Community / Opinion

“Amor caritas” doesn’t inspire women to change the world

Amor Caritas, Dana Hall’s motto since the early twentieth century, is a compelling statement in a religious context, but in a secular institution, it has been watered down to mere “niceness.” Dana Hall pushes its students to “learn, lead, and succeed,” but how does embodying “kindness,” something that is often gendered female, fulfill those goals in 2021? In a world completely different from that a century ago, it is vital that we rethink our motto and school seal.

After Henry Durant founded Wellesley College in 1875, he realized the women enrolled had inadequate preparation for higher education. To solve this, he appointed two professors at Wellesley College, Sarah and Julia Eastman, to be the founding principals of his new vision: Dana Hall. All three of these individuals were Christian churchgoers, as were probably all of the students, but the institution did not claim a specific religious identity. However, bible studies was a part of the curriculum, and “religious training” was a goal when the Eastman sisters began the new institution.

Twenty years later, Helen Temple Cooke purchased Dana Hall from the Eastman sisters. Cooke believed in surrounding the students with fine antiques and intricate works of art. In 1909, Ms. Cooke commissioned George T. Abell of Wellesley to design a seal based on the Amor Caritas sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an angel with a flower crown and wings holding the Amor Caritas sign. According to Archivist Dorothy Desimone, “It seems likely the motto was ‘adopted’ shortly after the seal, but this has not been verified.”

Through my extensive research on the institution from 1881 to the present, I have found a theme: Dana Hall is deeply rooted in both religious and gender expectation, and our motto and seal reflect that double concentration. Amor Caritas, translated to English, means “love and kindness,” which are values at the center of the school’s founders’ Christian faith. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens as the “vision of the ethereal female.” Ethereal means delicate and almost too perfect for this world, which may have made sense in that religious context. 

Dana Hall’s Christian emphasis continued through the twentieth century. When looking at photographs of the Dana Hall campus throughout the years, I came across the 1964 commencement photo, and I almost mixed up Bardwell for a church. The picture shows young women standing in pews, looking to the audience under multiple crosses. Furthermore, looking closer at the transformation of the seal throughout history, I have noticed that the wings on the angel have gotten more prominent. This seal signifies that the women of Dana Hall are deeply religious, delicate, and angel-like. Both of these findings further push me to connect Amor Caritas with religion and make me question whether they are suitable for our secular institution. 

What served the school well in 1910 does not necessarily fulfill its needs in 2021. In an increasingly secular age, the seal and motto have lost their resonance and simply seem over-gendered. Love and kindness may be forceful virtues in a religious context, but in a secular context it just sounds like being nice. When asking each member of my journalism class, “Do you see yourself in this seal?,” I got a unanimous answer of “no” and a laugh.

Amor Caritas, in my eyes, does not inspire confidence and tenacity but is instead a nagging voice to “be sweet and nice.” Niceness is an important virtue but should not be an institution’s goal. Would a school educating young men encourage its students to be agreeable and nice or to do something bolder? The time has come to rethink how we present ourselves to the world and to one another. The future of this all-girls institution requires that we all continue to review and adapt our values to reflect who we are and what this institution represents. 

Images source: The Nina Heald Webber 1949 Archives of the Helen Temple Cooke Library, Dana Hall School.

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