Atkins tells history of CSB women and times

by Cori Hilsgen

Annette Atkins knows history. She is a history professor at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University and recently wrote a book about some of the history of the past 100 years of CSB. Her book “Challenging Women Since 1913: The College of St. Benedict” celebrates the college’s centennial and discusses the changing needs of women.

Atkins said the book is about CSB in a larger context, but the book is also about what happened in the United States during the last 100 years. One change she discusses is the 1972 Title IX of the Education Amendments and women’s roles in athletics. The legislation significantly changed the environment for women’s sports. More options for girls at the grade- and high-school levels, created more demand for college-level sports and offered many more opportunities for females.

Another change she talks about is women’s sexuality. Atkins discusses how the student and sexual revolutions of the 1960s created all sorts of controversy on college campuses, including CSB. This led to discussions about birth control, the AIDS epidemic, “hooking up” and other topics. She goes on to explain a kind of post-sexual revolution had taken place by 2010 and the pendulum seems to have swung from one extreme to the other. What was once considered taboo has shrunk, and women are now more confident to talk about and express their feelings on the subject. Atkins states that likely neither characterizes the typical CSB woman. She explains that how a college relates to students who they expect will never be sexually active is very different to how it relates to women who will be.

“It’s a women’s book and I write about women’s issues,” Atkins said. “You don’t have to be a CSB graduate to find things in this book of interest to you. If you are a woman in the United States, there are things for you. If you were raised Catholic, there are things for you. It’s about CSB but tries to illuminate larger issues as well.”

Atkins said CSB President MaryAnn Baenninger asked her if she would write this history.

“I had published several books before this, so I think she knew what she was getting into,” Atkins said. “She knew my approach was kind of a story-telling approach. She gave me complete freedom, and I really appreciated that.”

Atkins said it took her almost five years to write the book. She wasn’t paid to write the book but was given a reduced teaching load at the college so she would have time to write.  Much of the work was done in the summer months when she could have more uninterrupted time.

“A real gift MaryAnn gave to me and to the college was to say ‘You write the book the college deserves,’” Atkins said.

She said it deserves an interesting, thoughtful, perhaps even provocative book and it needs to be as smart as the students, faculty and administration deserve.

Atkins said the book was harder to write than she had expected it to be. Atkins said she felt it matters in a very personal level to so many people and she asked herself who she was leaving out.

“Every author makes lots of choices about what to include, which means there are so many things you can’t include,” she said. “So who’s story has been most important is one of the questions I am asking myself and then am I saying by implication that other people’s stories aren’t as important and how do you balance those things?”

She said so many of the leaders of the college have poured their life into the college and thousands of students have been shaped by it. For many years the staff, people of St. Joseph, the faculty, religious members, SJU and many other individuals have been wrapped up in the college.

“Every sentence I wrote I didn’t just have to think about who is this going to touch, but who am I leaving out by writing this sentence rather than that sentence,” Atkins said.

When writing the book, she was surprised to discover what a huge financial obligation the nuns took on in order to found, develop and run the college. Amid so many other obligations, such as staffing grade schools and high schools, nursing at hospitals and other locations and various types of missions, the nuns kept the college going. CSB was one tiny part of what the nuns did. So many of them were working for a very small salary and they then gave so much of that small salary back to support the college and lived on very little income.

Atkins said the first male president of the college, Stan Idzerda played an important role in the college. Idzerda was appointed in 1968 and brought new perspectives to the college. Currently still a St. Joseph resident, Idzerda was not Benedictine and was not from the area so he didn’t need to be humble and he could brag up the college. He both promoted the college outside and also persuaded the people in the college it was a really good college.

Idzerda saw the future of women’s colleges and knew CSB needed to increase enrollment to thrive. At the time, many women’s colleges tried to make accommodations to “brother” schools but didn’t survive or were absorbed. During his time, enrollment at the college increased by almost 650 students.

Atkins said it was during his time CSB and SJU walked to the edge of merger and then backed off. Instead, the two schools have “seamlessly” connected many offices, but have kept the campus cultures separate with their own presidents, resident halls, sports and other things.

Atkins said current president Baenninger is also able to promote the college and has made the college stronger and more vibrant and visible.

Atkins has been teaching at the colleges for 33 years. She was offered a one-year position at SJU in 1980 and has been teaching there ever since. She began her career as one of about 12 women on a faculty of 120 men.

Atkins earned her degrees from Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and Indiana University. She is married to Tom Joyce who is a 1961 SJU graduate. Atkins met her husband when she went with a study abroad group to London in 1992. Joyce practices American law for European companies. His first wife died shortly after that trip.

Atkins and Joyce later married. Joyce has two daughters from his first marriage and Atkins said they are now the proud grandparents of three grandchildren who live in Washington, DC. She divides her time between Collegeville, St. Paul and England.

Atkins enjoys antiquing, she often speaks on national public radio as a history “go to” person and she just finished an interim position as the director of the Stearns History Museum.

The 266-page book includes many illustrations and a forward and afterward by Baenninger. The book is available at both CSB and SJU bookstores and and sells for $24.95.

photo by Cori Hilsgen
Annette Atkins recently wrote a book about the history of the College of St. Benedict. Her book “Challenging Women Since 1913: The College of St. Benedict” celebrates the centennial of the college and discusses changing women’s issues during those years. 



Cori Hilsgen

Cori Hilsgen

Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people's stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.
Cori Hilsgen
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