When you’re a twenty-something woman, it’s hard to imagine yourself as a functioning adult—much less a wife or a mother.
But this month’s Atlantic challenged college-aged women to do just that. The July/August issue featured a provocative cover piece by Princeton professor and former Foreign Service diplomat Anne Marie Slaughter. The piece, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” challenged modern feminism to adjust its messaging. “We must clear [the clichés] out of the way to make room for a more honest and productive discussion,” Slaughter writes.
Slaughter graduated from Princeton in 1980. That same year, over 2,500 miles away in Claremont, California, a small men’s college at the base of the San Bernardino mountain range graduated its first class of women.
The CMC women of Slaughter’s generation? They are a unique demographic.
They are the women whose diplomas read “Claremont Men’s College.”
THE WOMEN OF CLAREMONT MEN’S COLLEGE
When Cheri Strelow, a member of CMC’s first four-year women’s class, got my email inviting her to speak on work-life balance issues, she was surprised. “This topic is so strange,” she tells me at the start of our interview. “It’s not anything that you expected from CMC for many, many years.”
For decades, Claremont McKenna College has battled a conservative, masculine reputation. A 1959 Harper’s profile referred to CMCers as “in their own self-image, mad bad playboys.”
Still, when Claremont Men’s College decided to integrate in 1976, only 16% of students opposed the move, according to a student survey at the time. The first four-year co-ed class graduated in 1980, with 156 men and 35 women, a 5:1 ratio.
So why did that first class of women choose to enroll in Claremont Men’s College over the well-established women’s college across the street? By 1976, neighboring Scripps College had been successfully graduating women for nearly half a century.
Mari Adam ’80 laughed when I ask her this question over the phone. “I didn’t even know Scripps existed,” she admitted. None of the six women I interviewed even considered the school.
Some, however, were at least aware of Scripps College’s presence. “I don’t think I would have ever gone [to CMC] if it hadn’t been part of the Claremont Colleges,” said Carrie George ’80.
Linda Kowalski ’80 tells me she had second thoughts about enrolling after a phone conversation with a male alum who believed CMC would go downhill after becoming co-ed. “I have to admit I was questioning my decision to go,” she said.
Kowalski did go and graduated along with nearly three dozen other women in that first co-ed class. Even after CMC dropped “Men’s” for “McKenna,” Kowalski elected to keep her diploma the same.
“When the college changed their name to Claremont McKenna College, they sent me a letter asking if I wanted to send in my diploma for a replacement which reflected the name change,” she recalled.
“I did not want the replacement.”
THE MEN’S COLLEGE EXPERIENCE AND FEMINISM
Did going to a freshly-integrated men’s college shape their perspectives on women’s issues?
For starters, most of the women I interviewed felt that their mothers and grandmothers were the true pioneers. They weren’t, after all, the first women to receive higher education. “What we assumed in those days was that women ahead of us had broken the barriers,” George told me.
Many referred to themselves as “tomboys” and weren’t intimidated by the male environment. “I am very proud of being part of the first class of women at CMC, so it was a big deal in that context. But in the context of day-to-day living, academics, and the college experience, it wasn’t a big deal,” said Kathy Hurley ’80.
Elenor Taylor, a member of the class of ’81, came to CMC from an all girls high school in California. Taylor said she chose the school because she was very interested in politics, quickly reminding me that Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 during the fall of her senior year. “I didn’t feel as much in the minority as being female as being a Democrat,” she joked.
A part of me wondered if the “men’s college” experience had somehow shaped them—if their perspectives had been altered after spending so much time around, well, men. But not even they knew the answer to that question.
“It probably did help…not that I was aware of it,” Adam admitted.
“It’s the only experience we ever had,” Strelow said, “so it’s not like I had anything to compare it to.”
But Strelow admitted she left college with a changed perspective on women’s issues. “I definitely was not a feminist going into CMC, and I definitely came out a feminist,” she stated. “Maybe I would have been no matter where I went, but it might not have been as prominent in my makeup as it was and remains.”
THE FIRST FEMALE ALUMS, ALL GROWN UP
In the thirty years since their graduation from CMC, the six women I spoke to had faced it all—they’d started companies, traveled the world, battled cancer and divorce. They’d been professors, consultants, and full-time, stay-at-home moms. All had married and had children at some point in their lives; two raised daughters who chose to attend to CMC.
Their reactions to Slaughter’s article were mixed. One admitted, albeit regretfully, that she found Slaughter’s piece “whiny.” Others fervently supported the piece; all acknowledged that work-family life issues were both real and complex.
Mari Adam knew the struggles Slaughter faced at the State Department firsthand. At 23, less than two years after graduating from CMC, she joined the Foreign Service. On her first assignment overseas, she was the only female diplomat in the country. When posted next to Brazil, her husband, as a diplomatic spouse, was not allowed to work. The two were separated for over a year while her husband lived in the States.
At one point, Adam was assigned to Colombia, which was considered dangerous. At the time, no family members were allowed entry, so Adam would have been separated from her husband for two more years. Instead, she reluctantly opted for a Washington assignment and, eventually, made the decision to change professions. “I ended up resigning from the Foreign Service because there was no way we could both work and live in the same country,” she remembered.
Many had made tough choices for the sake of family. One big point of discussion in our conversations was whether or not women should stay home while their kids are young. Motherhood, they warned me, was a tiring enterprise.
For some, the decision to slow down professionally was simply pragmatic. “I was getting exhausted, so I decided to pull back to part-time,” Taylor told me. Taylor later returned to CMC, first as Director of Alumni Relations and later as a professor teaching a Freshman Humanities Seminar.
Adam, who today owns a personal financial advisory firm, recommends women always try to remain financially secure. “Fall in love, get married, but always be prepared to stand on your own two feet when push comes to shove,” she advised.
Carrie George worked part-time when her kids were young. “I always kept a finger in the work world,” she said, recommending that future CMC women do the same. Still, George, a Harvard Business School graduate with a stint at Bain on her resume, faced adversity when going back to work.
“I do feel like I woke up one morning and was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m older than these people and their credentials are better than mine,’” she admitted.
Hurley faced similar problems when trying to re-enter the workforce. “You don’t get a lot of kudos as a full-time mom,” she warned. Hurley, who today teaches introduction to accounting at Boise State University, admitted that part of the reason she got her master’s degree was to boost her chances of getting hired.
Classmate Cheri Strelow stayed home briefly, but did not find it easy. “I had a hard time staying at home, honestly,” Strelow says. “I loved parts of it and parts of it were not my cup of tea.”
That’s when she and her husband, CMC alum Peter Soelter ’78, decided to switch places, allowing Strelow to return to work full-time. “Cheri sort of came to the realization she really wanted to work,” Soelter said, “and one of the things I really wanted to do was take a couple of years to stay home with the kids.” Though the couple originally planned to switch back and forth between working and staying home, Soelter ended up staying home with their two children for over a decade.
I asked Soelter if he had any advice for CMC men headed into the workforce. “Cherish and honor your partner,” he said. It comes across as so sincere that I accidentally let out a nervous laugh over the phone and quickly found myself apologizing.
But it’s not something to laugh at. “The first and most important thing in my life is my relationship with my partner, someone I took for granted for too long,” he told me. He warned CMC men not to make the same mistake.
THE COMPETITIVE CULTURE OF LEADER-MAKING
Claremont McKenna College’s modern tagline is “Leaders in the Making.” The buzzword “leadership” sometimes dominates campus dialogue. Many of the alums I interviewed question whether CMC’s focus is too intense, for both men and women.
“The one complaint I have about CMC is, at times, they do give you too much of a one-dimensional vision of success,” said Adam.
Strelow echoed Adam’s sentiments: “Other schools [say] ‘We want you well educated; we want you smart,’ but it’s not the focus on, ‘You are going to be a leader; you are going to be at the top at whatever you do. I think that is what CMC is about.”
During his tenure as a “stay-at-home dad,” Peter Soelter was elected President of the Board of Education for the Pasadena Unified School District. Soelter believes CMC should promote a more community service driven sense of leadership.
“There is a whole lot of psychic value to community service, and I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on that [at CMC]. At the end of the day, you have to feel good about yourself,” he told me.
Adam laments the crazy hours often required of those who work in her field, finance. “Life is too short,” she sighed.
CAN CMC WOMEN HAVE IT ALL?
The first draft of this piece concluded with a ten bullet point section of “advice for CMC women.” But despite hours of phone conversations, I failed to reach one definitive conclusion. The list quickly got too complicated, and I realized many of these issues have no singular answer.
For starters, the concept of “having it all” is subjective and, therefore, flawed by design. By titling her article as such, Slaughter opened the door to interesting, but circuitous debate. No one should be surprised that’s exactly what happened.
If I learned one thing in my research, it’s that people and their priorities change. We grow up. That dream of working at Deloitte might crumble when a little face wants his mom — or dad — to teach him how to ride a bike. And that’s okay. It’s not something to fear; it’s simply something to recognize. If we had all the answers at twenty, life would not be nearly as interesting.
In addition, the alums I interviewed stressed the importance of knowing yourself, your values, and what works for you. To make active choices rather than be caught off guard, it seems, is key.
The alumni offered their perspectives, but they were equally as eager to hear from me. On more than one occasion, they flipped the interview, asking me the questions, like “What do you and your peers think?”
I realized that is because, after all they’d been through, they still felt a delicate tie to the women of their alma mater. They still cared about CMC women in a way that maybe not all graduates can understand.
In her final email to me, Kathy Hurley signed off with a simple wish:
“Good luck to you, and I hope you can have it all — whatever that means to you.”