The Colgate Scene
May 2007

The women's academy down the hill

A recent Hamilton Fortnightly Club meeting, Corinne Honkalehto (below) presenting [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Every other Tuesday, some 25 women gather at the Hamilton Public Library community room to present in-depth research papers -- a shadow-academy of sorts that dates back to an era when women did not have access to higher education and elective franchise.

I spent 2006 interviewing current members of the Fortnightly Club of Hamilton about their experiences. The majority are in their 60s to 80s. About half are single or widowed; half are married, and many have ties to Colgate (indicated in parentheses). As a sociology and women's studies professor, I found that I had far more in common with (and more to learn from) the Fortnightly women than I ever imagined. Our conversations covered a lot of ground, but in the end, they revolved around four themes.

Women's history
An Internet search reveals about 50 active Fortnightly Clubs in college towns around the nation. When the Hamilton group celebrated its 110th birthday in 2004, Mary Holbrow (former development writer; wife of Charles, physics, emeritus) collected and wrote its history. The first members were homemakers, living in a time of women's activism nationwide. Historians have estimated that two million women were participating in thousands of clubs that were "broadening and elevating women morally, intellectually, and socially" in the decades before suffrage was won.


In 1894 Hamilton, N.Y., a small group of women, including several Colgate faculty wives, held a series of meetings in the home of Mrs. Eugene Sisson. Officers were elected, bylaws voted on, and the first research papers given. Members were known by their husbands' names and occupations. The club was strict and sometimes discriminatory when it came to membership. Once a member was "in," she was subject to stringent rules, including scrutiny from a "pronunciation judge." Fortnightly was a club for its time.

Forty years later, Gwen Todd, a recent Smith College graduate and young professional, arrived in Hamilton with her husband, a newly hired Colgate biologist. According to her daughter-in-law Carolyn, Gwen longed for, and found, an intellectual community in Fortnightly. Mrs. Robert Todd became a "grande dame" of Fortnightly, presenting papers and leading smart discussions well into her 80s. Ruth Hartshorne, a University of Chicago graduate with a masters degree from Columbia (widow of M. Holmes, philosophy and religion), and Ruth Bash, a recent Wellesley graduate (widow of Wendell, economics), joined shortly after Gwen.

Through the years, members have figured prominently in the community. Fortnightly women (including Todd, Hartshorne, and Bash) were central to the founding of Hamilton's hospital, nursery school, and library. But in the shadow of Colgate, Fortnightly wasn't always taken seriously. According to Hartshorne, some in the larger college community "laughed at us, thinking we were presumptuous in creating our own intellectual research club." Today's Fortnightly reflects a new social context: members come as professionals, many with advanced degrees, now mostly retired; but it endures in large part because its members honor tradition and legacy.

At a typical meeting, roll is taken, announcements are made, and the two presenters are introduced; each has 20 minutes to share her research, and brief discussion ensues. After exactly one hour, the room clears out.

Members describe Fortnightly as "not your typical book club." They will also often launch into a summary of what one calls the "wonderfully rigid structure" -- the traditions, rules, and policies that make for an institution that has kept its "quaintness."

From the beginning, Fortnightly has managed to be simultaneously "radical" and "old school." Carol Bergen (former Spanish instructor) recalls her very first meeting, in the late 1980s. She was told to dress formally, yet in the midst of the very structured experience, she was shocked to hear one presenter use the "f-word."

Some point out that Fortnightly emerged in Hamilton in part because Colgate, like other all-male institutions, excluded women. Similarly, many would argue that Fortnightly has its own history of exclusion. New members must be invited and then voted in. Corinne Honkalehto (wife of Oswald, economics, emeritus) recalls a time when the club advertised meetings in the local newspaper, a practice that was stopped because, as Hartshorne explained, "we were elitist, and we were rubbing it in peoples' faces." And while men are not officially excluded, the group has never had a male member. Shirley Reynolds (wife of Jim, psychology, emeritus) remembers that one interested man came to a meeting and "dropped dead two days later in the library." No man has since come to a meeting, except as a guest.

Although some social codes have relaxed (when one member recently wore jeans and sneakers, another reported: "the sky didn't fall!" and the 50/50 town and gown membership goal is no longer enforced), what has not changed is that research is still the "price of admission."

The craft of research
Everyone is responsible for researching an aspect of the annual topic (except for the 80-or-over optional "honorary" members, although many of those continue to present papers). At one point, Ruth Hartshorne was one of nine members over 80, and everyone stayed on, she said. "I presented papers until the age of 92, when I became honorary."

What keeps members involved late into their lives? Fortnightly women enjoy research and learning. As I heard these stories, it dawned on me that Colgate students (and I!) could learn quite a lot from them.

Many are voracious readers. Maria Nicholls (Romance languages and literatures, emerita) could read for "16 hours a day, and that would be a good day." Remembering her active Fortnightly days, Ruth Bash opened her arms wide to describe how she usually read on a variety of topics, thankful that "writing a paper for Fortnightly made me read in depth."

Most continue to hone their skills, and enjoy talking about their "discovery" process. Reynolds describes how the process affects her at all levels: "You complain . . . but once you get into it, it becomes you. It gets into your blood."

Some develop reputations for particular interests or angles. For three decades, the last meeting of the year has been held at the home of Vivien Slater (former pianist in residence; widow of Joseph, English), where she discusses and performs compositions, sometimes her own.

Most described an initial "hermit period" after choosing a topic and finding relevant resources. Bergen says she has to "put life aside" and work without distraction for several weeks. She admits to occasionally eating a quick meal out of a can or a kettle, in her haste to get back to work.

Many dislike the writing. For at least one member who was a math major, the prospect of writing papers was "horrific," but she agreed to join for her love for reading.

The editing process, to make sure papers fit within the 20-minute limit, can be "nightmarish." One member said she "essentially goes through and cries," cutting sections and using her kitchen timer. Anne Clauss (career services administrator; wife of Karl '90, institutional advancement director) sums up her process: "I outline my paper. Then I put the meat on the bones. Then it turns into a fat 500-pound hog. Then I have to slash it to some anorexic little thing."

Members rarely share (or even discuss) their papers with anyone before their presentations. Despite the anxiety, the payoff is huge. Ultimately, Betty Behler (wife of Harry, political science, emeritus) says, this is all about "exercising our minds."

Healthy stimulation
As the U.S. population ages and the number of retirees increases, the Fortnightly Club model carries new significance for communities, and is poised to grow. Members have extended engagement in an intellectual community, teaching each other what they learn.

For many, the opportunity can be a strong contributor to vitality and longevity. "It is easy to be reclusive when you get older," said Nellie Edmonston (wife of Bill, psychology, emeritus). "Fortnightly is a reminder to get out around people." And as Slater noted: "A good interest in a number of things keeps you alive." Hartshorne agrees. Although she recently resigned, hoping to make time for writing her kids' biographies and doing Danish translation work, she and Slater still attend meetings. Vivien and Ruth are 89 and 93, respectively. And the legacy continues.

Loe's current book project involves researching aging and well-being in the U.S. elder population, especially among women.
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