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Women Rule!
100 Years of Women at Calvin

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While the year 2001 marked a significant milestone in the history of Calvin College—125 years as a college, the school year of 2001-02 is noteworthy as well as 100 years ago the first woman student was admitted to Calvin College.

One hundred years of women at Calvin was celebrated in March as part of Women's History Month. Three alumnae who attended Calvin in the earlier part of that century were on hand to reflect on their time at Calvin and Calvin archivist Dick Harms shared some of the early history of women students.

It was in 1901 that Calvin opened its teacher preparatory program which prompted the enrollment of five female students. Prior to this time Calvin was primarily designed to prepare students for the ministry, but in 1898, the Christian Reformed Church Synod had decided that the Theological School should do a better job of training teachers. Cornelia Freyling, Anna Groendyk, Jennie Sherphorn, Anna Steenstra and Johanna Ten Hoor were the first to join the previously all-male student body.

Of this initial class, only Groendyk went on to graduate in 1905, becoming the first female graduate of Calvin College.

Women continued to enroll at Calvin in increasing numbers in part because as Trena Korfker Haan, a 1921 graduate of the prep school, said "There was no where else to go."

By 1903 there were 18 women students and in 1906, 11 women graduates including Dina Driesens, the first woman graduate from a course of study other than the teacher preparatory program.

In 1912, Clarissa Rooks becomes the first women student to enroll in a college course and later becomes one of the first two women to graduate from the three-year college course.

Nelly Bosma '24 is the fifth Calvin women graduate from the three-year college course, but significantly, she is the first Calvin alumna to earn a Ph.D., which she received from the University of Michigan in 1931.

The number of women attending Calvin increases slowly during the 1930s and begins to climb significantly during the 1940s, and at about the same pace as men, other than a dip in the men's enrollment in the 1940s due to the draft.

By the mid-1970s, however, female enrollment surpassed male enrollment and that trend has continued to this day.

Anne Bratt, Marie Kruithof, Trena Haan - click photo to enlarge image
Anne Bratt, Marie Kruithof and Trena Haan (l. to r.)

Calvin reflections through the eyes of three early women graduates:

Marie Tubergon Kruithof '29
"I remember very well we did a lot of things we shouldn't have done," said Marie Tubergon Kruithof, now 93.

"I was in the Glee Club as a student and one time we spent a week in Chicago," she said. "Well we thought that would be a good time to take in a movie. I had never seen one before and we all promised that we wouldn't tell anyone as this was against the rules."

Well the word got out and Kruithof and her cohorts found themselves in a lot of trouble.

Johanna Timmer, Calvin's first dean of women, who was hired in 1926 to "deal with the problem of worldliness"—namely smoking, drinking and theater going, told the women that they would very likely lose all of their credits for the semester.

"I was worried stiff," said Kruithof. At $58 a year for tuition, losing a semester worth $29 was a lot of money, not to mention what the parents would think.

Kruithof did however, keep her credits and went on to a 22-year teaching career, including 15 at Holland Christian High School.

Anne Westveer Bratt '38 (also attended 1927-29)
"It was really wonderful to be able to go to school past the eighth grade," said Anne Westveer Bratt, now 91. "No one from the Christian schools went to the public schools so it was Calvin or nothing and for a lot of people, especially young girls, it was nothing.

"Calvin did have a reputation of trying to enforce very good behavior," she said. "We were not allowed to drink from the bubbly fountain (drinking fountain) because you had to stoop over and that showed too much leg," she said. "We were also not allowed to wear patent leather shoes because there was too much reflection from those."

Pranks were a big part of the early days at Calvin. "We tried to pull all kinds of things," said Bratt.

"One time some students had collected all kinds of alarm clocks, set them all to go off during chapel and then hid them behind the organ pipes and radiators," she said. "Then at the last minute there was a mix-up and a favorite teacher—Jay Broene—was to replace the scheduled chapel speaker. Well, the alarms all went off and the students spent a lot of time apologizing for that one."

As part of the teacher preparatory program, Bratt recalls taking classes in Reformed doctrine and Calvinism along with a class in penmanship. "I guess they figured teachers had to be able to write neatly," she said.

Bratt is especially appreciative of the fact that her Calvin teaching degree certified her to teach for life in any grade. Throughout the course of her 24-year teaching career, she taught every grade from first through college including 16 years at Oakdale Christian elementary in Grand Rapids and 15 years at Hope College.

Trena Korfker Haan Prep'21 '34
"I came to Calvin in 1917 when I was 14 years old," said Trena Korfker Haan, now 99 years old. "It was an overwhelming thing because Calvin was then a prep school (like today's high school), a college and a seminary. You grew up very fast being around older people."

Calvin's prep school days ended in 1921. "I think the faculty was happy to get rid of the high school," she said. "The students were just kids who weren't mature enough to handle this kind of environment."

Haan returned to get a college degree in 1934, while teaching at Grand Rapids Christian High School, where she spent 32 years. She also taught for four years at Dordt College and 19 more at Calvin after her "retirement."

She continues to work as a vocal therapist, helping those with physical vocal problems.

Dorothy Dice - click photo to enlarge image
Dorothy Dice

Calvin's oldest living alum finds life "interesting"
Dorothy Winsemius Bouwsma Dice's life spans three centuries and she thinks that's "quite something."

"I barely made it in the 1800s. I was born in 1899," said the sprightly Dice, who celebrated her 103rd birthday on April 14.

Dice, who is Calvin's oldest known living alumni, graduated from Calvin in 1917. She came to Calvin in 1913 at the age of 14 . "I came to Calvin because my parents said I had to go to school. My father was very well educated and he wanted us to be too."

Dice followed the typical teacher-training program of the times and went on to teach at Baxter Christian School before marrying her husband, Edward Bouwsma '15.

Of Dice's 103 years she says, "It's very interesting to think of all the things that have happened in your life."

Dice recalls her first ride in a "car," which was actually a buggy with a motor on the back, she said. The ride was to a church picnic.

"Everything has changed—electricity, cars, airplanes, even shoes-but it's all been for the better," she said. "Some say otherwise, but it's all much, much better."

Freida Monsma - click photo to enlarge image
Freida Monsma

Calvin's other centenarian grad shares her story
Freida Monsma '19 is one of two known Calvin alumni centenarians.

Freida Van Wesep Monsma remembers having "a lot of fun" during her days at Calvin.

"It was great to have a group of girls my age to go around with," she said. "We did a lot of fun things."

In some ways things at Calvin never change. Many women students at Calvin today would probably say the same thing. Monsma, however, is speaking of a time 85 years ago.

At 101, Monsma is Calvin's second oldest known living alumna. She graduated from Calvin in 1919.

She grew up using a horse and buggy to get around her hometown of Holland, Mich., where her father, Herman Van Wesep, was the pastor at Nordeloos Christian Reformed Church.

Monsma, the youngest of nine children, was able to attend Calvin because her brother and sister lived in Grand Rapids and were able to house her during her four years at Calvin.

"Some of my older brothers and sisters went to Hope (College)," she said. "Even that was difficult because we lived six miles away and how were they going to get there? My brother rode his bike there and boarded closer to Hope during the winter.

"When it became possible for me to go to Calvin because of my brother and sister living in Grand Rapids, my parents wanted me to go here because it was Christian Reformed," she said. Tuition, she recalls, was $12 or $15.

Monsma was 13 years old when she first came to Calvin. "Of course, we were expected to be real grown up by then," she said. "I'll never forget Professor (Jacob) VandenBosch calling me Miss Van Wesep and all of my friends by Miss So-and-so. We were 13 and 14 years old. It sounded so crazy."

Monsma was one of 12 women attending Calvin that year, she recalls. "There weren't many boys our age. They were mostly older."

The prep school students took classes in the morning and studied on their own in the afternoons as the seminary students needed the classrooms then.

Their entertainment consisted of walking downtown for Christian programs or staying around the school grounds for an evening of exercises. Mostly I remember we walked and walked and walked. We walked everywhere."

When asked about movies, Monsma responded, "Oh no, that wasn't allowed." Card playing? "That depends on what the cards were," she said. "We couldn't play with 'devil's cards' (a standard deck), as they were called."

Monsma remembers the first cars she saw, but they didn't change her life much immediately. "Cars were quite interesting," she said. "We were poor so my parents never got a car. I remember people saying that you could now get from Holland to Grand Rapids and back in one afternoon. Oh, that was something!"

Monsma taught for a few years at Baxter Christian School in Grand Rapids after she graduated from Calvin and then married Edwin Monsma '25, whom she met at Calvin, though he was six years her senior.

Edwin Monsma taught biology at Calvin for 38 years before he passed away in 1972.

Monsma credits her longevity to God's will. "My family isn't that strong," she said. "I was the youngest in my family, so I guess I just had to be different."

As for living through the entire 20th century, Monsma says it was a "nice century."

"I think it was the best century to live in," she said. "It doesn't seem like there is so much change when you're living it. But when you look back at everything that was going on, it was pretty interesting."

Some of the first women to attend Calvin - click photo to enlarge image
Row 1 (l. to r.): Anna Groendyk, Helen Poelstra, Kate Fryling. Row 2 (l. to r.): Dena Fryling, Dena Preissens, Jemima Strabbing

Calvin's first woman graduate
Since the 2001 publication of "Love Beyond Knowledge, Grace Beyond Imagination"—the 125-history of Calvin College, we discovered, contrary to what several archival sources indicate, that due to illness before completing the term, Helen Poelstra, who was believed to be the first woman graduate from Calvin, did not, in fact, graduate in 1904. Instead in June 1905, Anna Groendyk became the first Calvin woman graduate.

Anna was the third of five children born to Jacob and Klaaske (Clara) Groendyk, who had immigrated to Grand Rapids from Uithuizermeeden, the Netherlands, in the spring of 1881. As did many immigrants, Jacob worked in local furniture factories as a day laborer. Beginning in 1887 he clerked in a local grocery store. The Groendyks had five children, John, Aggie, Anna, Lucy and Jacob Ysbrandus. In January 1895, Jacob died, Aggie died four months later, and Jacob Y. was born one month after that. Klaaske and 14-year-old John began working outside the home to support the family. As widows did at the time in an effort to be close to their children while working, Klaaske opened a small grocery store at 1049 Grandville Avenue, SW that had rooms for the family above the store. John and Anna worked in the store with their mother.

In 1901, at 14, Anna was one of the first five women to enroll in what would later be called Calvin College. All were from Grand Rapids. Probably because of her lack of schooling beyond the primary level, Anna was required to take an introductory year, prior to being accepted into the three-year teacher preparatory course. Completion of the course allowed students to take the Michigan test for teacher certification. In districts that offered secondary education, students could take this test after completing one year beyond high school graduation. Of the five students accepted for admission, one never took classes, another delayed beginning for a year. Of the three who took classes in 1901, only Groendyk returned after the first year.

After graduating she continued living with her family but her immediate occupation isn't known. The opening of several Christian schools in the city in 1907 created a need for teachers and Groendyk was hired by the Baldwin Street Christian School about 21/2 miles from her home. She probably earned $20 per month, the pay for new teachers at the school during those years, and continued living on Grandville Avenue. In 1910 she resigned to again work in the family grocery with her mother. At some point Anna's sister, Lucy, who in 1905 also attended Calvin, had fallen from an ice wagon, suffered a permanent brain injury and required fairly constant care thereafter. This may have been the reason for the return to the family grocery in 1910 since the other siblings could not help. John had married and was raising his own family and Jacob, the youngest, had died in 1904.

When Klaaske died in 1920 at the age of 63, Anna continued to support herself and Lucy with the store and to serve as Lucy's caregiver. By 1924 it became impossible to both operate the store and provide the required care for Lucy. Lucy became a patient at Pine Rest Christian Hospital, where she died in 1969. Anna continued to operate the grocery until 1930 when she married Peter Houtman. Her brother, John, and his family took over running the store.

Houtman operated a walnut orchard near Chico, Calif. They had no children of their own but raised three orphaned siblings (two sisters and a brother) who were related to Houtman. Houtman died in 1953 at age 67. Late in life Anna moved to Paradise, Calif. She died near Chico, in 1977.

— Calvin archivist Richard Harms

Education for a hearty life
Listening to three Calvin alumnae, all in their 90's, describe their experience as Calvin students, I observed that they were hearty women. Throughout their lives they had the strength to persevere and the eyes to see what truly made a difference in God's world. They seem unflappable now even when they, like many of us, began Calvin College as questioning teenagers. There must have been value in the Christian education provided by a fledgling college and its related Christian preparatory school. It had made them strong.

They believed that a Calvin education was worth the two-hour walk to attend classes and the two-hour walk back home. Even though men, some much older than they were, dominated the classrooms, they believed in their education. It was worth the many years required to achieve knowledge, years intertwined by work in the family household, high school diplomas, more household work, two-year teaching certificates, full-time teaching, new spouses, gradual piecemeal efforts toward four-year bachelors degrees and ongoing graduate work. In their era educational achievement took a long time and was often spread over more than one decade. To find the paths to which God called them, these women needed to be both tough and tender.

Calvin students in 1919 - click photo to enlarge image
Calvin students in 1919 pose with a Harley Davidson motorcycle (click photo to enlarge image).

Where did they find the strength to persevere? What compelled them to respond to the need for Christian teachers in newly organized under-funded schools? I think they were faithful for several reasons. First, they were spunky people who were not about to be overwhelmed by circumstances. Their families of origin had great influence in shaping their character and aspirations. Yet they had also learned at this young Calvin College about the sovereignty of God and their Creator's call to a faithful life. These Calvin alumnae had learned to trust God for their futures no matter how life would turn. They could live a hearty life even when marriage was not on the horizon, their household was transported to another continent or their spouses died. Each knew that life was less about money and more about service to the kingdom. They kept giving their best gifts to God each day even when a note in the school mailbox said, "Sorry, no pay this month." The college had sharpened their vision and capacity to go where the Lord asked them to go. They were prepared to live in faith, joy and hope at each step on their winding paths.

As I listened to their stories I recognized that both my mother's and my experiences as Calvin students were built on theirs. We both stood on their strong shoulders, she in the next generation and I in a subsequent one. These women had prepared the way. The trail was blazed so that when my mother attended Calvin College during World War II, her aspiration for a four-year degree was no longer unusual. Few were likely surprised that over time she became the mother of four children, a church choir director, an elementary music teacher and president of the Willing Workers. Her life, like those of many other Calvin women in that era, could be full of Christian faithfulness in part because of those who had gone before her. Calvin College could prepare her for a hearty life because by then they had a history of educating women as citizens of the kingdom.

My experience at Calvin College, though somewhat different, was also built on the shoulders of those who had gone before. In my time two-year degrees were no longer an option. While many female students still pursued four-year degrees in education, the worlds of law, medicine, theology, business, engineering, media and more were opening up to women. It was an exciting era to obtain a four-year degree, consider graduate education and think about how Christian calling influenced one's professional and personal life simultaneously. We thought God called us to participate in every kingdom sphere simultaneously, and we were sure that we could. Such Christian ambition would in its own way require a hearty Christian education. I would, for example, seek theological reasons to persevere in the jumble of graduate education, small children and two dying parents. I would need Christian grace to put one foot in front of another when opportunities to which I aspired were not always forthcoming. Yet, like those women who had preceded me, at Calvin I had been taught not only about a multifaceted kingdom but also about its even bigger Creator. God would provide the needed time, wisdom, armor and patience required to go forward in faith. The Christian faith and framework for living that grew in my Calvin student years prepared me to live a hearty life.

I'm still closer to my Calvin graduation date than are those early female pioneers. So in mid-life I'm positioned to encourage another generation of female and male students and faculty. Perhaps I can nurture Calvin's capacity to provide an education that is long lasting, deep and resilient for the next generations of God's sons and daughters. Current students also need education for a hearty Christian life. They will have their own sources of household stress and professional challenge in a global context of complex trade, grinding poverty and political challenge.

A century after Calvin women first entered this school, Calvin graduates, both female and male, must still be educated for both toughness and tenderness. Calvin must prepare them to live heartily so when their Savior calls they can respond by saying,

I'll go where you want me to go, dear Lord
O'er mountain, or plain, or sea.
I'll say what you want me to say, dear Lord.
I'll be what you want me to be.

A hundred years of men and women together at Calvin College provides us with a special advantage. We have a deep history of learning, living and serving as female and male Christians side by side. Visions in the church and the college made this possible 100 years ago. May we recognize the gifts of the past and respond heartily in shaping the future.

— Shirley Wolthuis Roels '71,
Calvin dean of academic administration

The Rivalettes - click photo to enlarge image
The Rivalettes

The Rivalettes: Calvin's first women's sports team
In 1920-21, women organized a basketball team, which played and won all of their seven games. The playing team consisted of two forwards, two guards and two centers all playing on a half-court. Unlike the men's game, women were allowed only two dribbles and a pass while handling the ball.

The Board of Trustees was very unhappy about the women's team, known as the Rivalettes the complement to the men's team called the Rivals, and refused to sanction it for several years. The faculty first attempted to dissuade them and then prohibited them from joining the city league.

"When they played anyway, fans were not allowed," said Calvin archivist Dick Harms. "Apparently the faculty was upset about young men who tried to sneak in to see these scantily dressed women, who allowed their ankles to show from time to time."

It would take more than 20 years for women's athletics to gain some respect among both the administration and the students. For years, lack of support plagued the team despite their many successes.

It was the early 1950s before other sports were added for women. Tennis and softball were among the first.

Maroon and Gold Will Bind Our Hearts
Dave Tuuk's history of Calvin athletics 1915-1953

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Calvin celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2001

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