May 2012

Against the Tide

Alumnae reflect on the risks and rewards of going their own way.

Interviews by Priya Ratneshwar

Illustration by MHJ @istock.com

Illustration by MHJ @istock.com

Emblazoned on a wall of Bryn Mawr’s Neuberger Campus Center are famous words of advice by Katharine Hepburn ’28: “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” As today’s students learn this quintessential Mawrter value of living life on one’s own terms, generations of alumnae have been exemplifying it. Less well-known may be Hepburn’s statement, from her 1985 College Centennial Convocation address: “You can’t have it all. You have to make choices—win here, lose there.” We asked a handful of Mawrters, representing a variety of ages, experiences, and backgrounds, about the choices they had to make in an instance of their lives where the right path was most definitely not the easiest. What did they risk? What did they gain? How did they struggle? And who or what helped them along the way?

Grace Lee Boggs, Ph.D. ’40

Grace Lee Boggs is a first-generation Chinese American who crossed race and class barriers to become a central figure in the major social movements of the past century, including civil rights, women’s rights, and workers’ rights. In recent years, she’s been leading efforts to revitalize her longtime home of Detroit as well as other urban communities across the nation. Here, she describes the experience that inspired her commitment to the “philosophic activism” that has shaped her life’s work and is the subject of her new book, The Next American Revolution.

Turning Point

I was at Barnard College during the Great Depression. Most of my friends became activists in one form or another, but they were looking at the Depression in terms of very elementary and material issues. That’s when I decided to drop all my classes and audit only philosophy classes. If you had asked me what philosophy was all about at the time, I would not have been able to tell you. But somehow it struck me that I had to examine my values.

People said, “What good is philosophy going to do you?” My philosophy professors at Barnard College thought I must be crazy to think about questions like this; they were a little worried I was going to commit suicide. But it was the turning point, actually, when I realized that in crises one has to think more profoundly about the meaning of life.

Major Influences

Grace Lee Boggs, Ph.D. 40. Photo by Quyen Tran, courtesy of LeeLee Films

Grace Lee Boggs, Ph.D. 40. Photo by Quyen Tran, courtesy of LeeLee Films

It was at Bryn Mawr in 1935 in the philosophy department that [Professor] Paul Weiss introduced me to the philosophy of Hegel and the idea of progress taking place, not like a shot out of a pistol, but through labor, patience, and suffering the negative.

Also, one of the very fortunate things that happened in my life was that in 1953 I came to Detroit and married James Boggs. He was born in a little town in Alabama that had more pigs than people, but he was imbued with a kind of folklore that enabled blacks in the South to survive—that you can always make a way out of no way. Jimmy saw himself historically as having been part of the agricultural age in the sense of picking cotton, then of the industrial age in working at Chrysler on the auto line, and then experiencing the new age that’s been making labor and jobs expendable. He was always able to ask, “Of what use are we?”

And my good friend Frances Paine, who was featured in [the documentary] Women of Summer, was a fabulous organizer with very little schooling. She showed me it’s just amazing what people can do, and what women in particular can do.

Advice For The Next Generation

I would tell them that their questions of who they are, of what this country is all about, of what’s happening in the world, are really part of maturing and breaking with some of the very materialistic and militaristic values of our society. They can see this period as an opportunity not only to demand the recognition of human identity but also to create that identity. Most people look at a crisis mainly as danger, and they look for help, usually from the authorities. They should look at crisis as an opportunity for growth.

Martha Bridge Denckla ’58

Martha Bridge Denckla ’58.

Martha Bridge Denckla ’58.

Trained at Harvard Medical School by pioneering neurologist Norman Geschwind, Martha Bridge Denckla was connecting neurology to child psychology years before modern neuroimaging garnered wide acceptance for such ideas. In the 1970s, she developed the Rapid Automatized Naming Test and the Neurological Evaluation for Subtle Signs, which use neurobiological markers to assess, respectively, verbal skills and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. These tests have become widely incorporated in clinical practice as technology like functional magnetic resonance imaging has confirmed their importance. Denckla, who is currently a professor of neurology, pediatrics, and psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, talks about what motivated her dedication to conduct research “outside the box.”

 Leap Of Faith

There’s an old saying by Louis Pasteur that goes, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” When I started my first job at Columbia, I thought I was going to be working with adults who had strokes or dementia. Instead I was asked—asked forcefully, I should say—to come every Wednesday to the child neurology clinic and see every child who was not talking on time or not reading as expected. They said, “We know all about children’s development except when it comes to these things that people call ‘psychology.’”

Out of my profound lack of training came a lot of the research that I jumped into. For example, I would try to examine language functions in children consistent with what I understood from wiring diagrams of the adult brain. I calculated with a statistician how many kids I needed to study to start publishing papers. I would present myself to schools and say, “Look, I want to do this research project.” And I literally did everything myself. I devised the experiments, made up the data sheets, examined all the children, and analyzed the data in these huge, old-fashioned computers.

Eventually, I had lots and lots of people counting on me to evaluate and explain their children to them, and this clinical experience helped me see repeated patterns. So while my parent discipline of neurology regarded me as, I’ll put it kindly, overly specialized, I had faith that what I call the “fourth dimension,” the development of the brain, could be made sense of through research.

Challenges

In 1977, I submitted what’s become a foundational paper called “Anomalies of Motor Development in Hyperactive Boys.” I got a rejection by mail; the editor said, “Nobody’s interested in this.” Of course I did the Eleanor Roosevelt thing; I went into the bathroom and screamed. But after I got that off my chest, I sat down, and I wrote a letter to him saying, “Could you please send me some references that have documented findings similar to mine?” He suddenly did a turnaround and decided he would publish the paper.

Advice For Young Scholars

I say to the young researchers whom I mentor, it’s fine to be brilliant but you’ve got to have tenacity and a thick skin. If you have ideas that you want to pursue, even if they’re not the most popular, hang in there, have confidence in yourself, and train others, and you’re going to have the gratification of seeing the maturation of your work.

Frances K. Conley ’62

Frances K. Conley ’62.

Frances K. Conley ’62.

In 1966, Frances K. Conley became the first woman to pursue a surgical internship at Stanford University Hospital, and in 1982 she was the first woman to become a tenured full professor of neurosurgery at a U.S. medical school. Establishing her decades-long, distinguished career at Stanford University School of Medicine in an area that is still overwhelmingly male required what she calls an “all-consuming” commitment to her work. Yet, in 1991, she announced her resignation from the Stanford faculty to protest against sexist attitudes in the workplace. Conley discusses the headline-making stand  that prompted Stanford to reevaluate its policies dealing with sexism in the workplace.

Taking A Stand

The program director in the department of neurosurgery was going to quit, and the dean’s choice for the new chair was a very good neurosurgeon, but despicable in terms of the way he treated women. I told the dean, “I’m going to quit; I’m going to quit a tenured full professorship.” That’s something you just don’t do in academics. I also made my point in an op-ed piece that went all over, including the New York Times.

I was quitting because this guy was not the kind of person you’d want to put into a position of power and authority because the guys coming up behind him—and I say “guys” with meaning, they were all men—want to be chair of a department at some point. They will copy the behavior of the chair.

[Stanford] instituted an investigation into my allegations. They interviewed nurses and lots of people, and they found out lots of horror stories. He eventually was deemed not to be appropriate for the position. So I came back. I’m not sure they wanted that, either.

Major Influences

I have three siblings, two sisters and a brother, and I think position in family made a difference. I wasn’t the first, I wasn’t the last, and I wasn’t the boy, and I think I had to really strive to get my parental attention. But I must say that both my folks were very encouraging along the way when I told them I wanted to go to medical school.

Challenges

I think the biggest one was that the person I challenged did have good friends, and they became very antagonistic towards me. They were not dear friends and weren’t people I ever buddy-buddied up to, but they were people I admired or at least respected. They did not really understand where I was coming from. I mean the behavior that this guy exhibited was normative behavior. Many of them were just as guilty as he was, and I kind of think they all started looking over their shoulders to see who was going to pounce on them for their particular behaviors. That was hard. But I knew where I was standing; I knew what I was talking about.

Zeba Rasmussen ’76

Zeba Rasumssen ’76

Zeba Rasumssen ’76

In 1988, seven years after graduating from Harvard Medical School and two years after working at the renowned Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, Zeba Rasmussen decided to take her career on a dramatically different trajectory to the region of Gilgit-Baltistan in the remote Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan. The area, which had just one female doctor and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, is still plagued by natural disasters and sectarian conflict. There, she and her husband, Stephen Rasmussen, spearheaded numerous community-based initiatives over the next two decades, including primary health-care services, a microbiology facility to study infectious diseases, a Montessori school, and a center for children with disabilities. Now working as an independent researcher with the National Institutes of Health, Rasmussen reflects on her decision to veer far off the beaten path.

Once In A Lifetime

I loved being in Karachi, and I loved the Aga Khan University, but working there wasn’t all that different from my experience at Harvard because a lot of the students we were training wanted to go to the United States. I really wanted to be building up capacity [in Pakistan]. At that point my husband got the opportunity to go to Gilgit-Baltistan to run a community health-based program there. That opportunity was once in a lifetime for both of us because we had the chance to change the health status of this remote population.

I did get a lot of, “Are you sure you want to do this?” If you think about what’s important in academic medicine, it’s where you’ve been a professor, how many articles you’ve written, how many journals you’re on the editorial boards of. When you’re building up people in nontraditional ways, I don’t think it’s understood quite as much as conventional modes of success.

Major Influences

My parents are from Pakistan, and I lived in Pakistan from 1970 to 1972, when it was at war with India. It opened my eyes to see suffering and realize how you couldn’t be involved in social change if you were poor, displaced, sick, et cetera. I wanted to go into medicine for that reason.

Also my sister Mehnaz Fatima, after whom we named the school and center that we set up, has a disability. Seeing what it’s done and still does to my mother made me realize that not everybody gets the opportunity to make a difference for kids with disabilities.

And I think the capacity to really be like a zwitterion, as it were, where you have different charges in different parts of you, between the West and Karachi and northern Pakistan, have helped me in terms of building human understanding and capacity.

Lasting Impact

One thing that was enormously satisfying is, no matter what you did, you saw the results very quickly. In one village where I did research, the infant mortality [toll] during the first year of my work was 165. We implemented a program with community health workers, and the next year it was less than 90.

It’s also been amazing to see how people can grow and change if given the opportunity. The first local teacher we sent for Montessori training is now doing early childhood education in Toronto. We’ve also developed local staff who have gone on to senior positions not only in Gilgit-Baltistan but in other organizations like Save the Children U.S.A. in Pakistan, the World Health Organization, and the Aga Khan Foundation. I feel really fortunate that I’ve had a chance to be a part of this.

Willa Seldon ’82

After stints in mergers and acquisitions, corporate development, and venture capital, Willa Seldon ’82 shifted gears in 2007 to become executive director of the Tides Center, an organization that provides infrastructure services for nonprofit projects. At the time, the wall between the corporate and nonprofit sectors was rarely breached. Seldon, however, began building a new career that would allow her to employ her business skills in service of non-profit missions.

Willa Seldon ’82

Willa Seldon ’82

Last year, the Bryn Mawr trustee became a partner at the Bridgespan Group, a consultancy for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists. She discusses the motivation behind her unconventional change in direction.

Shifting Gears

I had just finished up an entrepreneurial venture during a very difficult time for the economy. I wanted to begin doing other work that I could map more clearly to really positive outcomes for the world. At the time I also adopted a daughter, and I felt that I really didn’t have it in my DNA to be a stay-at-home mom. I have no judgment about that for other people, but for me that wasn’t the right path. So in some sense, I also wanted to feel that the work I was doing away from home was something that was making a positive impact, not from 10 percent of my work but basically in every contribution I was making.

Challenges

I deliberately chose a nonprofit environment where I felt that my business skills would actually be useful, but it was very challenging. The organizations [supported by the Tides Center] were really struggling financially at the time. And Tides was especially struggling with the kind of quality it was delivering.

There are also cultural differences that are very, very significant between business and nonprofit. There are times when you have to make choices that are not financially expedient. Things also take a lot longer, and for people coming out of business, that’s not always comfortable. And you have to think in the long term about being able to really make an impact.

But now I think I’m much more willing to see the broad variety of skills that people bring and to look deeply at contributions that may not necessarily be apparent, but may be quite critical organizationally. I think I’m also more patient with people and more patient with process, without question.

Advice For Career-Transitioners

There’s a book called The First 90 Days that I often recommend to people when they’re starting something new—whether a new job or a new position in an organization. A lot of the advice in that book talks about how, in that first period, you come in with a learning agenda but also showing that you can add value relatively soon. You also have to have patience with yourself. It’s really hard making these transitions, and it’s important to go in with eyes wide open, and with the enthusiasm of someone who’s embarking on a new journey.

Beth Stroud ’91

Beth Stroud ’91. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski.

Beth Stroud ’91. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski.

In 2003, former minister Beth Stroud made headlines when she “came out” in a sermon at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. Although her congregation was overwhelmingly supportive, the United Methodist Church was uncompromising in its judgment that she had violated the church’s rule against the ordination and appointment of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” She was defrocked and her appeals to be reinstated were denied. Despite these consequences, Stroud says she has always been “very clear and positive” about her decision to come out publicly. Currently a Ph.D. student in American religious history at Princeton, she reflects on this life-defining moment.

Truth-Telling

The more I thought about coming out, the more I realized that the right place to do that kind of truth-telling was in the context of my congregation, where I had been serving for a couple of years and had been a member and volunteered when I was in college. And it was a congregation that had really done its work around the diversity of human sexuality. I was part of a community that was prepared to take a stand, and I was in a position to take a stand that would be meaningful and even helpful, I think, to us all.

The denominational law on homosexuality is, unfortunately, pretty blunt and pretty clear, and I have to say that I never really felt like a very promising test case to challenge the law. Of course, the outcome of losing my credentials caused a lot of pain and hurt and anger for me and for the congregation. But being able to tell the truth and speak openly about who I was with these people was just incredibly healing and life-giving, and it was the right moment for it.

Challenges

I miss being a pastor every single day. When I started in ministry, I had no idea how much I was going to love the job. I had no idea about the experience of visiting people in the hospital when they were sick and praying with them, and having long-term relationships with kids and seeing them grow and develop. So it was very difficult to risk giving that up.

I also had not anticipated how much I would be in the public eye, so that was hard—just the vulnerability of experiencing that kind of attention. The positive as well as the negative attention also made it difficult to do my everyday job.

But it’s hard to have any regrets when I imagine what my life would look like now if I hadn’t made that decision. I probably would still be serving congregations, and that would be wonderful. But I’d be hiding a part of who I am. I’d be in a position where it would be very difficult to have a family and raise children. I don’t for a minute think that I would be happy with myself or happy with the way that my life was taking shape.

Lasting Impact

It was definitely a career-defining move; I really had to find a different direction for my passions. And there’s a privacy about my personal life that I’ve given up. Also, the experience has had a permanent impact on how I deal with conflict. I felt that I was genuinely able to live through the trial process without demonizing anybody on the other side and remember that we were all human beings doing
our best.

Steph Herold ’09

Steph Herold ’09. Photo by Darrin Weathersby,

Steph Herold ’09. Photo by Darrin Weathersby,

During her freshman year at Bryn Mawr, Steph Herold began working at the Women’s Medical Fund in Philadelphia as an access counselor, providing women loans so they could afford safe abortion services. The experience, she says, transformed her from being “pro-choice in theory” to an ardent abortion-rights activist who has worked in direct-service abortion care and reproductive-health advocacy. In addition to pursuing her master’s degree in public health at Columbia, Herold is now taking on the issue of “abortion stigma.” She discusses her commitment to this area of activism, even when it sometimes puts her at odds with her allies.

The Call-Out

As a counselor at an abortion clinic in Philadelphia, I’d hear patients talk every day about how they felt everyone was going to judge them for being bad mothers or bad people because they were having an abortion. Despite our good intentions, the pro-choice movement itself has a hand in making women feel bad about themselves when we’re trying to help them through a health-care decision. For example, when you hear Planned Parenthood emphasize that only 3 percent of their services are for abortion, you know that they’re trying to say, “We’re more than just an abortion provider.” But in doing so, they’re distancing themselves from abortion, implying that abortion is somehow wrong and dirty, and therefore only a tiny percentage of their services should be abortion provision.

I think it’s important to push the pro-choice movement into a reproductive-justice framework when we fight for the right of people to access abortion, and I’ve publicly called out members of different organizations in blog posts for perpetuating stigma. I had this interesting Twitter dialogue with Nick Kristof about an article he wrote for the New York Times where he said abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” I told him safe and legal is great, but that rare isn’t the point. Some allies are uncomfortable with this framing.

Challenges

I think it’s always hard to try to call out your allies because the question of intent and impact comes into play. But at the same time, I also want to fight for this movement to be as good as it can be, especially for the women whose rights we’re fighting for.

When you’re critiquing someone else, whether it’s something they said or their activist work, it’s very easy for them to think that what you’re saying means they’re a bad activist or not quote really pro-choice, and then they don’t want to work with you or have your voice at the table. But we’re all in this movement to make abortion, adoption, and childbirth accessible and affordable for the people who need those services. In the end I think it’s refreshing for people to hear that you’re allowed to disagree with each other on strategy, tactics, messaging, and more, and that doesn’t make you any less pro-choice.

Major Influences

There are a few women who are my role models in the reproductive-justice world: Loretta Ross, national coordinator of the SisterSong Collective in Atlanta; Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women; and Toni Bond Leonard, who used to run Black Women for Reproductive Justice in Chicago and was also the executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund. They’ve been unafraid to criticize the movement when it needed criticizing and uplift it when it needed to be pushed forward. That they’ve been able to do their work for so long while staying true to themselves and their values and while taking risks is really inspiring.

Comments on “Against the Tide”

  1. As always it is a joy to read my esteemed Granddaughter’s comments.
    How fortunate and proud are we to see her carrying on in her vital pursuits
    for women.

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