing. Women had not been equal to men in the past, but they would be in the future. They would therefore take as their models, not works that were pretty good considering that they were written by women, but the very peaks of human achievement; and in taking those as their models they would force women into an equal ranking with men.
And they did. If today we were donating a memorial window that commemorated the greatest human achievements since 1888, we would, without even trying to be “inclusive,” automatically include a number of female names. This is because those first generations of educated women did not say to themselves, “I will be excellent among women.” They said, “I will be Galileo. I will be Plato. I will be Homer and Virgil and Dante. I will be Shakespeare twice over.” They started with the assumption that their female identity was, to borrow theological language, an accident and not their substance, and that as human beings there was no limit to what they could accomplish. Because they did that—because they went out into the world insisting that they could show Raphael or Moliere a thing or two—today we are forced, merely by the facts of history, to admit women as human beings equal to men. In 1888, that was a debatable assumption, probably contested by most men and even by a majority of women. This window took a stand for the minority opinion.
Dr. Boli has written before about the Balkanization of human achievement. To use a bit of fashionable academic jargon, he believes it is another manifestation of white male privilege. He has spoken with students of various designer colors who are constantly told by their professors (who are often white and male) that they should devote their studies to representatives of their race or culture or gender or sexual orientation, and there is something wrong with them if they happen to be more interested in Thomas Aquinas or Confucius or anyone outside their own designated identity. You should be affirming your identity by learning about the achievements of your kind of people, we tell them. Meanwhile, we white males will enjoy the achievements of our culture and your culture and everybody else’s culture, and we’ll feel smugly enlightened about doing it. It would be hard to imagine a balder assertion of white male privilege: we get the whole world of human achievement, and you get Slovenia.(1)
The alternative we propose is that we should regard human achievement as the achievement of humans, not as belonging to particular subspecies of humans. Duke Ellington was a genius by human standards, not simply by the standards of Black composers from Washington, D.C. Lady Murasaki was a novelist for all the world, not just for Japanese women. Marie Curie’s scientific discoveries do not fall apart if you are not female and Polish.
Whether there is such a thing as moral progress is debatable, but the strongest evidence for it is the twentieth century’s repudiation of the ideas of racial and sexual superiority. It seems to Dr. Boli that much of that progress goes back to institutions like the Pennsylvania College for Women, where students were told by everything around them—even the stained glass—that nothing less than greatness was expected of them. So, yes, it is a pity that they had no female models to aspire to—not yet. But they were doing the right thing. They were preparing themselves to be the models to which all of us, male and female, would look up in the future.
- Not that there’s anything wrong with Slovenia, but sometimes one likes to vary it with a bit of Japan or Ethiopia. (↩)