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
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
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.