womens committee imageA Eulogy, of Sorts

By Harriet Watson

I laughed out loud many years ago when I abbreviated the Reed College Women’s Committee as “WC.” After all, the last thing we wanted to do when talking about that venerable group was to make reference to a “ladies room.”

Now, as the formal work of the committee comes to an end during this 50th anniversary year, my thoughts are tinged with nostalgia and I’ve turned to John Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, for throughout the life of the women’s committee many of us have fallen deeply in love with Reed.

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move . . . .

Over time, from its inception in 1956 until today, the Reed College Women’s Committee (RCWC) established a model for successful town-gown relations, with a Who’s Who of Portland-area women serving as ambassadors of the college. Tensions between liberal arts colleges and their hometowns are often palpable, and in its early years the women’s committee was an important bridge between conservative Portland and iconoclastic, nonconformist Reed.

Ironically, although the committee was very well known outside the college, it often functioned in near-obscurity on campus. The annual fall RCWC lecture series, for example, brought swarms of people to campus to hear visiting notables such as Linda Wertheimer, NPR’s senior national correspondent; Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center; and humorist Mark Russell. Yet bewildered faculty, students, and staff could be overheard asking, “What’s the Reed College Women’s Committee?”

But to the 55 scholarship recipients—both men and women—whose lives were transformed because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised and awarded since 1964, the women’s committee is synonymous with Reed. Said one RCWC scholarship recipient who graduated from Reed when she was almost 40: “Reed is hard under any circumstances, but there are special things about not being 21 anymore, and those of us who are nontraditional students tend to be very hard on ourselves. Having all these intelligent women believe in you makes all the difference.”

The life cycle of the women’s committee reflects changes in the broader society, the college’s coming of age, and the growing sophistication of Portland. Indeed, 50 years ago, Reed was still a very young institution compared with most national colleges of the liberal arts and sciences, and it would be decades before the college implemented a more intentional community outreach plan and a cohesive fundraising program.

When the RCWC was created, most women were not engaged in the world of work and career opportunities were severely limited (this was the 1950s, after all). In this cultural context, the 20 founding women members intended the RCWC to be both an intellectual and social haven for women “who had good minds [and] used them.” Committee members would often broker introductions between faculty wives and local women not tied to the academic life.

In many ways, Portland’s intellectual life at that time was Reed. When the lecture series began, there simply was no competition. Powell’s Books? That vaunted landmark wouldn’t appear for another 15 years. By contrast, the arts and entertainment section of the Oregonian overflows these days with readings and lecture series and other opportunities for Portlanders to engage with visiting intellectuals and cultural icons.

Given the dramatic changes that have occurred over the intervening half-century, the college recently consulted with current and former RCWC members and reached a consensus that the committee’s 50th anniversary was the fitting occasion to celebrate an amazing run, and move on.

Permanent RCWC members will remain active, helping to grow the RCWC endowment fund, now valued at nearly $250,000. The fund will provide scholarship support to enhance diversity at Reed by assisting women students with demonstrated financial need. Criteria for the scholarship include first-generation students attending college, nontraditional or returning students, students with children, and students with physical challenges.

So the work continues, albeit in a much more streamlined, modern, and efficient form. But the memories and friendships and accomplishments and sense of purpose persist as well. This is love, after all.

Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

Harriet Watson is a permanent member of the Reed College Women’s Committee, a former director of public affairs at Reed, and an honorary alumna of the college.