“The Freedom to be Womanly” at Pembroke College

For 100+ years, students have been discussing the history and role of women in this exact seminar room. Imagine writing on the chalkboard. Feel the history in the dark wood chairs, revel in the gaze of the figures lining the ceiling. Each frieze highlights the ways women have participated in various types of education. Today, every honors thesis from the Gender and Sexuality Program is safely housed in these cabinets.

Pembroke Hall was the first physical building erected for the Women’s College at Brown University and became the social and educational hub for its students. In his inaugural address in 1899, Brown University President H.P. Faunce celebrated the value of the “separate but equal” educational experience for women:

“When the collegiate life of women is left free to organize itself, neither excluded from the privileges of men, nor forced into their social tradition -- and the latter is now our danger -- it will create its own ideal, and around it will crystallize all educational activity. In this realm imitation is suicide, and freedom to be womanly is the only safety.”

However, this “freedom to be womanly” was full of double standards and narrow expectations -- there was a forced separation between men and women but also the opportunity to create a separate culture. While women were offered the same courses as their male counterparts, it was expected that the needs of men always came first. Local women and alumnae had to raise money to support the inadequate funding given to the Women’s College. And even though the classes were the same, women had to take them in a separate location, at Pembroke Hall. Some electives could be taken with men upon instructor permission, but according to Nettie Goodale, Class of 1895, a dean told the women to be “inconspicuous” and “dignified” when they took classes on the men’s campus. But despite their efforts to be invisible, the presence of women on an all-male campus nevertheless raised men’s attention:

Here she comes,
There she goes,
All dressed up
In her Sunday clothes.

Centuries of struggle, triumph, and trailblazing can be captured in the space where you are standing. However, while the seminar room has been preserved, the $9 million 2008 renovation has largely modernized the interior and left few traces of the building’s rich history. In contrast, the redesign of nearby Smith-Buonanno Hall by William Kite Architects, Inc. has won a historic preservation award for its sensitive renovation from Sayles Gym to current classrooms. If you take the time to look, traces of history can be found through the lines of the wood panel basketball court on the first floor. Pembroke Hall and Smith-Buonnano Hall are examples of adaptive reuse on Brown’s campus. Sheila Bonde, Professor of History of Art & Architecture, defines adaptive reuse as “the adaptation of buildings to new functions.” She taught in the seminar room before the remodel and knew Sayles Gym before the renovation.

While Pembroke College has folded into Brown University, the building itself is a site of continual learning. Today, Pembroke Hall continues the legacy of women’s studies through providing a home for the department of gender and sexuality studies, which continues to ask questions about various forms of inequality, oppression, and identity. Asking these questions is necessary for the critical examination of relevant issues including the #MeToo movement, new laws about family leave, and current leadership in the U.S. and globally. How does the gendered experience matter in the world in terms of policy, pay, and power?

Contemporary, cutting-edge research about women happens here. And, you don't have to be a woman to take a class, concentrate in gender and sexuality studies, or engage in a deep conversation about these issues. They impact you, no matter who you are. Click the video to hear Drew Walker, Director of the Program of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Assistant Director of the Pembroke Center, discuss the importance of diversity in the classroom when engaging with issues of difference, broadly defined.


Interview with Drew Walker, Director of the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at Brown University Drew Walker, Director of the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, recalled, “Many people have asked me what it’s like to be a white, cis-male identifying Director…” While many of the students in his classes identify as female, Walker encourages non female-identifying students to engage with the Pembroke Center. In addition, he notes the increase in non-concentrators taking classes in the Gender & Sexuality Studies department, as these issues inevitably intersect with a variety of academic disciplines. Creator: Maya Omori Date: March 2019
Interview with Sheila Bonde, Professor of History of Art & Architecture. Sheila Bonde, Professor of History of Art & Architecture, shares her experience teaching in the seminar room under the gaze of the elegant female figures on the friezes and how physical traces of the past inform present dialogue. But while the built environment can train our behavior and elicit certain emotions, she stressed that the conversations that occur within the spaces are more important than the physical building. Creator: Maya Omori Date: March 2019
Present-day seminar room and experiencing the Pembroke Hall blueprints for myself in the John Hay Library. This video displays the friezes in the present-day seminar room and captures my experience of viewing the Pembroke Blueprints at the John Hay Library. You can experience this history, too, by delving into the Christine Dunlap Farnham Archives at the John Hay Library. Creator: Maya Omori Date: March 2019
Interview clips from the Pembroke Oral History Project highlighting race relations at Pembroke College. These are interview clips from the Pembroke Oral History Project, an initiative started in 1982 to document the diverse experiences of women who attended Pembroke College and Brown University. Carol Canner ‘59 discusses the segregated dormitories. Elizabeth Branch Jackson ‘59 describes her experience at Pembroke as being highly “tokenized” among her classmates. Listen to the full interviews and others at the Christine Dunlap Farnham Archives website. Images are from the Brown University Archives. Source: Pembroke Oral History Project Creator: Pembroke Oral History Project Date: Elizabeth Jackson interview: October 30, 1987 by Dorcey Baker
Carol Canner interview: February 17, 2017 by Whitney Pape


Women in front of 3rd floor library fireplace
Women in front of 3rd floor library fireplace While they did have the freedom to create their own culture on the women’s campus, a narrow definition of femininity had to be maintained at Brown. President Faunce said there was nothing more abhorrent than a “mannish woman.” Source: University Archives
Class of 1900
Class of 1900 The Class of 1900 stands in the doorway of the unfinished Pembroke Hall in 1897. Pembroke Hall was the first physical building erected to educate women at Brown University. Source: University Archives Date: 1897
Pembroke College Library
Pembroke College Library This image shows the Pembroke College Library, which used to be on the 3rd floor. The ceiling beams and two fireplaces are preserved, but the function of the space has changed with the renovation. Janice Riley ‘55 is pictured on the left. Source: University Archives
Seminar Room, 1899
Seminar Room, 1899 Records showed that the female seniors consistently earned higher grades than their male counterparts. Even though women’s intellectual abilities were respected, they simultaneously had to uphold strict gender norms. Source: University Archives Creator: H.L. Hubert Date: 1899


172 Meeting St., Providence RI 02912 | Take the stairs or elevator to the 2nd floor seminar room (Room 202)


Maya Omori, ““The Freedom to be Womanly” at Pembroke College,” Rhode Tour, accessed May 22, 2024, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/349.