Beyond Ring by Spring

by Sena Hughes, '15

When Julie Gage, '95, was a Whitworth student, she was admonished not to be too ambitious with her career aspirations.

"I was taught to be independent, but then I would get mixed messages: ‘There's no problem with you working or being a professional, but you don't get to be an overachiever,'" Gage said. "The sky is the limit, but, oh, be careful! You don't want to be intimidating," she was told.

If she was too intimidating, she might not find a husband in her four years at Whitworth.

"The idea was this almost fear that if you didn't find a ring by the time you left Whitworth, then your chances were significantly lower for finding a nice Christian guy who shared your values," Gage said. "That was particularly hard for women like myself who were fairly independent."

Gage, now in her 40s, laughs at her college self. Since Whitworth, she has earned two master's degrees and worked as a freelance journalist and documentary-maker in Miami before landing her current job with the Inter-American Development Bank, in Washington, D.C.

And she still doesn't have a ring.

Whitworth women have faced significant pressure for decades to get a ring by spring and yield to traditional stereotypes of a young woman setting aside a career for the responsibility of raising a family. But many female Whitworth alums like Gage have exemplified the ambition to pursue other career goals, whether married or single.

"Women could have a career but would one day sacrifice that for the golden glory of motherhood," said Joy Bacon, '09, recalling how she perceived the climate on campus more than a decade after Gage graduated.

Bacon remembers the pressure to find a husband coming especially early in her Whitworth experience.

For a long time, "wooing" was part of the Freshman Traditiation process. During wooing, male residents in a given dorm would travel as a group to the other dorms, where the female residents awaited their serenades and charm.

Bacon, who traditiated in Baldwin-Jenkins her freshman year, was bothered by wooing, because it placed too much emphasis on potential romance in a student's first experience of Whitworth.

"I've been at college for two days, I don't know where my deodorant is, I haven't even had time to brush my hair, but oh by the way here are all the potential men you could date and let's intermingle," Bacon said.

In 2012, Whitworth officially removed wooing from its formal traditiation activities, partially for the reasons Bacon voiced.

Bacon and Gage alike still live active, single lives, by no means hopeless about the possibility of marriage, but not dwelling on it either. Both have flourishing careers. Bacon is an English teacher in Baltimore and also works in affiliation with Teach for America, which is what brought her to the East Coast following graduation.

For other women, like Sara Krumm, '95, having a ring by spring became a reality, but ended up remaining secondary to career aspirations.  Krumm was engaged her sophomore year at Whitworth. But the engagement ended, an outcome which, she acknowledges, was likely influenced by her more "nontraditional" understanding of a wife's role and her desire to pursue her own career. Now working for the U.S. State Department in Australia, Krumm finally married in 2012, at age 38.

Krumm doesn't regret the long wait for marriage, and she acknowledges God's providence in the whole scheme. Grateful to have found a life partner, Krumm nevertheless prizes the value of her experience prior to that.

"The experiences you go through shape your character and put you in the right place at the right time, so to speak," Krumm said.

Though Krumm recalls the hype around engagement and marriage at Whitworth, she never felt it was overbearing. Whitworth's open-minded Christian mission made it possible for any student to pursue whatever it was he or she wanted to, she said.

A couple of decades earlier, though, that may not have been the case. Ann Kough, '73, speaks of a different time for the university.  For example, when she arrived at Whitworth as a new student in 1970, women were still required to wear skirts and dresses anytime they were outside their dorms. She saw the school as a generation behind in social awareness.

"It was very much to me the '50s ‘Mrs. Degree' [attitude]," Kough said. "It seemed that for most women on campus, that's what their goal was. I didn't get into too many discussions with women where they wanted to be high-powered lawyers or doctors."

Though Kough got married after her sophomore year at Whitworth, she never viewed herself as a full-time housewife. She stayed in school and eventually became an attorney, then a judge.

As a married female student, Kough resisted the popular opinion of that time, which assumed a married woman would drop out of school to be a homemaker.

"If I got married or didn't get married, I was going to support myself. I always thought I would have a career," Kough said.

After earning a master's degree in sociology and then going on to law school, she practiced law for 11 years and spent 13 years on the bench. Kough retired early and now practices private arbitration in Southern California.

Each of these women said that regardless of myths like ring by spring, a woman can find contentment and purpose in a career, in marriage, or in both. The important thing is that she is doing what is right for her and chasing her desires, as opposed to conforming to social expectations.

As an 18-year-old, Krumm had wanted to attend Georgetown University, her now-husband's alma mater, but she came to Whitworth and did not meet her husband until 13 years after graduation.

"Would our paths have crossed and would we have hit it off? No. Because [when we finally met] we had had different experiences," Krumm said.

In the time between college and marriage, she lived and worked in three countries and two U.S. cities, opportunities that she may or may not have had otherwise.

"All these things happen for a reason and I don't mean to say that in a clichéd way," Krumm said. "God uses it all." 

All of these women encourage students to allow college to be for education, growth, and experience.

Kough, whose college marriage ended 10 years later, has since been able to remarry and raise a daughter, all while pursuing her career.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would absolutely not get married in college again," Kough said. "I missed out on a lot of what college is about—the social learning experiences outside the classroom."

With nearly 20 years of life experience and reflection now past, singleness doesn't bother Gage as much as it may have at one point in time. Fresh out of Whitworth, she found herself asking, "Am I the only one who didn't get married?"

"Then you look around, and there is an entire population of people just like you," Gage said.

Rather than letting the pressure of marriage bother them, each of these women remind young women today that Whitworth is a beginning, not an end, to the story. Life, and prospects of marriage, does not end at graduation day.

"Your youthful years are going to be much longer and broader and richer than you think they are and you do yourself a disservice if you shortchange yourself of that," Gage said. "You have a good 15 to 20 years out of Whitworth to find somebody and biologically have kids. Follow what you are interested in and the rest will follow."