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Changing Roles
The history of the St. Lawrence women’s organization reflects the evolution of the status of women in society.

By Maxine B. Williams

The story of the Laurentian Dames/Laurentian Women’s Association represents a part of St. Lawrence history and changes that occurred not only at the University but also across society.

The first Laurentian Dames president was Kate Seelye, wife of President Laurens Seelye.  Hand-written minutes in the University archives state that the first meeting was on May 29, 1938, at Mrs. Seelye’s home.  Eligible for membership were the women of University families and women holding responsible positions in the University.  In March 1940, Mrs. Seelye stated in her annual report that the organization’s reasons for existence were “to serve the college in every way possible, and … to be a means for better acquaintanceship and to (create) a sense of unity in a common cause among the housemothers and faculty wives.”

Activities during the early years were primarily social.  The wives furnished tea for the annual faculty meeting and for the reception for seniors and parents at Commencement.  Over the years interest groups were added for book discussion, bridge, needlework, tennis, golf, skiing, international dining, “vicarious voyagers,” bowling, furniture refinishing and whatever new interests arose.

Effects of World War II are seen in minutes of the 1940s.  Several bridge parties were held to benefit the Bundles for Britain relief program.  In 1942, volunteers were requested to help with surgical dressings.  Some members complained about having to use their sugar rations to make cookies for University functions; the Dames voted to purchase a sugar supply or to have a different refreshment choice.
In 1946, the Dames held food sales and bridge parties to raise money for a nursery school, and eventually for a scholarship.  In the ’50s, the school, which accommodated about 25 children, was moved to Vetsville, probably to benefit the wives of veterans who were now students.  The school continued into the 1970s.

A program for newcomers started early on and expanded through the years.  By the 1980s, members of the hospitality committee were to call on each newcomer and provide directories, maps, events programs and extensive information on area schools, shopping, hospitals, housing and even repairmen to help the newcomers adjust to their new environment and feel a part of the University community.

The organization was not without controversy.  Some members complained that they were too often asked to support various student charitable activities, prompting a reminder that “LD” was “primarily a social vehicle and not a service organization."

In 1979 came a larger issue about the organization’s name. Members were asked to vote on whether to retain “Laurentian Dames” or change to one of three new names.  “Laurentian Women’s Association” (LWA) was the narrow winner.  Membership eligibility was broadened to “women who are or whose husbands are in current full-time professional, academic or administrative employment status with SLU,” and the purpose of the organization was amended to “closer bonds of friendship (and) service to the University and the community.”  The group helped for several years with the annual Red Cross blood drive on campus.

Especially popular in this period was the annual Christmas Dinner, changed in 1981 to the President’s Holiday Dinner.  In 1990, LWA sponsored an April Fool’s Day carnival, complete with hot dogs, races, a scavenger hunt and Silly Dwilly the clown.

The last president was Lois Ann FitzRandolph, 1990-94.  When she wished to step down, no one was willing to take over. She also says she felt the University administration no longer seemed supportive. 
The decline of interest in the LWA paralleled a national and generational change in women’s views.  In the 21st century, more women are working; priorities for the use of their time are not as they were at Mrs. Seelye’s home in May 1938.

Some vestiges remain.  Lunch Brunch, started in 1978-79, still meets once a month during the academic year in the room where the leadership plaque resides.  Former presidents mention the warm welcome that newcomers received; programs on culinary tricks or fashions; pride in the cookbook and directories; and the friendships that developed.  One notes that the “organization outlived its usefulness as the nature of appointments at St. Lawrence changed and more women had professional lives of their own.” 

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