Students Learn About Women's History Throughout the Spring Semester, Not Just During March

March 18, 2010

Students Learn About Women???s HistorySaint Leo University is keeping company with many other schools, colleges, and universities in paying proper respect to Women’s History Month with activities noting the contributions of women. There’s even more to learn at SLU though, as students have been able to enroll in two intriguing courses that examine “herstory” not only during March, but throughout the four-month spring semester.

Students enrolled in the religion course Women in the Church, taught this semester by Visiting Professor Phyllis Zagano, are getting a fresh look at the history of Christianity. “Women have been increasingly ‘remembered’ into Christian history during the past 50 years or so. History has not changed, but its focus has, and we can remember that there were women ministering in the earliest days of the Church,” Zagano writes in her course syllabus.

For instance, on a recent visit to Holy Name Monastery, the home and offices of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida, which are adjacent to campus, the students heard about women important in the history of the Catholic Benedictine order. This has special significance at Saint Leo, as the university was started by Benedictines and in its early days relied on support from monks and nuns of the order. So Sister Mary David Hydro discussed with Zagano’s class the role Saint Scholastica played. Scholastica was the twin sister of Saint Benedict, who founded the Benedictine order and many monasteries in Italy, while Scholastica also founded and supervised a community of nuns. Benedict is better known, as he was the author of the Rule of Benedict, a detailed guide to living in a community and carrying out the responsibilities of prayer, work, and study. But as Sister Hydro pointed out to students, Scholastica and Benedict regularly discussed their spiritual paths lives. Benedictine Sisters believe that Scholastica influenced Benedict in writing his rules of conduct to put love and compassion ahead of legalism. “It’s a very humane rule,” Sister Hydro explained. “It bends to the old and the young and the sick.”

Meanwhile, students in historian Heather Parker’s class, Women in American Society, are devoting their attention to more modern times. In a recent class, Parker and her students were discussing the occupations that were open to women in the 19th and 20th centuries. Education and social class were two powerful factors that determined whether women labored as farm wives, or domestic workers; or whether they could acquire the skills for work as a milliner or midwife; or, whether they received the formal education that opened doors to positions in teaching, nursing, secretarial work, librarianship, or music. And yet, Parker pointed out, even those women who held the most highly regarded positions, say, teaching, faced limitations and barriers. “It was considered improper to work at these fields if you were married,” Parker pointed out to a class that is predominantly female, and able to pursue careers, education, and a family life.

Religion and social history aren’t the only disciplines at Saint Leo that offer courses focused on the contributions of women, said Mary Spoto, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. Periodically, students will have the option of enrolling in a literature course that focuses on the work of women, or even a course specifically on poetry by women. The impact of such courses reaches beyond the impressions left by an individual book or research paper, Spoto said, because fundamentally, the courses are giving students a broader understanding of how complex society can be. “What we have to communicate to students is the diversity and breadth of the contributions of women, of different ethnic groups, and other groups that have been marginalized. These courses are important.”