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Alumna emphasizes education

Justin Tardiff | Friday, September 30, 2005

Saint Mary’s students were given a perspective on education Thursday by ’81 alumna Dr. Mary Erdmans in her talk “Nuns and Moms: The Role of Religion and Motherhood in the Life Choices of White Working Class Women.”

Erdmans, who earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology at Northwestern University, explored Thailand as a member of the Peace Corps before becoming a professor at Central Connecticut State University. She published numerous studies as journal articles and smaller writings throughout her career about the poverty of Polish and Hispanic immigrants.

Students and professors attended the lecture, which focused on the lives of five working class women, in the Carroll Auditorium. Brought to Saint Mary’s by the Department of Sociology and the Department of History along with the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership, Erdmans said the lecture encouraged students to challenge the “perceptions of opportunities that limit us.”

Erdmans’ lecture was based on her book “The Grasinski Girls: The Choices They Had and the Choices They Made,” which follows five sisters who came of age during the 1950s.

Erdmans approached the project from a feminist viewpoint, looking to unearth the deep feelings of resentment and oppression present in the heart of 1950s housewives. When she set about interviewing the remaining five sisters, she sought out the “misery, isolation and oppression” that she believed existed. But the feelings she found were quite different.

While uncovering the stories of these women – her mother being one of them Erdmans realized they perceived feminism as the “devaluation of their choices as housewives and, more importantly, mothers.”

She spoke about the career choices of women in the 1950s, which included motherhood and religious sisterhood. By choosing sisterhood, women were able to grasp their only chance to become educated members of society, she said. In essence, it was the only “academic space” created solely for women, Erdmans said.

Through the Grasinski women, Erdmans said she realized the choices individuals make are often limited by status.

“We accept [our place in society] as a part of a predetermined gender routine,” she said.

The urgency of relating this topic to young women reached a peak when she realized the Grasinski women expressed “dissatisfaction not with who they were, but with what they could have been.”

Of her education at Saint Mary’s, Erdmans said she was amazed at the number of women who were “blasé” about education.

“Explore the greater range of choices [available] to you … search for a meaningful purpose [both of education and of life,]” she said.

Students like junior Catherine Wagner reacted positively to the lecture.

“It is interesting that, even if you plan on becoming a stay-at-home mom, it is important to consider an education valuable,” she said