by Fran Bisselle, Head of School
I love that March is Women’s History Month. To march as activists do—moving toward a goal with fearless passion and a powerful voice in the name of a cause greater than one’s self—has been a staple throughout the changing course of history. For me, this essence harkens the spirit of those five young women who marched up the steps of the Brooks Military Academy in 1876, knocking on the door and asking assertively to be educated, to be included in that learning community. Marching takes initiative. It takes courage, character, and kindness. Marching together engenders empathy, honors interdependence, and fortifies a people behind a core set of values. HB’s core values include learning for life and leading a life of high moral character. We believe women’s leadership and talents matter. This mattered in the past, this matters today, and this will matter tomorrow.
The national celebration of Women’s History Month must include Hathaway Brown School, the oldest continuously operating school for girls in Ohio, and one of the first all-girls schools in the country. In 1876, we defined our purpose of educating young women not for school but for life. Even then we believed in the unbounded capabilities of girls; that character matters most of all, that excellence and innovation are passionately connected. Since then we honored that we must share our knowledge and gifts with the lives of others who need support in Greater Cleveland and around the world. Zora Neale Hurston, famous female author from Alabama, once said, “The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.” So too, Hathaway Brown is the school it is today because it has stood for these values for more than 142 years, and it will continue to do so far into the future.
We all stand on others’ shoulders. Not literally, but symbolically. If generations of people are to rise boldly to challenges large and small, they must have solid foundations from which to work. As a historian and a woman, I am inspired by Anne Bradstreet, who was among the earliest published American female poets. She was a pioneer and pilgrim in 1630 who courageously expressed what was in her soul. I have no doubt that Sarah Kay and Alexandra Fuller, two powerful authors who visited HB this year and inspired our students, are spiritually of the same lineage. Further, I believe that HB’s students of today will be our nation’s greatest writers and poets of tomorrow. So the web of women’s history works.
It is the same with science, the arts, history, languages, mathematics, and civic engagement. We stand on the shoulders of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States; Marie Curie, the only woman to twice be awarded the Nobel Prize; and Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Labor and the first woman to be appointed to a presidential cabinet. We stand on the shoulders of Rosa Parks and Betty Friedan and many others who have worked tirelessly for civil rights and women’s rights. We stand on the shoulders of Lottie Dod, the first great female tennis player; Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a great in basketball, track, field, and golf; and powerhouse athlete Billie Jean King. We stand on the shoulders of Aretha Franklin, Bette Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Natalie Wood, and Barbra Streisand—some of the greatest female actresses and singers of all times. We stand on the shoulders of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of many suffragists who believed that women, too, should have the right to vote. They set off a movement that worked for 70 years to achieve this, but like most of these early suffragists, they themselves never experienced the right to vote despite all their hard work.
Our students at every grade level appreciate this scaffold of women’s history, as our programming and curriculum provide extraordinary opportunities for academic achievement, artistic expression, and civic engagement. This month, we celebrate projects and programs such as the annual fourth-grade Notable Women research projects, and the 20th annual Poster Session of our signature Science Research & Engineering Program, which has paired more than 500 high school students with researchers at world-class institutions including Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and NASA Glenn Research Center over the course of the past two decades. Coupled with the dedication of our exceptional faculty and authentic partnership with parents, our students’ journeys unfold with passion, curiosity, and joy.
For me, this idea of standing on others’ shoulders is even more personal. I stand on the shoulders of HB graduates who are revered as some of our nation’s finest independent school leaders. For example, Diana Coulton Beebe, retired Holton-Arms (Washington, DC) Head of School and HB graduate of 1960, who worked tirelessly for 15 years to create equity for its diverse student population and develop a strong sense of community while also enhancing the curriculum. I stand on the shoulders of Marjo Talbott, Head of Maret School (Washington, DC) and graduate of the HB class of 1972, whose strong, dedicated, forward-thinking leadership and balanced stewardship has been exemplary. And I stand on the shoulders of Stephanie Pax Flanigan, a member of the HB class of 1975 whose leadership of the Montessori School in Denver has empowered students to use diverse knowledge to achieve their full potential. In the independent school world, there are far fewer women serving in the capacity of head of school, but notable is this: among the best and most well respected stand strong Hathaway Brown graduates. And of course I continue to be inspired by my former colleagues Sue Sadler, Head of Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, and Sarah Johnston, Head of Old Trail School in Akron. These two fine leaders spent the majority of their careers at HB.
I researched multiple sources for this brief Women’s History Month post and many sites included references to Hathaway Brown School. The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History describes HB as “the oldest surviving private girls’ school in the Cleveland area.” If the month of March is about empowering women’s voices, well then I go on record to challenge this portrait. Hathaway Brown is not merely surviving; we are thriving. There is no question that at this moment in history, there is great need for women of vision and courage who are empowered for leadership in a multicultural and globalized society. HB continues to answer that need by inspiring our students to achieve their utmost potential, and to rise boldly to the challenges of our times.
Let us celebrate this spirit over the course of the next 31 days and for many years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A graduate of the prestigious Klingenstein Head Fellowship program at Columbia Teacher’s College, Dr. Mary Frances “Fran” Bisselle also has served on several high-profile boards of trustees, including as a New England Association of Schools and Colleges commissioned board member, and as a trustee for the National Association of Independent Schools — which provides services and oversight for more than 1,800 schools in the United States. Fran was lifer at Merion Mercy Academy, a K-12 school for girls located outside of Philadelphia. An avid athlete, she was a Division I college field hockey player, and she’s a marathon runner who also plays ice hockey, tennis, and golf. She’s a member of the 2018 Class of Leadership Cleveland and she is honored to be leading an institution that nurtures and values the voices of women.