COLUMBIA - The students attending Stephens College's 175th annual convocation weren't around to experience the women's rights movement. They don't have to wear dresses to dinner, and they have always had the right to vote. Stephens President Wendy Libby wouldn't let them forget it.
"This evolution from 1833 through 2008 of Stephens and of women in society is really remarkable when you think about it," Libby said during her opening remarks Thursday morning. "Sadly, it's remarkable, because it's taken way too long, and the battle was hard-won."
That battle was one that Vice Adm. Nancy Brown, the convocation's keynote speaker and now the highest-ranking female officer in the U.S. Navy, started fighting before she even suited up in uniform.
After graduating from Stephens with a degree in education in 1973, Brown said she was prompted by her father to look into the Navy. She met briefly with a recruiting officer, who told her the Navy was not looking for people like her. She took an application anyway.
"I took it, I filled it out, sent it in and 30-odd-some years later, I am one of the most senior women in the Navy today," Brown said during her address.
Women now make up more than 15 percent of the naval force.
Brown serves as the principal adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman on all command, control, communications and computer systems in the Department of Defense.
During her time at Stephens, Brown said, she realized she had control over her future.
"It was being surrounded by other women that were intelligent, motivated, enthusiastic and ready to conquer the world," Brown said. "It really opened my eyes to possibilities for my life that I hadn't really even considered."
Liberal arts and Spanish instructor Catherine Withrow, who introduced Brown, said that this story should not be a shock.
"If we take her story and generalize it, we see a woman who has explored her country, her world and her career to its fullest, who has excelled in the goals she has set for herself, who has broken barriers and who has earned the highest respect of her peers," Withrow said.
Senior transfer student Amanda Meyer, one of the more than 500 attendees, said she was inspired by Brown's speech.
"It really shows what a Stephens woman can do," she said.