Berea College commits itself to create a democratic community dedicated to education and gender equality.
The meaning of “gender equality” has changed over time, but Berea College is on the forefront of the current meaning. Our commitment means students, faculty, and staff enjoy the same opportunities and privileges regardless of whether they are men, women, gay or straight, or on some other part of the gender/identity spectrum.
Berea College made waves in the 19th century as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. This was a time when the concept of women going to college, especially alongside men, was controversial. Our founders insisted the concept could work and that it would work to the benefit of society as a whole.
We’ve come a long way since then. In the 21st century, gender equality means more than equality of the sexes. It means ensuring all have a seat at the table, a chance to succeed, and to enjoy the benefits afforded to others, just as the “gospel of impartial love” demands of us.
Past and Present
Though progressive and supportive of gender equality from early on, it was a long time before the College would grow to meet modern ideas of what those terms mean. In the beginning, the simple idea of women attending college at all, and the notion of them attending college with men were radical. Both had to be defended.
The heroes of Berea’s early history most written about are brave and passionate men, about whom we have the most information. Alongside them were equally brave and passionate women, whom, unfortunately, are most often referred to as “wife of ________.” Matilda Fee, for example, was the “wife of” Berea College founder Reverend John G. Fee. But well before she met Rev. Fee, Matilda Hamilton and family made their home a haven along the Underground Railroad.
A story that survives in Bracken County, Kentucky, where she grew up, is that a slave hid beneath the floor of their house while Matilda’s mother served the runaway’s owner tea right above his head. Matilda served as Berea’s first hostess during strife as well and carried her mother’s bravery, facing the threat of mobs seeking to drive her out because of the Berea's abolitionist views. With Rev. Fee already in exile, Matilda wrangled children and wagon through winter streams to meet him. Later, after her return in the midst of the Civil War without her husband, she hid her horse and wagon in the woods, and her silver in the eaves of her home, as Confederate troops approached. Elizabeth Rogers, who traveled to Berea in the early days to aid in the mission, wrote that Matilda was “as brave a woman as ever walked Berea’s streets” who “never flinched in times of danger.”
Much has changed on campus since the early 1900s, and though even at Berea change in general was slow over the years, Berea managed to be ahead of the surrounding culture in terms of gender equality. Our history is replete with women faculty and staff heroes, from Dean Julia Allen, who promoted professional equality for women staff and faculty, to Dr. Louise Hutchins, the wife of President Hutchins and pediatrician, who rode her bicycle to the preschool to give medical services to children, to Jane Stephenson, wife of President Stephenson, who founded the New Opportunity School for Women, which seeks to remove barriers to education, employment, and financial independence for Appalachian women with little knowledge of the world outside the home.
Today, Berea College makes every effort to ensure a democratic, equal, and safe campus environment, whether it involves students, staff, or faculty. Also, our curriculum and campus programming reflects our commitment not only to gender equality for women and men, but also for community members of differing gender identities.
In 2021, Berea College launched the bell hooks Center (previously the Women’s and Gender Non-Conforming Center), named for author, feminist, activist, and Berea’s Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies, bell hooks. The center provides a place for people of all genders and sexualities to feel safe, comfortable and represented on campus. It also serves as the hub of conversation, curriculum and scholarship related to women’s and gender issues.
Programming includes lectures and events that encourage students to think about the ways sex and gender intersect with other identities such as race and class, and how these intersections can complicate a person’s goals and interactions with surrounding cultures. One example of this programming is called “Gender Talk,” previously “Peanut Butter and Gender,” which hosts leading feminist scholars, activists and artists who can teach our campus community about changing oppressive power structures that are not inclusive of everyone.
We hope the bell hooks Center will keep Berea College at the forefront of resolving issues around gender equity that persist in our society.
Osvaldo Flores came to Berea a member of two protected classes: a gay man and the child of undocumented immigrants, who, until recently, was not eligible to attend college in the U.S.
After graduating, Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) major Cara Stewart wasted no time getting to work on social justice issues affecting women. While conducting research at the University of Kentucky on domestic violence and stalking, Cara began volunteering at a rape crisis center as hospital advocate for women at the emergency room.