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November 18, 2002

A decade's journey

Ali Crown is director of Emory Women's Center

Four or so years ago, then-Provost Rebecca Chopp spoke to the advisory board of the Women’s Center, and she told a tale about us. She recalled that I’d been appointed director of the Women’s Center at about the same time she became director of graduate studies in the Institute for Women’s Studies. The year was 1992, Rebecca said, and neither of us knew what we were getting into.

I had indeed set out on a new path—however, it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. It kept me connected to Emory and continuing in the direction I had chosen three decades earlier when I first embraced the women’s movement. Now, 10 years later, what I’m most sure of is that on this journey I’ve become more authentically myself than I ever was before.

That shouldn’t be surprising; transformation is at the heart of Women’s Center activity. I’m not talking about the institutional or cultural change for which we advocate and which tends to come more slowly. I’m referring to the kind of surprise encounters with oneself and others that result in insight and learning. It’s those moments, when we see something more clearly than before, that allow us to understand our world a little differently.

These transformational encounters can happen during Women’s Center events and programs, most of which are intended to be learning experiences outside the traditional classroom. They’re reported not only by those involved with our programs at Emory; they are validated by women’s center directors at other campuses. It’s one of the ways we benchmark our activities. It’s also one of the joys of our work.

This kind of transformational encounter frequently occurs, for example, at the center’s “Telling Our Stories” event. Allow me to explain: Through my friendships and my work, I’ve been privy to the stories of many women. These tidings can take the form of adventures, accomplishments, confessions or tales of pleasure or woe. They’re about life events and the experiences that mold women’s lives. I rarely come away from one of these encounters without wonder and knowledge.

So it occurred to me that women’s stories need to be shared. This was certainly no great revelation; women’s knowledge of themselves has long been regarded as authentic knowledge. In fact, John Stuart Mill prophetically commented that no understanding of women would ever be possible until women themselves began to tell what they know.

It required a certain amount of creative thought to come up with the perfect format for women’s stories to be heard, as well as a way to get the program off the ground. In 1999 we invited two very visible women to be our first storytellers: Chopp and Presidential Distinguished Professor (now Emerita) Johnnetta Cole.

The idea followed, more or less organically, that a social evening with a reception and dinner would build community. At the end of dinner our narrators took their places at two comfortable chairs, a table and a lamp between them, much the same as if they were in their own living rooms. Speaking to one another, they shared their stories, and we, the listeners, became eavesdroppers, so to speak, as we learned how they and we are very much alike and yet very different. What transpired in those moments, and in subsequent years with other storytellers, was pure alchemy.

I like the excitement of beginning something unique, like the Women’s Center, which
wasn’t my first new project. My work at Emory began when I brought the programs of the Law and Economics Center here from the University of Miami in 1980. I was a solo act, snugly situated in the law school as I hired staff, oversaw the remodeling of the neighboring house that would become our office, and put into place the center’s interdisciplinary programs as we waited for our faculty and staff to arrive six months later.

I became almost immediately engaged with the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). Its work to report on and create change in the climate for Emory women was very relevant to my own interests and feminist sensibilities. As a newcomer, it was my good fortune to meet many wonderful people who welcomed me to campus. One was Dr. Mary Lynn Morgan, who was secretary to the Board of Trustees. She had been appointed to the board in 1974, the second woman to serve.

Dr. Morgan, one of three women to graduate with the 1943 class at Emory Dental School, had devoted her practice to children, a quarter of whom were disabled. I also discovered, that she was as passionate about the arts and civil rights as she was about her work, and I wanted to learn more about her—to know her better.

As PCSW chair in 1988, I invited Dr. Morgan to speak to us. She generously shared her insights about Emory and her own experiences as a woman who had occupied more than one role that traditionally belonged to men.

Although she’s broken many barriers in her time, Dr. Morgan still doesn’t see herself as particularly unique. From her point of view, she does what’s important to her. When I tell her that she’s been a role model for me and so many others, she’s characteristically surprised, but also pleased.

Move the clock forward. Emory Women’s Center, now well known among its 500 or so sister centers on U.S. campuses, won national distinction from the Eckerd Corp. in 1998. With it came an unrestricted gift, and I saw an opportunity to create a legacy in honor of Dr. Morgan: The annual Mary Lynn Morgan Lecture on Women in the Health Professions, which now highlights the work of women who, like the event’s namesake, have distinguished themselves in their fields.

I’ve been fortunate indeed to get to know the notable women who have thus far delivered four annual lectures. This has been as great a privilege and pleasure as has been my long friendship with Mary Lynn, from whom I continue to learn so much about things that matter, things that transform me.

I’ve had more transforming encounters in this decade than I can record or describe here. But I can tell you this: When I’m joined by my colleagues on the selection committee for our Unsung Heroines Awards to read nominations for so many Emory women doing remarkable deeds, while I’m seeking counsel from the wise women on our advisory board or mulling over a current book selection with our reading group—and at many other times, too—I’m aware of how much reward there is in this work that has become my lifework.
Former President Jim Laney and Provost Billy Frye, when they appointed me director of the Women’s Center, charged me to “shape the organization and the ‘culture’ of the center for years to come.”

If I didn’t know then what I was getting into, I now can locate myself in the truth of the past, not so much in how I’ve done the shaping, but in how much I’m still discovering and being shaped by the journey.