Sue Joan Mendelson Freeman joined the Department of Education and Child Study at Smith in 1974. Always ahead of her time, she wore black nail polish for her interview with Larry Fink and Ray Ducharme even though she wasn’t sure it would sit well with these august senior men. Apparently it did.
Sue had completed her B.S. in psychology at Rutgers University where she graduated cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She completed her PhD in Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison just before arriving at Smith.
The consistent themes in her teaching, research and considerable service (to Smith and to her profession) have been moral development, leadership, the advancement of women and the integration of work, family and social values.
I remember hearing her talk about her work in the nascent Project on Women and Social Change in 1978 when she discussed the unacknowledged gender bias in Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, based in large measure on Piaget’s work. This was several years before Carol Gilligan started to publish her work on Kohlberg that argued that the use of privileged, white male subjects limited his claims to a theory of universal stages of moral development.
Sue was one of the original members of the Project on Women and Social Change and she was also one of the first faculty members in 1981 who volunteered to advise students who wanted to design a major in women’s studies; her name appears with the first mention of women’s studies in the catalogue in 1982.
Sue has received numerous grants to support her research on moral reasoning, education and women’s leadership. I want to mention two of her most cited publications, her 1990 book called Managing Lives: Corporate Women and Social Change, published by the University of Massachusetts Press, and a volume on power and leadership that she co-edited with Susie Bourque and Chris Shelton and to which she made several important contributions: Women on Power: Leadership Redefined, published by Northeastern University Press in 2001.
Several of Sue’s friends and colleagues told me that what they appreciate most is Sue’s ability to listen, to give sound advice. In addition to her work in the education department and on numerous college committees (Faculty Council, Committee on Mission and Priorities, Tenure & Promotion), Sue has spoken to many Smith alumnae groups, has served her profession and has managed to have a successful private practice in Northampton since 1977. One of her colleagues said Sue’s love for her children has been the “central and defining passion of her life.” Even though her son Owen has graduated from Amherst College and works as a financial planner and her daughter Emily graduated from Barnard in psychology, married a year ago and lives in Santa Barbara, the family answering machine still says “This is the home of Sue, Evan, Owen and Emily.”
Another friend pointed out that Sue had the good sense to marry a man who is a good cook and who wanted to play a major role in raising children. Sue and Evan also have been wise enough in recent years to spend the worst of the winter in Key West and the best of the summer at their home on a lake in Goshen. Sue’s devotion to her family has been extended in recent years to include Amber, a somewhat gangly and loveable dog who follows Sue and Evan to Key West each winter and to a local dog park every day where the two-legged and four-legged visitors all know each other.
Perhaps the most telling story about Sue’s teaching is the request she made to Rosetta Cohen and Susan Etheredge about how to mark her retirement. The greatest gift, she said, would be to have news from her former students; she composed a letter to former students that Susan sent out in the fall. Here is an excerpt:
I did not go to Smith. In my early years students often asked me if I did, and I demurely replied, “No,” without revealing my public school undergraduate roots. . . My claim to fame was that I attended the same high school as Philip Roth. In retrospect I realize that several of my high school teachers had advanced degrees, even a few doctorates, and most were quite intellectual and devoted to us. It was a happy place for me.
Coming to Smith was an eye opener. I had no idea what I had been missing. . . Everything was different here. I was learning so much about selective liberal arts, residential colleges. I learned about the students, my colleagues, a faculty-governed institution, and much valued alumnae. From my perspective, alumnae have been the reward. The work of scholarship, teaching and research, has its ups and downs. . . but when meeting with alumnae I was invariably reminded of why we do what we do at Smith. It was so gratifying to see students now further along in the world, grappling with work and life, contributing to the world in unpredictable ways. More than ever I saw how Smith students matured into even more interesting, engaged, committed women making a difference.
When contemplating what I wanted as a marker of my retirement. . . I soon realized that what I wanted most was contact with Smith alumnae. I knew that a gathering in the flesh was unrealistic. However, thanks to technology I could hear from alumnae without having to fuss about schedule or travel.
I am asking for a gift from you, but not in the usual sense. The gift is you and your news. I always turn to the ‘news of the classes’ first in the Alumnae Quarterly. I want to know how you are, where you are in life, what you are doing, your thoughts and feelings, how you are faring. I have invariably learned from Smith alumnae. I continue to be your student and look forward to learning once again from you. I thank you for this and all that has come before.
Susan Etheredge says they have received about 50 thoughtful responses from former students that will be bound together in a book to be presented to Sue at a departmental celebration at the end of May. Let’s raise a glass to Sue to honor her achievements, to honor her love for her students and her family and to honor the example of a caring, integrated life that she has given to all of us.