59, Number 5
September 25, 2006
Friends team up to tell their stories
Two longtime friends and colleagues having a chat after dinner—a fairly routine occurrence—becomes a special event when it’s “Telling Our Stories,” the annual program sponsored by the Center for Women that features two prominent Emory women, now in its eighth year.
The conversation by this year’s duo, Rosemary Magee, vice president and secretary of the university, and Ali Crown, director of the Center for Women at Emory, was by turns frank, heartbreaking and humorous, a window into the personal experiences and formative years of two very visible women on campus. Magee and Crown, who have each spent more than 25 years at Emory, sat down to talk in Governor’s Hall at the Miller-Ward Alumni House on Sept. 19 before a capacity crowd.
For Magee, the event gave her an opportunity to indulge in her love of storytelling. “I have always loved stories. My parents and family have shared stories. I’ve studied stories and written stories,” she said. Interested in the voices of women both personally and professionally, this was a “natural convergence for me,” she added.
While Crown has a fascinating story to tell, she was less eager to share it, but only because she felt it “unseemly” that the director of the event’s sponsor would be one of its featured participants. But Magee had specifically asked Crown to be her partner for the evening, and when Crown went to the women’s center board seeking advice, their response was unequivocal: Do it, they told her.
Crown began by asking Magee when she first recalled feeling different because she was a woman. “I think you know that when you’re in the womb,” Magee said to laughter. Raised among strong women and reading stories by women such as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott led Magee to feel different but “special” as a girl.
Conversely, Crown said she did not feel special but marginalized. “My first experience had to do with going to synagogue as a child with my very observant grandmother, sitting in a part of the synagogue where all the women were,” she remembered. “There was lots of curiosity and probably some resentment surrounding that.”
Religion, if not in practice but in theme, became a pursuit for both women. Crown returned to school to earn an undergraduate degree in religion and psychology at Emory after the age of 40 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. “I had a real passion for studying women’s experiences surrounding their spiritual lives—perhaps it harkens back to my childhood experiences,” Crown said.
Magee followed a more traditional path, earning a Ph.D. in literature and religion from the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts in 1982. Magee’s tenure as a teacher, then administrator, coincided with marriage and children.
Crown’s return to the classroom brought into focus the difficulties women face in environments not originally created for or by them. Just before she enrolled full time, Emory relaxed its rule against admitting part-time students in a degree-seeking status. Its previous position had hindered women, who had more often interrupted their post-secondary education due to family or work issues. Eliminating the rule made it easier for staff to graduate from Emory, rather than taking a limited number of courses here and being forced to complete their degrees elsewhere.
Eventually, two date rapes one weekend in 1990 galvanized the Emory community around the need for a campus women’s center. After a national search, Crown was selected to head it. “This has been my lifework,” she said of her tenure. “There have been lots of changes and there’s still lots left to do, and I have energy left for the big work we all have to do.”
Magee’s ascent meant that her work took place in environments less populated by women, moving from assistant dean in Emory College, to planning and raising money for the new arts center, to her present position as the only woman on the president’s cabinet. “A lot of women are natural problem solvers,” she said. “The various challenges I’ve faced throughout my career are really about trying to consider important issues on the campus in new ways. Challenges provide a great opportunity for creativity.”
Both women recognize that Magee’s perch at the pinnacle of Emory’s administration presents its own set of challenges. While she feels it’s an “enormous privilege to be part of the decision-making process at Emory,” Magee also shoulders a strong sense of responsibility, personified by the aspirations she embodies for so many Emory women. When she was first named University secretary, women throughout the campus approached her with congratulations and a sense of hopefulness, she said.
“It’s a huge responsibility you have,” Crown told her. “A lot of us do count on you because you’re a role model for us. But we’re awfully glad that you’re a part of the community of women here and have the awareness you have.”