At Homecoming, just after the women’s a cappella group Quaker Notes sang “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and just before cupcakes were noshed and wine sipped, some two dozen alumnae gathered on a corner of College Green to commemorate their history.
The Association of Alumnae celebrated 100 years in 2012, and on that afternoon in October, current president Julie Diana Hench LPS’08 smiled beside a newly planted tree that will commemorate the group’s milestone anniversary. The Association’s “roots run deep here at Penn,” Hench told attendees, “and this tree stands as a symbol of our rich history and commitment. It also represents our constant desire to grow and to nurture the interests of all Penn women.”
Women of varied ages, races, and academic majors nodded and clapped. They work in business, medicine, education, law—or in Hench’s case, as a principal dancer in the Pennsylvania Ballet. Yet they are united by a common experience: each of them knows what it is like to be a woman student at Penn.
Granted, that experience has stretched and shifted over the years. As Hench noted in her Homecoming address, the Association was founded “at a time when female students faced tremendous barriers and isolation.” Few women were enrolled as students (those that were, it may be interesting to note, were often in the sciences), and there were no women trustees. Several months before the Association began, a group of women students petitioned for a Dean of Women to be appointed; the University took no action.
Biology teacher Catherine Wetherill Beekley C1910 founded the Association of Alumnae in 1912, declaring a mission “to unite the women graduates of the University of Pennsylvania and to further among them a spirit of cooperation in work and fellowship; to promote the welfare of the women students at the University; and to keep alive the interest of the women graduates in all the activities of their Alma Mater.”
The group granted its first scholarship a year later, and by 1925 it had established a fund to support women’s education at Penn and to create a College for Women. (The latter came eight years later, then eventually merged with the School of Arts and Sciences in 1975.)
As the 20th century progressed, the group remained active. It helped to instate the first woman trustee and open the Wharton and engineering schools to women in the 1950s. It helped to establish the Women’s Studies Program in the 1970s, and in the 1980s it raised money towards the restoration of Eisenlohr Hall—now the president’s residence—and the Sweeten Alumni House.
Every woman who receives a degree from Penn is granted automatic membership in the Association—though that may be news to many alumnae of recent vintage. The Association has a lighter presence at the University than, say, the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women. Active members, including a core group of officers, board members, and a leadership council, tend to live in and around the Philadelphia area.
The group’s activities often center on raising funds for various causes. The Association sponsors book awards for outstanding high-school students and offers a Rosemary D. Mazzatenta Scholars Award—named for the late Rosemary D. Mazzatenta Ed’53 GEd’56, president of the Association from 1998 to 2000—for women sophomores and juniors to pursue internships and research. It also contributes to various projects around campus, including the recent renovations to Fisher-Bennett Hall, the former home of the College for Women.
Sue Czarnecki G’82, the Association’s historian, says she is consistently impressed by the “really interesting programs” the organization puts together. “I’m constantly learning something new,” she notes.
“The guest speakers and panel discussions we have are all very intellectually stimulating,” Hench says. “To keep that connection to campus and academia is pretty wonderful.”
Yet these active members say there’s something more basic that keeps them engaged. Hench describes the Association’s “very warm atmosphere—it’s comforting, it’s supportive, and it’s very inspiring to be around such successful, brilliant women.” She adds, “I was never part of a sorority, but I would imagine that had I been, it would feel like this.”
“One of the most wonderful things is that these are women who went to Penn from various eras,” notes Barbara Bravo CW’68 GED’69, a past president. “Through the Association, I’ve become friends with a woman who graduated in 1953 and another from the class of 1994. I probably wouldn’t have met either of them otherwise.”
Tam-Anh (Tammy) Khieu W’94, the Association’s president from 2009 until this past September, says her officer position helped her develop leadership skills—an asset in her role as head of administration at Philadelphia’s Freire Charter School. “The secret to us being around so long,” she says, “is that we really value and incorporate the input of our members.”
Looking forward, Khieu says the group hopes to further engage undergraduate students and make sure that they know about the Association before they graduate. Penn Alumni has also encouraged regional Alumni Clubs to hold at least one event in the coming year that celebrates the Association’s 100th anniversary.
Early into the group’s Homecoming reception in October, Lee Spelman Doty W’76, president of Penn Alumni, arrived with a letter from President Amy Gutmann.
“Your association can justly be proud of the role it has played in addressing…injustices [to women] and promoting the interest and welfare of women,” Doty read. “As we celebrate these and many other accomplishments, we are inspired by one another to work toward even greater equality, achievement, and engagement for women.
“Congratulations on the distinguished legacy of the first 100 years of the Association of Alumnae, and we look forward to the next hundred.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06