Women's History Month: A look at the women who define MSU
MSU has a long history of women who have rocked the status quo and achieved greater heights. Some have been trailblazers, creating opportunities for women where there weren’t any.
Women's history at MSU starts with its first female graduate, Eva Diann Coryell, who had to adapt to men’s programming to receive her degree in agriculture in 1879, and Myrtle Craig, who was the first black woman to graduate from MSU in 1907. She was handed her diploma by former President Theodore Roosevelt.
In honor of Women's History Month, The State News profiled some of these women.
History in the bands
After reading an article about the then-recently passed Title IX law that forbids discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs, Beth Kaufman, an already accomplished baton twirler, decided to try out for the Spartan Marching Band.
“I didn’t know much about Title IX or what it meant or anything like that, but I saw the article and thought maybe there’s an opportunity for me to continue twirling in college,” Kaufman said.
Along with alto saxophonist Lynn Charbonneau, in 1972, Kaufman was accepted and became a part of the university’s history. However, she said she had a tough time fitting in with the guys.
“I remember standing in front in rehearsal, you always start at attention, and people would be yelling things and I kept telling myself, ‘Whatever you do, you cannot cry, do not let them see you cry because then it’ll prove you don’t belong here,’” Kaufman said. “I just have to prove by my actions that I deserve to be here as much as anybody else.”
Kaufman said she remembers fondly rooming with fellow band member Charbonneau when traveling. Charbonneau died in 1987. On one occasion, Kaufman said, Charbonneau made a mistake during the halftime performance and was required by the upperclassmen to march into the Red Cedar River. Being allergic to tetanus and having a sore on her foot, fellow band members held her foot out of the water for the experience. Kaufman said having Charbonneau made her marching band experience easier, and the two were good friends.
“She was a special lady, too, she did her job,” Kaufman said. “I think every female that’s been in marching band has been a strong talented person that did their job just like anybody else.”
Kaufman and Charbonneau helped pave the way for other women.
Arris Golden is currently the band director at University Chapel Hill — but starting in July, she will become the Spartan Marching Band’s first female associate director.
“In terms of being the first female to be in the position, I am honored to have the opportunity,” Golden said. “I hadn’t really even thought about it as being the first female director, I was just glad to be invited as a director and be involved with the program.”
Golden received her doctorates from MSU and will make her return with high expectations for the band program. She said she is looking forward to making her impact. Golden said she tries to keep an optimistic outlook when it comes to her gender and race. She said many people go through their lives not knowing other people’s motives but in the end hard work is what will keep women rising to the top of the ranks and being impactful.
“You do your work and you hope that your work will create opportunity for you and in this case it did and in this case it’s created history,” Golden said.
History in industry
Dawn Opel is an assistant professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures. Opel said women in certain fields are very underrepresented.
“I teach for the high-tech industry ... and that profession is underrepresented by women…I believe that my roll there is really to kind of disrupt the traditional narrative,” Opel said.
Opel said that for women to keep making impacts at MSU and in the world, rising through higher education is the most important.
“I think that gender plays an important role in spaces that are traditionally, predominantly patriarchal in nature and I think that tech is one of them but so is higher ed,” Opel said. “Keeping women moving through the pipeline of higher education, which means not just hiring but also making sure that women are supported throughout their careers so that they become full professors and they join the ranks of administration.”
Opel said she has faced discrimination before. She encourages women to be themselves and deny what the public, what the people in power and what the people who are doubting them say.
“I frequently have to make my own case for myself in different ways,” Opel said. “Stay true to yourself and how you tend to respond to situations and what allows you thrive...Know where you have opportunities to intervene meaningfully in patriarchal discourse.”
History made in 2018
In 2005, Lou Anna K. Simon became the first female president of the university and remained president until her resignation in 2018.
Simon said being the first female president wasn’t any different than being any other female. She said the challenges of being a woman didn’t disappear when she became president of the university and she had to adapt certain strategies to get herself a seat at the table.
“Working harder, knowing more, remembering more,” Simon said. “You really have to stay focused on what are broader outcomes for the common good and not be hung up when you’re personally offended in a variety of ways by what you see as a slight. It still happens when you’re president and somebody else takes your ideas.”
Simon said though MSU has come a long way, it is not where it needs to be, and that’s a hard dialogue to have.
“I will judge success in the world when women can follow other women in important positions without it being a story,” Simon said, “because we repeat in history where men follow other men and it’s not really a big deal. They’ve been judged on their own merits and their contributions in what their organization needed and when that can happen for women and people of color, then we’ve made real progress.”
But Simon's history-making term came to a halt this semester when she resigned during the fallout of the sexual abuse cases against former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
Recently the MSU community has been participating in the conversation on sexual assault and abuse. Rallies, a teal Izzone, the names of the survivors of abuse from Nassar painted on the rock and calls for accountability of the Board of Trustees and administration have brought the issue to the forefront of the university’s thinking.
Amanda Thomashow, who was the first to file an official Title IX complaint back in 2014 against Nassar after being assaulted during an appointment, spoke at his sentencing in Ingham County. She said she felt isolated before she knew that she wasn't the only person he abused.
“There was this moment when I was in his office after everything had happened and he just made an inappropriate comment to me and I realized that this wasn’t the only time he had done this," Thomashow said. "I looked around the room and he had all these photos of young girls in leotards doing gymnastics and all of these Olympians and I just thought to myself, ‘What if he did this to them?’”
Thomashow said when she met some of the other survivors at a dinner, she gained an amazing community, that she walked into the room and didn't have to explain herself to anybody.
“Having this army of obviously super strong brave courageous women around me has reminded me that that this doesn’t have to be just some horrible thing that happened to us," Thomashow said. "It can be a horrible thing that happened, but we’re moving forward and doing this together and making sure other women who have experienced this and other men, we get to show them that they’re not alone and it’s great to not be alone, especially in something so horrible like this. I’ve made so many connections to other women who went through this and I know how much it can help and heal you. I think that’s great to have a girl tribe."
The current culture is more forgiving and even empowering of abusers, Thomashow said. This serves as groundwork for a big conversation for MSU and some gymnastics organizations to have about handling sexual assault, she said.
"We haven’t been living in a victim centric society. We’ve been living in a society that enables and even empowers abusers and this has really sparked a discussion about that," Thomashow said. "I really hope that the university can learn from it’s mistakes and start putting their student before dollars."