News from The Sunflower Initiative



October 2020
Board members and TSI supporters gathered at 2019 Philadelphia board retreat:
L to R: Nahid Hamzei; Meg McKean; Beth Peterson Wahlig (Wheaton); Ellen Ramsburgh; Becca Peterson; Thu Yen Nyugen (Bryn Mawr); Betsy McCrodden; Linda Kuritzky (Chatham); Sally Herb Moses (Smith); Ruth Kinsolving.

A Message from Our New President


Dear Friends,


As the colors turn and leaves start to fall, I remember that October day like it was yesterday.  Walking across front campus to the library and spending the afternoon in the stacks as a first-year student, I realized I had found my home.  I’m sure many of you have similar fond memories of your women’s college experience.


Fast forward to today, I am honored to serve as the second president of The Sunflower Initiative. I gratefully acknowledge the leadership of Betsy McCrodden and the groundwork laid by the founders of TSI, and I share their passion for ensuring that the next generation of young women will benefit from the same life-changing experience we all enjoyed.  


Our first decade concludes as we close in on our goal of establishing a $1 million endowment, as Betsy shared in her communication.  This achievement, made possible by our generous and loyal donors, includes $250,000 awarded in scholarships to nine high achieving women during their four years at a women’s college.


On behalf of the Board and all our members, we thank Betsy for her vision, tireless leadership and commitment to our mission as we reach this milestone. Through my involvement with TSI since its founding, I was excited to return to the board last January and celebrate these achievements and continued progress.


As TSI embarks on its second decade, we have established significant goals to increase our level of impact. It is estimated only 1% of female high school graduates consider a women’s college education.  


During the past few years, due to the current environment, the number of applicants to women’s colleges has increased. There is no better time for TSI to help lead this movement. 


To that end, we have spent the last few months working on a strategic plan with three areas of focus: 

  • Increasing the number of scholarships
  • Expanding our donor base
  • Raising awareness of the benefits of a women’s college education


The Board has approved the following initiatives to support these goals: 

  • Refresh our website and increase our social media presence
  • Form partnerships with like-minded organizations
  • Broaden our outreach to women’s colleges
  • Strengthen further our connection to supporters


We believe these initiatives will ensure TSI’s future growth, and most importantly, will help preserve a vital choice – for every young woman to further her education at a women’s college if she so chooses.  


As we build on the outstanding foundation established to date, we welcome your ideas and encourage your involvement as we work together to achieve our strategic goals.  In the coming months we will keep you informed; in the meantime, please feel free to contact me at or 571-352-5911.  

Becca Peterson

The Sunflower Initiative


It is an ongoing theme in The Sunflower Initiative’s newsletter to articulate the lifelong impact of a women’s college experience.  The value of that experience is often best defined in lives of women we have known.  Carolyn Bell beautifully captures such a life in writing of her friend and colleague, Helen McGehee.  



Women We Have Known:



A Remembrance of Helen McGehee


by Carolyn Wilkerson Bell, R-MWC 1965

Helen McGehee at the Celebration of Women’s Colleges and Homecoming, Sept. 2006

The first time I saw Helen McGehee, I did not know who she was, did not know she had been a principal dancer with the Martha Graham company.   But I could see that there was something unusual about the way this striking woman moved along Rivermont Avenue. 


Walking her dog across from the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College gate, she bore herself regally:  back straight, shoulders erect but relaxed, gaze direct, graying hair pulled severely off her forehead into a firmly anchored bun.   Confident, glamorous, and–even from across the Avenue, where I stood–intimidating.


In time, my husband and I became friends with Helen and her husband, Umaña, a painter and sculptor.  In 1978 the couple had moved from New York City to Lynchburg, where Helen grew up.  They bought a house in the college neighborhood.  


There, until Umaña’s death in 1994, they kept the pattern of their New York life:  studio work until mid-afternoon, then time for friends to drop by for tea and toast with ginger honey–or perhaps for a glass of wine and then dinner, prepared by Helen with apparent effortlessness, her cooking a simple, elegant version of traditional French cuisine. 


 A dinner party at Helen and Umaña’s was in all ways an aesthetic experience, from drinks in the intimate library, to stylish courses and perfectly chosen wine at the round table in the dining room, to demitasse in the living room, its lumpy antique sofa upholstered in red silk. 


Umaña’s paintings covered the walls; his sculptures filled corners and doorways and tabletops.  Conversation was animated. Especially on political topics, Helen could, and increasingly did, express herself with ferocity as electrifying as her performances on stage had been.

Helen McGehee (R) as Medea in a 1964 production of “Cave of the Heart,” with Robert Cohan as Jason.  Photo from the Library of Congress’ Martha Graham Resources collection.  Used by permission.

For decades after she retired from performing, Helen maintained a dancer’s discipline.  In Lynchburg she practiced technique every morning in her attic studio, using a ladder as her ballet barre.  She taught in the Visiting Artists program she had established at R-MWC, demonstrating in her classes that her international reputation as a fearless performer and fear-inspiring teacher had been well and truly earned.  


Of her students in the Graham technique of modern dance she demanded no more discipline and commitment than she expected of herself, bringing to R-MWC dancers of the 1960s, 70s and 80s the lofty standards of her own legendary teachers:  Eleanor Struppa in dance, Herbert Lipscomb in Latin, and Mabel Kate Whiteside in Greek.   


As a Randolph-Macon Woman’s College graduate, Helen knew what it meant for a woman to learn unimpeded by gendered social expectations.  She knew how it felt to experience fully her own intellect and power and strength.  She brought that knowledge to the painful controversy over coeducation at R-MWC, which she fervently opposed and never forgave.  


Now, in these pandemic days, traffic on Rivermont Avenue is light, the sidewalks empty—no pairs of pedestrians in conversation, no students out for a morning run.  But there, still, is Helen, walking her dog across from the college gate. 


As ever, she seems taller than she is.  Back straight, face forward, expressive hands on her dog’s leash, she owns the space she so vividly occupies, her fierce and intelligent movement drawing the eye, filling the memory, piercing the heart. 

“After all, we are R-MWC, and we do not intend to go quietly into the night.”   Helen McGehee and others at the “R-MWC Now and Forever” rally, Dec. 2006.
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