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Nothing like a Dame

Women’s League continues tradition of service.
February 19, 2008

At the turn of the century, few dresses brushed across the floors of MIT’s labs. But in 1898, when wives of MIT faculty and staff began gathering for tea and conversation, the rustling of fabric must have been pronounced. In 1913, the informal meetings–which by then included Mrs. ­Richard C. Maclaurin (Alice), wife of MIT’s sixth president–evolved into a formal organization called the Tech­nology Matrons, forerunner of today’s Women’s League.

An original matron: Alice Maclaurin, wife of MIT’s sixth president, helped formally establish the Technology Matrons in 1913.

The first members of the Matrons were generally known by their husbands’ names; their own were often omitted or placed in parentheses. And on the surface, their roles may have appeared parenthetical as well.

The Matrons’ modest objective was to “promote … social fellowship.” Accordingly, they met for bridge, chorale practice, discussions of current events, and sometimes, teas with featured speakers. (At a tea in early 1951, a guest doctor gave a talk about “living with tension”; the next month, a member presented “African pictures.”) Keeping up with tech­nology was also on the agenda, as an event flyer from the mid-1950s attests: “Can you imagine baking a cake in just three minutes!? It can be done–It’s the latest thing in cooking appliances–the Micro Wave Oven.”

But the group’s stated aim does not begin to capture its rich legacy. As the MIT community changed over the decades, so did the needs that the Matrons identified and endeavored to meet.

Shortly after the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Matrons organized the Technology Workroom for War Relief. To overseas troops affiliated with MIT, they distributed clothing, food, and basic necessities: convalescent robes, pajamas, pneumonia pads, and 391½ pairs of slippers. Their shipments prompted one happy recipient to write, “Sweaters, etc., causing great rejoicing. Tech only college doing it. All envious. Don’t stop sending.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, when the number of foreign students at MIT increased, the Matrons again took action, organizing committees, English conversation classes, and housing on the students’ behalf. In 1958, they started the Furniture Exchange, offering all students affordable furniture donated by local families and institutions.

Early on, the Matrons recognized the need for students’ wives to have a sense of community and purpose as well. So in 1922, they created a similar group for those women, known as the Tech­nology Dames. But while the Dames also gravitated toward community service, they were ever mindful of why they were at MIT: to support their husbands.

To acknowledge that support, the Dames bestowed certificates upon members whose husbands were graduating. One version proclaimed, “Proven Mistress of Amiability, Doctor of Patient and Potent Help, through whose conscientious faith and endeavor, her Husband’s advancement in Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been fostered, furthered and facilitated, has been … awarded the Degree of Honorary and Honored Dame.” The diploma awarded by the Dames in 1970 was called the PhT, which stood for Push Hubby Through.

In 1975, the Technology Matrons changed their name to the Women’s League; 11 years later, the league opened its doors to all women in the MIT community, married or not. The league’s current chair, Kate Baty, believes that she may be the first chair who is not the wife of a faculty or staff member. (Her husband earned three MIT degrees.)

Although the first Technology Matrons might have been surprised to see how women’s roles have evolved, they’d probably also have been proud that today’s Women’s League upholds many of the traditions of its predecessor. It still sponsors talks–including the annual panels “Aging Successfully,” which features MIT Medical staff, and “Critical Issues,” which examines such topics as “The Greening of MIT”–and it still runs the Furniture Exchange. Since 1995, the league has also held an annual Fashion Night, allowing students to pick up clothing suitable for interviews and winter weather. And it still meets in the Emma Rogers Room, just behind the tops of the pillars that support the front of Building 10–the room dedicated for the Technology Matrons’ use in 1916.

Much like its ancestor, the league takes pride in meeting the changing needs of the community. When Baty is asked what she foresees in its future, she says, “I don’t foresee changes, because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the world. Whatever will happen, the Women’s League will be at the forefront, responding and offering support.”

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