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  • Austin Warren

"Where We've Been": Women's History Month and Berea College

As 2024 Women’s History Month draws to a close, it is worth examining the connection between women’s history and Berea College—in all of its struggles, triumphs, and hopes for the growth of Berea College’s Great Commitment of Gender Equality as it blooms from mere equality between the sexes to “ensuring all have a seat at the table, a chance to succeed, and to enjoy the benefits afforded to others…”


Berea College began as a co-educational and integrated college—the first of its kind in the South. It has offered opportunities for women since its founding days, and while many female figures of the past have been remembered for their achievements and impacts—with the late bell hooks standing prominently among them—there are still notable women in Berea College’s history that have been sidelined throughout the passage of time.


Thankfully, there are numerous archives of these women, their contributions and achievements having been documented and eventually displayed in the bell hooks center. But while there are women in Berea College’s history to look to and glean inspiration from, there will always be more women that don’t get the recognition they deserve.


Dr. Malaklou, Director of the bell hooks center and Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, says: “Representation won’t save us, but it’s important. We can’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been.”


Image courtesy of Berea College's Value of Free

While we might be tempted to look at the accomplishments of specific women, Dr. Malaklou warns that idolizing these women and placing them on a pedestal generally isn’t a healthy practice. While Berea College is an institution that has always championed ideas before their widespread acceptance in greater society, Dr. Malaklou notes that it is still far from perfect, and that holding ourselves to perfection is ultimately harmful to us.


She also warns that while co-education is one of Berea College’s core pillars, it ought to not be leaned on too much, for gender equity is in many ways connected to equity regarding race and sexuality. Gender, as it is regarded in the 21st century, has changed in a multitude of ways, and that change will continue in ways that challenge a binary perspective of gender.


However, it is still important to recognize these histories and the effort that has gone into creating a more inclusive environment at Berea College. This is the work that President Cheryl Nixon, the first female president of Berea College, has been doing since before she assumed her role of leadership. From the “Connect For” initiative to her frequent engagement with students, she is actively listening and connecting with students.


Dr. Malaklou trusts that, with the changes being made by the President, fresh perspectives will be brought to light, which maintains the College’s model of listening to all voices and producing an environment that includes all people.


For students interested in learning more about Women’s History Month in relation to Berea College, one resource to consider is the bell hooks center, which is an inclusive and affirming space available to all campus-goers. There, students can learn more about notable women in Berea College’s history on its displays, and we can celebrate the history we have while acknowledging and respecting the history we don’t.


You can learn more about the bell hooks center here—as well as the Great Commitment of Gender Equality, which can be found here.

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