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Smith Women Who Can Do Anything...and Everything

Although Carol Tecla Christ assumed the presidency of Smith College on June 1, 2002, it wasn't until October 19 that she was officially inaugurated as the 10th president. The festive installation ceremony took place in the college's Indoor Track and Tennis Facility before some 4,000 guests. At Christ's request, her inauguration celebrated the wealth of achievements, intellectual life and other unique assets that distinguish Smith.

Six prominent alumnae, representing Smith education over some 50 years, recounted during Inaugural Weekend the ways in which Smith College shaped their public activism. An audience of more than 600 students, their families and friends, Smith alumnae and visiting dignitaries gathered for the sweeping, reflective roundtable discussion, held on a wet Saturday afternoon in October -- one of the many public offerings during the weekend celebration of the installation of President Carol T. Christ.

The alumnae, in order of seniority, were:

Gloria Steinem '56, writer, editor and feminist activist, a founder of Ms. magazine and of the National Women's Political Caucus, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and an inductee into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Molly Ivins '66, best-selling author, columnist and political satirist; former co-editor of the Texas Observer; former Rocky Mountain bureau chief for the New York Times; and frequent guest on network radio and television shows.

Linda Smith Charles '74, deputy director, human resources, Ford Foundation; commissioner with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education; trustee of Marylawn of the Oranges Academy; and a member of Smith's diversity board of counselors.

Julia Erickson '80, executive director of City Harvest, the largest and oldest food rescue program in the world; former associate commissioner for public/private initiatives at the New York City department of employment.

Shirley Sagawa '83, co-founder and principal of a consulting firm that defines and guides the social ventures of corporations and nonprofit institutions; former deputy assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff to the first lady in the Clinton Administration, 1998 to 2001; former managing director of the Corporation for National Service, which includes Americorps.

Katrina Gardner '00, in her second year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Baitadi, Nepal; president of the Student Government Association in her senior year; and a trustee of the college for two years following her graduation.

Sagawa initiated the discussion by asking the women to characterize the attitudes about public service that were prevalent during their undergraduate years.


Molly Ivins '66 described how, during the early 1960s, the notion of public service meant joining the PTA or the garden club. Katrina Gardner '00 (left) had a very different experience. Photo by Jim Gipe.

Public service in the 1950s, Steinem said, meant volunteerism. "I got the idea that [public service] was a frill, not something that was organic to our own lives…it was not attached to profound social change. The big change is that [public service] has become much less an implication of privilege.…It is now clearly attached to all the sex, race and class issues that affect us every day. So it feels like a huge, huge difference."

"Public service was the PTA and the garden club and -- if you were very ambitious -- the park board," quipped Ivins.

When Tom Mendenhall, then president of Smith College, recommended that Ivins, a history major, read some of the letters Smith students had written to one another at the turn of the century (now part of the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith), she realized that these were very impressive women, then and now -- women who thought they could do anything.

"I do think that was an ongoing attitude [at Smith]," Ivins said. "And this is the biggest gift I got from Smith: It wasn't that Smith taught me that women can do anything. Smith taught me to simply assume women can do anything! And as I went forth to conquer the world in 1966, I didn't yet realize what a great gift that [concept] was. It took me a long time -- and I'm still grateful for it."


Linda Smith Charles '74 and Gloria Steinem '56 discussed the unique ways in which their ideals of public service had been shaped during two different decades at Smith. Photo by Jim Gipe.

"By the time I got to Smith," Julia Erickson said, "Betty Friedan's book was out and ‘political' was the watchword of the day. Smith was my community. My act of public service was to be deeply involved with the life of the college. I was active in student government, active in my house, active in the government department as a liaison…I worked on the Project for Women and Social Change …and when I got to New York [after graduation], I wanted to be involved in the life of the community there."

Katrina Gardner, the most recent graduate, recalled her first convocation in John M. Greene Hall. "All four of the speakers that day -- including then-President Ruth Simmons and [former Provost] John Connolly -- told us, "All of you are going to be successful women leaders someday, … and for my generation the question was, ‘how am I going to serve?' There were always leadership positions available to women on campus, so you just expected to be a leader when you got out into the world."

Not surprisingly, this ideal of public service had been reflected in President Carol Christ's inaugural speech delivered earlier in the day.

Smith College, Christ said, "has built its distinctive sense of community through uniting the culture of the New England private college with a socially progressive vision." Smith's hallmark, she said, is that it is "a private college with a public conscience."

 
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