The 50th anniversary of women’s arrival at Union features a year-long celebration of women and their contributions to the College, their communities and the world.
Katherine (Kay) Stout Van Woert '74 was the first woman accepted to Union College as a full-time student. After majoring in American Studies and graduating a year early in 1973, she completed an M.P.A. from Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. Kay began her professional career in public administration working for New York State, first in the legislature. Later, she joined the executive department budget division, primarily working on Medicaid funding for health services. After moving to Vermont in 1996, she switched to non-profit work as a policy analyst and advocate for services and supports for children with special needs and their families. Recently retired, Kay still serves on various Vermont non-profit and state advisory boards related to mental health, homelessness and healthcare financing. She and her husband, Ned Van Woert Union ’71, just celebrated their 45th anniversary. They have two daughters and five grandchildren and maintain a dozen or so close and ongoing friendships with fellow Union graduates. Kay enjoys hiking, biking, back country and x-country skiing, and singing in a community chorus.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your career or volunteer activities?
The most challenging part of a career in public policy, whether in a governmental entity or a non-profit organization with public funding, is dealing with the inequity and lack of logic that stems from policy too often formulated by politics. Recent negative trends in public discourse and counterproductive, unjust and even inhumane current public policies are pretty discouraging. On the other hand, it’s been very rewarding when I could be part of driving systemic public policy improvement or make a difference for individuals in challenging situations.
Who inspired/inspires you, both professionally and personally?
We have come so far since 1970, when coeducation was a novelty at the more elite colleges. But there is so much more that needs to change. The energy that young people and young women, especially, are bringing to the conversation is inspiring.
What advice would you offer today’s women students, not just at Union, but across the country?
My only advice to today’s woman is that it is helpful to know the past while trying to improve the future. I hope that increasing numbers of women and the overall diversity of people in politics and leadership positions will eventually lead to more informed and just policy.
What was your most formative experience at Union?
The Class of 1974 and the first full-time women students (about 100 or so) arrived on campus at a time of nationwide protest, tumult and change. Union reflected that era. I can remember protesting black students taking over the computer center in my first few weeks at Union. An interim faculty member and a handful of students disrupted graduation in 1971, marching out chanting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh.” This led to a fully academically robed math professor jumping down from the stage to beat his colleague over the head with his own protest sign. Conversations with fellow students on left and right and interesting discussions with faculty in and out of class helped further develop my critical and strategic thinking and opinions. American Studies was a new major at the time and synthesizing American literature, economics and history led to real depth of understanding of the American experience and laid the foundation for graduate school and a career in public policy. There were funny moments too. The women tried hard to keep the Idol painted pink. We were patronized by an unprepared administration in ways both amusing and annoying. The very short tenured Dean of Women was far more concerned with “protecting our morals” by keeping men out of our dorms than with our access to education or activities. The college was shocked that an exercise class consisting mostly of “jumping jacks” was not adequate to address our interest in athletics. The administration tried to remediate by providing us very used field hockey sticks cast off from the local Mt. Pleasant High School for pick-up games next to the Nott. But they did try to do one thing on target. For the times, our first group of women did have some geographic, economic, racial, religious and even international diversity. Conversations and friendships, then and since, certainly contributed to my fabulous education at Union.