Emory Report
September 17, 2007
Volume 60, Number 4

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September 17, 2007
Pioneering women tell stories of personal and professional growth

By Stacey Jones

It isn’t officially the “Year of Women” at Emory, but you couldn’t tell at the ninth annual Telling Our Stories, sponsored by the Center for Women at Emory. Featured speakers Delores Aldridge, Eleanor Main and Nanette Wenger, along with moderator Lisa Tedesco, were by turns pensive, captivating and humorous in regaling a rapt audience with stories both personal and professional.

Emilia Navarro, professor emerita of Spanish and Portuguese, was ill and unable to serve as the fourth storyteller. Her presence was surely missed by her colleagues, who along with her were among the pioneering women arriving at Emory in the late 1960s and early ’70s as Emory opened its doors more fully to women faculty.

According to Main, a trained political scientist and director of the Division of Educational Studies, the number of women staff and faculty was so small in the ’70s that they met regularly and fit in one small room. However, these women, who called themselves the Women’s Caucus, formed the precursors to what are now the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and the Center for Women at Emory, celebrating their 30th and 50th anniversaries this year, respectively.

Telling Our Stories was held on Sept. 11 this year, the sixth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks in which Aldridge lost her sister Jackie, she told the stunned audience at the beginning of the program. Now Grace Towns Hamilton Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, Aldridge grew up with Jackie and two other siblings in Ybor City, a part of Tampa, Fla., famous for its expatriate Cuban cigar makers. In the segregated world of her time, Aldridge was buoyed by family and community. “No one ever led me to believe that I couldn’t be anything I wanted,” she said. She decided she wanted her life’s work to be in an area in which she could be “scholar-activist.”

Similarly, although women medical students were in the sixth year of a decade-long probation mandated by Harvard Medical School and forbidden to live in on-campus residences when she first arrived, it never occurred to Wenger that she couldn’t be a doctor. Her father’s sister was a surgeon, and cardiology appealed to Wenger because it was at the cutting edge of medicine’s discovery of its potential to be a “science rather than an art,” she said. Wenger, professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology, remembers first asking the question as a young doctor, “Do we have data about disease in women?”

Before then, doctors practiced on women what Wenger called “bikini medicine,” concerned with only their breasts and reproductive systems. “The middle-aged white man was the model for disease,” she said. The question she formed has turned out to be the nexus of her nearly half-century of medical practice.

Main grew up the child of working-class parents in Queens, N.Y., and attended Hunter College, where she found herself struck by the stark transition between school and home. After graduating, she applied to Duke University, which didn’t offer fellowships or assistantships to women graduate students in the first year because, she recalls administrators saying, women tended to leave after only a year there. Instead, she went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where graduate fellowships were not restricted by gender and became the second woman to get a Ph.D. there.

Tedesco, dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate school academic affairs, talked about the power of mentors and asked the women about the role of mentors in their careers. All three had strong male mentors and the support of the other women at Emory. Wenger said she was lucky to find male leaders who “examined excellence and accomplishments rather than gender.” Despite the presence of these enlightened men, the road wasn’t easy for any of the women. Wenger says that’s why she makes a point of mentoring young women. “Once women are in leadership positions,” she said, “we assume a responsibility to mentor and to lead by example.”

When Tedesco asked the storytellers what they would have done differently, she prefaced it by saying that she would herself have “slept more.” Aldridge said she would have done the things she’s done “harder and do more of them.” Wenger said she would have studied more outside of her chosen discipline and admitted a fascination with books on constitutional law. Main wouldn’t have earned her Ph.D. three years after graduating from college. “I really believed them on the first day of graduate school when they said you only have three years support,” she added to much laughter.

All three women admitted to lives outside of work rich with volunteerism and work on behalf of the community. Main was a figure in local politics and Aldridge and Wenger’s efforts to volunteer, despite their busy professional lives, inspired their children to do the same.

As Emory faculty, the accomplishments of Main, Aldridge and Wenger are too numerous to mention. Tedesco, who has more than a few laurels herself, conceded that more sleep might just have to wait. “My time at Emory compared to yours has been short,” she told her colleagues at the evening’s end. “While here, I certainly hope that I will be working to hold your work in trust.”