Sadie Roelofs and Women Students at Calvin in the 1920s and 1930s
In November 1928 Sadie Roelofs set off a “November Revolution.” Editor-in-chief of the Calvin College student newspaper, Chimes, she criticized apathy among students and implied the same about faculty, all in a short editorial entitled “Self-Satisfaction.”
Other Chimes writers followed her lead. One urged toleration of Catholics and support of Al Smith, the Democratic candidate in that month’s federal election. Another complained that seminarians paid lower tuition than the college’s students. Peter De Vries prayed to be saved from all things Calvin. Roelofs’s future husband, William Frankena, mocked college debate contests and predicted the overthrow of conservatism at Calvin. A first-year seminary student lamented that teaching of theology at Calvin was lifeless and without poetry or beauty.
De Vries went on to fame as an editor at the New Yorker and author—many of his novels satirizing and scandalizing the Dutch Reformed community that birthed him. Frankena became a lauded professor of philosophy and ethics at the University of Michigan. Chimes writers from the late-20s and early-30s were a remarkable bunch and many of its men had storied careers. But what of women like Roelofs?
By the 1930s, Calvin awarded 40 percent of its bachelor’s degrees to women. One of the school’s primary purposes, from the viewpoint of the Christian Reformed Church, was to train Christian schools teachers, and a high percentage of these future teachers were women.
The status of women at Calvin was decidedly unequal, however. The college president’s commencement address in 1938 urged graduates to “Be Men!” Most clubs at Calvin, included Chimes, were co-educational, as Roelofs’s editorship of Chimes indicates. But the Plato Club, an exclusive philosophy discussion group popular among intellectually-minded male students, excluded women. Many of its men went on to earn PhDs in the humanities.
Professor Harry Jellema, who advised the Plato Club, also sponsored Phi Alpha, a similar club for women. Some Phi Alpha women went on to graduate school, but they often dropped out before finishing their degrees, many marrying men who earned PhDs and enjoyed careers as professors. Those women who did finish degrees rarely had college teaching careers.
Sadie Roloefs is a good example. As the sharp, irreverent editor of Chimes, who she made a successful case for a $5 student fee to fund the magazine. She graduated with a double major in philosophy (the first woman at Calvin to do so) and German. She applied for graduate school in German at the University of Illinois and got a fellowship, but turned it down to stay in Michigan with Frankena. He did a master’s degree at Michigan and earned his PhD at Harvard.
The story of Roelofs was par for the course at Calvin in the 1920s and 1930s, among the fiercely women of Phi Alpha and Chimes. Some of them went on to teach, most in elementary, middle and high schools. A rare few ended up teaching at colleges, typically part time.
Marianne Vos was the daughter of the theologian Geerhardus Vos, who left the Theological School (as Calvin Seminary was then known) for Princeton in 1893. She earned a master’s degree in English at Columbia. And with her husband and fellow Calvin grad William Radius, she taught at Grundy College in Iowa for a time. (Grundy was a Reformed college competitor of Calvin in the 20s and 30s.) She also taught English at Calvin in 1936-1937, after Radius returned to Calvin to teach classics.
The exceptions proved the rule in this era in the United States. Into the early 1960s, even women who were star graduate students rarely got jobs after finishing their PhDs. The pattern at Calvin—among women students and its few women faculty—thus was not entirely unusual. It was unusually bad, however. In the fall of 1936, the national average of women faculty at private colleges and universities was 28 percent. At Hope College, down the road from Calvin, it was 21 percent; at Wheaton College in Chicago, it was 45 percent. At Calvin it was only 10 percent.
The two women faculty in the mid-1930s were the librarian, Josie Baker;, and Johanna Timmer, dean of women and English professor. Timmer was Calvin’s first women member of the faculty, hired in 1926. She later became the first full-time instructor, dean, and acting president of the Reformed Bible Institute (later Reformed Bible College and then Kuyper College).
The pattern of an unusually small percentage of women faculty at Calvin persistent into the late twentieth century—compared to national trends and Calvin’s peer Christian colleges.
Sadie Roelofs largely disappears from historical records after her graduation in the spring of 1929. She and William married in 1934. Records related to her can be found at genealogical sites such as the Ancestry Institution. Obituaries for Frankena mention her. She died in 1978; he in 1994. Frankena is easy to find, including an obituary in the New York Times.
Two of Sadie Roelof’s last pieces in Chimes in the winter-spring of 1929 suggest something of her impact. The April 1929 issue makes the case for that $5 student fee to pay for Chimes and Prism (the student produced yearbook). Calvin alumni since then and students today can thank her for this.
In an article in March 1929, she described the planned yearbook for 1928-1929 school year. John Calvin, the Reformer, never could have imagined Calvin College, she observed slyly, with its “redoubtable basketball team,” or “such infidelities as our much maligned Chimes.” Nor could the sixteenth century Reformer have predicted the creative new approach to the Prism yearbook being produced in 1929.
“Not that there were no prophecies of that forthcoming volume, for there were,” Roelofs claimed, tongue in cheek. “What else did the Renaissance portend? Or Servetus? And the defeat of the Armada? Yet one cannot hold Calvin accountable for his myopia. He was too busy expounding his doctrine to lay down rules of conduct for Calvin students.”
In the summer of 1928, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church had forbade card-playing, movie going, and dancing and had warned against “worldly amusements” in general. It was the age of the flapper, jazz, and speakeasies. Synod had fired a Calvin professor, B.K. Kuiper, for going to movies after being warned. Meanwhile, the college struggled against a cultural tide to enforce rules against such amusements among students, as Roelofs’s cheeky comments on John Calvin and rules for Calvin students suggests.
Chimes writers during Roelofs’s era at Calvin called on the college and its faculty to do better at engaging culture, including popular culture. The college’s ideal of integrating learning and life with Christian faith drew on the thinking of Abraham Kuyper. But the college largely neglected Kuyper’s call for Christians to be engaged in modern culture from Christian perspectives. Students similarly would call the college and church to be more and better engaged in another era of cultural ferment in the 1960s and early 70s. By then they had more support and participation from Calvin faculty, even as administrators and church leaders remained wary.
“Self-satisfaction is a violation of our moral duty,” Roelofs wrote in 1928. “It is our duty to look at ourselves in the light of our purpose in life and then to fit all we do into a proper relation with this purpose. If we do this we will, I am sure, realize only too keenly our own imperfections. We will see that that which we now think we enjoy is not true happiness, that it does not give lasting satisfaction.” Too many students (and faculty too?) were not properly dissatisfied, she lamented. What then was the point of “study”?
In November 1928 Sadie Roelofs, her Chimes writers, and doubtless other students were troublemakers, even scandalous. They didn’t just call the college and church to engage modern culture and reconsider stale dogmas and rules, but also themselves did these things. They also expressed an earnestness about engagement and the purpose of learning that seems familiar at Calvin College today. Rebels, yes. But ones rooted in their tradition.
William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.
The cover image is from the Prism yearbook of 1929. This blogpost uses and in some places paraphrases unpublished research on the history of Calvin College by Michael Hamilton.