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Journal of Illinois HistoryIn We Are a College at War, authors Mary Weaks-Baxter, Christine Bruun, and Catherine Forslun recount the activist experiences of female students at Rockford College during and after World War II. Based on alumni letters and other archival material, the authors build a story of women's lives at one midwestern women's college. Chapter 1 begins with students' concerns about the war. Although some students questioned compulsory conscription—such as Elane Summers Hemith, who rode to Washington, D.C., to protest—most became involved in more traditional war efforts, such as knitting, sending packages to soldiers, donating to blood banks, and buying war bonds and stamps.
Through these activities, the authors contend, women students practiced an "ethic of caring" (page 5), one built on the social feminist ideals of alumna Jane Addams. Indeed, Rockford College president Mary Ashby Cheek evoked the exemplary activism of Addams in her talks to students, encouraging them to contribute to democracy through their studies, extracurricular activities, and their activism. Specifically; students listened to speakers, who included presidents of women's colleges and political leaders. They joined chapters of national organizations, including the American Student Union and the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, which wrote a letter to Adolph Hitler in 1941 asking that he end the war.
This interesting monograph provides a close look at female students' lives at one specific college during the war period. There are occasional references to students' experiences at other women's colleges, such as Wellesley and Mount Holyoke. Yet I wanted to know whether Rockford College students' experiences were so very different from those at other women's colleges, and if so, how? If anything, sometimes the authors draw too heavily on the relationship between Jane Addams and Rockford College. While Addams's words and examples of activism are evoked by Cheek and the students, the influence of Addams often seems overdrawn. For example, the authors argue that the dialogue and debates "followed the long tradition of Jane Addams" (page 24). But certainly they also arose out of the international curriculum and the desire to better understand the war itself.
The authors also claim that Cheek thought of the liberal-arts curriculum as a way to rebuild the postwar society, a perspective that was consistent with "Addams's view" (page 39). Perhaps so, but more importantly the curriculum was similar to that at other women's colleges and even drew from earlier Rockford College presidents, such as Julia Gulliver. Last, Cheek used the salient ideas of progressive educators, such as developing the potential of' each individual student. Progressive practices included small classes for intellectual and personality growth, as well as for the promotion of democracy.
If anyone, it was Cheek who was the incredible role model for the students. The archives at Rockford College are replete with records about her and might have been consulted more fully by the authors. For example, Check was active in professional organizations, including Phi Beta Kappa, the American Association of University Women, and the National Association of Deans of Women, as well as the community organizations such as the League of Women's Voters and the Rockford Woman's Club.
Regardless of these suggestions the book is delightfully readable and written in a style that makes it accessible to many. The suggested readings also provide interested readers with valuable historical sources. Undoubtedly the book speaks to the strong activist traditions of Rockford College, nurtured by its strong female presidents, faculty, and the memory of Jane Addams." —Anne Meis Knupfer, Purdue University
— Anne Meis Knupfer