Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Winter 2007–08
With the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, a great deal of attention is focused on issues of gender and leadership. But equally interesting is the intersection of gender and generation, a potent combination if you look at prominent women on the American stage today.
Heading many of our most powerful institutions and corporations and shaping our arts and culture are a number of women who began their postcollege lives in the 1960s and the 1970s:
These women shared a formative historical moment. They came of age, as I did, at a time of social activism, in which college students played pivotal roles. They experienced the civil rights movement and the movement to end the war in Vietnam. They were the first generation with the opportunity to join the Peace Corps. As young adults, they felt that they could have a powerful voice in shaping history.
Those of us who entered the working world in this period also belonged to the first generation of women to realize the benefits of the feminist movement. When we left college, we had greater access to the graduate and professional degrees that our intended careers required. Between 1965 and 1975 the number of women in law school increased from 2,500 to 27,000. In 1962, fewer than 300 women received MBAs; twenty years later, female MBAs numbered 17,000. In 1963, only 991 women were awarded PhDs; by 1983, that number had increased tenfold.
Degrees and credentials in hand, educated women in the '60s and '70s entered a professional workplace whose gender composition was changing rapidly. Even as they disavowed labels—a woman writer, a female law partner—they knew themselves to be members of a new cohort.
Within a decade—roughly from 1970 to 1980—women's expectations about the role of work in their lives evolved dramatically. They—we—were the audience for Gloria Steinem '56's Ms., the purchasers of the dozens of re-printings of The Feminine Mystique that followed its publication in 1963. "It changed my life," Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen [Barnard '70] writes in the introduction to the most recent edition of the book. “I am far from alone in this.”
Many of today's women leaders—far more than one would expect from simple proportionate representation—are graduates of women's colleges, and of the Seven Sisters in particular. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the students at the nation's leading women's colleges experienced a heady mix of an institutional philosophy that gave exclusive emphasis to women's aspirations and potential and a historical moment at which opportunities for women were expanding. It provided a unique crucible for women's leadership.
The world our women's college alumnae are creating—whether as CEOs, university presidents, acclaimed authors and playwrights, Cabinet members, members of Congress, and, possibly, as president of the United States—is the world for which we, today, are preparing their daughters. It is a world far more welcoming to women leaders than that of the 1970s—and yet one in which, as a 2007 Catalyst study found, gender stereotyping in corporate workplaces continues to foster the mindset that the default image of a leader is the image of a man.
During Family Weekend 2007, three pairs of mothers and daughters reflected on the paths of women's lives in relationship to a women's college education. Chilton Davis Varner '65, a senior partner at an international law firm, was joined by her daughter Ashley (Bryn Mawr '94, Smith MSW '99), an oncology social worker at Johns Hopkins University. At the conclusion of a rich discussion that ranged from topics of friendship and family to ambition, independence and self-reflection, a parent of a current student asked the panel for advice. How, she said, could she best convince a doubting grandparent about the relevance of a women's college education today. Chilton's response, echoed by Ashley, was unhesitating: "Anyone who thinks that women have fought and won all the battles to have equal access and equal opportunity is just mistaken," she said. "A Smith education will make your daughter, her granddaughter, so much more competent and confident, more inquisitive for all that life can offer her and all that she can be."
"And I still feel that," she emphasized, "after forty years."