Remembering Millicent McIntosh—Barnard’s First Wonder Women
With the publication this year of President Debora Spar’s book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, the conversation around campus and among alumnae turned once again to the question: Can women have it all—the family, the career, the relationship, and our sanity? In revisiting this topic, a new question emerged: Should we? To quote President Spar, as she summed up the dilemma facing young women today: “Because we can do anything, we feel as if we have to do everything.” Her book explores the costs to women who try to be the best at everything and makes strides at redefining feminism for a new generation of women.
The same month that President Spar’s book was launched, we honored the legacy of the “wonder woman” who espoused “having it all” for a generation of Barnard women. This fall, the second-floor student dining room in The Diana Center was named in honor of Barnard’s fourth dean and first president, Millicent Carey McIntosh. “Mrs. Mac” was a role model and an inspiration for those women who passed through Barnard from 1946 to 1962. Before anyone uttered the word “feminist,” President McIntosh was speaking out on the same issues affecting women that we are discussing today.
During her tenure at Barnard, she juggled a marriage, five children, and a very demanding career. She urged Barnard students to pursue it all. Honest about the cost, she warned them that combining career and family meant pushing everything else out while they were raising their children. She was practical and pragmatic, always encouraging women to fight for adequate childcare while she stressed the importance of family life as a cornerstone of society and democracy.
What is interesting for me, as a student of the ’70s, is how much both her message and that of President Spar resonate with my generation. If we listen carefully to both, the message is clear and intended for an audience of women who have the luxury of education and opportunity. It is about individual choices and the need for balance and perspective. Mrs. McIntosh also respected the idea that happiness could come in many ways. Personal fulfillment “may or may not lie in a career,’’ she told the New York Herald Tribune in 1946. “What is important is for each individual to order her life so that she becomes a happy, creative person.’’ Today’s students have more choices than ever, and more confusion. Many alumnae from the past three decades are still struggling with the question of how to “order our lives.” Perhaps we should listen both to our current president who is helping to guide today’s generation of students and to Mrs. McIntosh, Barnard’s past president, who truly was ahead of her time. Next time you are on campus come visit the Millicent McIntosh Dining Room and see an exhibit dedicated to her life and career.
All my best wishes,
Mary Ann LoFrumento ’77