Viewpoints: Summer 2013 Quarterly
Feedback on “Must I be Uncommon?” Essay
• Thanks to Olivia Lammel for her “My Voice” essay in the spring Quarterly, which brings up an important issue that the MHC community really needs to talk about more. We go on about being “uncommon women” and tell each other to “accomplish great things.” It’s meant to be inspiring, but a little of that stuff goes a long way, frankly. I’d like to propose a moratorium on well-intentioned, high-pressure, “inspirational” language.
It’s sixteen years since I graduated, and I have yet to cure cancer, make millions, or win a Pulitzer. My big achievement so far this year is learning to crochet. Most of the time I am pretty happy with myself and my life. But the mail I get from Mount Holyoke comes with an invisible layer of guilt. I’m not uncommon enough. Not yet.
I have three problems with this.
(1) It’s pointless for MHC women to feel “not good enough.” We are mostly pretty ambitious already. We don’t need to be flogged into greatness. Greatness is in us already, and will come out in its own time. What’s the rush?
(2) It disconnects alumnae from the college, emotionally. No one likes to feel “not good enough.” I don’t send money, I don’t come to reunions,
while I’m feeling bad about my non-world-changing career.
(3) I am not sure that “accomplish great things” is really the point, anyway. I am starting to suspect that the point may be to figure out who you are, and be that person to the best of your ability.
It’s shockingly hard. But I am starting to suspect that it is the only game in town. Being uncommon and doing great things are just side effects.—J’aime Wells ’97
• Olivia’s essay really touched me. I celebrate her resolution to get up each day and try to save the world. I remember that culture where students are nurtured to distinguish themselves in their chosen field. Olivia wonders, “What if she wants to be a parent or a volunteer?” Well, I have long wished the definition of what we, as graduates of a women’s college, call “success” was a kinder, more inclusive one.
After MHC, I went on to get my master’s at Stanford and work a decade in publishing before becoming an at-home Mom. Twenty years later I feel like a success.
I recognize the option of staying home is a luxury, but for those of us who can choose, the decision not to go back to work after having children can still be difficult. Won’t we be letting MHC down?
Yes, I have had my fair share of morning coffees, tennis, mani-pedis. Hard not to feel a pang or two of guilt. But my husband and I have also raised four children: we cleaned, laundered, shopped, cooked, gardened and chauffeured without paid help.
Then there is the additional volunteer work many at-home Moms tackle: long hours spent as class moms, grade chairs, brownie troop leaders; running bake sales, newsletters, choir guilds, book fairs; serving on school boards. This benefits all our children. So over the years I celebrated the many successes noted in the MHC Quarterly, but I took pride in what I was doing also.
I am blessed with friends who share my kinder definition of success. But surely we can all learn to better respect each other’s choices. Every uncommon woman graduating from MHC deserves to know that—in our eyes—whichever path she chooses will lead to success.—Mary Louise Bookis Bond ’81
• As a third-generation MHC alum, I feel your pain! The pressure to perform—to “be” somebody—is great in our culture, and nowhere more so than at a college filled with women of great potential. Your parents, your professors, your peers all have high hopes for you. Given your innate talents, the educational opportunity you’ve had at MHC, and the options you’ll have going out into the world, I would suggest you are already an uncommon woman.
After I read your essay, I scanned the class notes and the article on volunteerism. I notice two things about many of us: our commitment to pursuing a wide range of interests and the degree to which we are involved in our communities. While successful in our own right, MHC alums’ talents are directed at least as much toward improving the lives of others, whether in familial, religious, political, or social arenas, as on our own successes. We are proud members of a public-spirited sisterhood!
Those ominous clouds you see on the horizon are real—upon graduation from MHC you’ll enter an uncertain world. Fear of that unknown of course is a natural reaction, and yet in order to flourish you and your generation must find ways to address the problems of your day—environmental, economic, cultural, religious, spiritual, political, and practical problems. Our economy, our place in the world, our sense of security as a nation [are] all more uncertain than we’ve known since your grandparents’ generation. But it will be people like you who will take the reins and move a generation forward. Many of the skills and talents you’ve refined and expanded at MHC—teamwork, collaboration, creativity, inspiration, personal integrity, hard work—these will all contribute to your ability to succeed and to improve the world you live in. You’ll face problems we don’t know exist yet—and yes, you’ll fail sometimes. The good news, though, is that you’re better prepared than most to do what you must to contribute to the world you inherit.
I won’t be surprised to read of your eventual recognition as a Pulitzer–Prize winning journalist, but I hope also that your life includes an element of community-mindedness, for your own sake as well as for others. There are few accomplishments in life more satisfying than improving the lives of others. Your horizon may appear to be decorated with ominous clouds, but your Mount Holyoke education, like a trusty umbrella, will have prepared you to respond to the inevitable rainy days we all experience. Use it to your best advantage for yourself as well as those around you and you will continue in the footsteps of MHC’s many and varied uncommon women.—Martha MacAuslan ’81
• Dear Olivia, I too was in English composition. Mechanics meant I had little finished writing until computers came on the scene, but I have found other talents of which I was not aware and I believe you are also an uncommon woman, as your other respondents have indicated. Enjoy whatever internship you find but know it’s just a step toward discovering who you are.—Elizabeth Pettus Losa ’55
• Oh, Olivia, we all feel this way sometimes! You have, rightly, been taught that you can be anything you want to be, so pressure to meet that expectation can be overwhelming. Take it as a blessing and think of all the young women who have not received this gift. We all have work to do to change this—that’s your “uncommon woman” responsibility, and you’ll succeed with your gift of eloquent communication. Kudos for admitting anxieties; alongside these doubts will emerge feelings of gratitude and accomplishment. Allow yourself to enjoy victories and to take credit for achievements.
I have spent much of the past twenty-plus (!) years wondering if I have diluted the MHC legacy with my non-fabulousness. Last year, at forty, I quit my horrid yet lucrative corporate job to pursue independent work facilitating global health partnerships. Income is intermittent but so much less important now, and I’ve never been happier.
Ironically, I read your essay as I sit at the World Health Assembly in Geneva as a civilian observer, literally in the midst of “cancer curers and Doctors Without Borders”. I am neither, but I am here, feeding my intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and exercising my voice for a cause so dear to my heart.
I decided in recent years to place myself in intimidating yet inspiring situations to see what emerges and lots of uncommonly great stuff has transpired. You are a gifted communicator, so whatever it is you have to say, shout it out boldly and proudly.—Amanda M. McCoy ’92
• I am class of 1990 and felt just the way you do when I was in college! Since graduating I have worried that I have not lived up to MHC expectations. Although, as many have said here, I think I have done uncommonly well and affected people in uncommonly good ways even if I haven’t made millions, cured cancer, or become an award-winning something or other. I have just embarked on a journey toward becoming a teacher, as I think a Mount Holyoke woman is the type who has the gumption to undertake this sort of thing at age forty-five. MHC wants you to dream big, gives you the skills to make dreams reality, and would not have accepted you if they didn’t know you could do it!—Ann ’90 (via Facebook)
• Olivia, I applaud your thoughtfulness, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: You are already an uncommon woman. Your awareness, drive, and sense of service, while it can feel at times weighty, is a gift you will carry through the rest of your time on campus, and ever after.
As you’ll learn when you walk through the throngs of clapping alums during the Laurel Parade (of which I will one, celebrating my twentieth next year!), we support you and your pursuits, as long as you are true to yourself and try your darndest to get from A to B.
Whether those aspirations and accomplishments include a Nobel Prize, making your first million bucks by thirty, eating ramen every night while writing your butt off (as a journalist for many years, I can tell you deprivation comes with the territory), or exhibiting the phenomenal dedication of a stay-at-home mom, we’ve got your back.
Fulfilling our lives’ purpose(s) is/are like oxygen to uncommon women. We can feel suffocated when our contributions seem commonplace. Do yourself a favor: don’t be too hard on yourself when setbacks come—and they will—they are often the most illuminating of all. And just keep breathing.—Heather Hansen ’94
• Like a parent’s voice in your head, the MHC mandate to be uncommon never leaves you. In truth, you wouldn’t have arrived on campus without an innate drive to be uncommon. In those stretches when your life feels routine, or the guys in the office assume you’ll do the dishes in the sink, it’s bolstering to remember who you are at the core. But that “uncommon” identity can be a little haughty and illusionary, too. Don’t let your sense of purpose or high standards spoil your humility, fool you into thinking you’re “above” doing your time with entry-level assignments at work, or make you scornful of beautifully undramatic things—the reliable parent, the stable and friendly employee with no desire to conquer the world, or the quiet and uncomplaining courage of someone you may otherwise consider common.
P.S. Don’t fret about your future. It’s important to have, say, a three-to-five-year plan, but you’ll find that each step tends to open paths you hadn’t anticipated. Enjoy the journey!—Carol ’84 (via Facebook)
• I am rounding the corner toward my fiftieth reunion, and my daughter graduated from MHC in the ’90s. I have thought a lot about what it means to be “uncommon,” and talked about it with many an alum. Here’s some good news for you. Although most of us will not win a Pulitzer, my wager is that each of us alums holds within many seeds of the uncommon—and yours will sprout in your lifetime.
I am a garden-variety small town psychotherapist—one who has never published anything, or become famous. But I often read poems with my clients, and I listen uncommonly hard. They refer to me their relatives and friends, and return when they need shoring up. I started rollerblading when I was fifty-one. I painted my first painting when I was fifty-eight. I have raised thoughtful and principled kids who are contributing to this world, and who are raising yet another generation to love knowledge and books and the human condition.
Mount Holyoke has settled into your bones, Olivia. Your uncommonness already shows, and it will surprise you many times along the way. No worries, dear. Follow your dreams.—Michaelanne Magrane Rosenzweig ’67
• Olivia, I’m class of ’63 (argh – how did I get so old?) and it was a half-joke at that time that if you wanted a job after graduation from MHC, you had better enroll in Katherine Gibbs and get some secretarial skills. I majored in French and knew I wanted to teach; that lasted for 3 years. Since then, I have had more careers (not jobs, actual careers) than I care to count. They all involved teaching/training/consulting/writing, and I loved all of them. One thing leads to another, and the adage “do what you love and the money will follow” is not totally off base. I love teaching. I am a teaching artist who goes all over the country doing what I love. You should not worry. Do what you do best and you never know where it will take you.—Rayna Gillman ’63
• Sursum corda, Olivia. I had the same misgivings then (I’m now seventy-four). My late mother Luella North (Kemble) was MHC class of 1933 and worked for the College during the 1960s and 70s, earning the Alumnae Medal of Honor for establishing a career development program. She was devoted to MHC, but told me that at the time she worked there she thought the Superwoman thing was being overdone, and that there was too much pressure on rising graduates to right away get a “wonderful, exciting job.” You sound like a serious, motivated person, and with that you can’t fail. You may find a calling later that you never dreamed of. In the meantime, hang in!—Sally L. Kemble ’60
• Olivia, it took me thirty-plus years to figure out that I don’t have to worry and stress out and pass all manner of societal and academic tests to be an Uncommon Woman. I am an Uncommon Woman just the way I am. And so are you. No matter what route we chose, or which route chose us, we are all Uncommon Women. Today. Right Now. Forever more.—Suzanne (via Facebook)
• Reading this essay reminded me of my own panic over the years of not “living up” to my degree. It worries me sometimes the way we use the word “uncommon” now. I used to think it meant being unique and independent, forging your own path. Now it seems to mean that everyone has to do something that fits a very narrow definition of success, by winning a Pulitzer or joining Doctors without Borders. Sending that message to our students and young alumnae is going to produce a very depressed generation of MHC women. And it saddened me to see the roles of “parent” and “volunteer” excluded from the possibilities for a woman who wants to be Uncommon. I don’t know that any one MHC woman could ever “save the world,” but I can guarantee you that the collective of women who do will include parents and volunteers.
I wish Olivia all the best. I hope she gives herself permission to let go of some of the pressure and just start somewhere. Lives and careers take long, windy, unpredictable paths. Your degree is not a weight on your shoulders, it is a key that can unlock many doors, and the good news is that there is no wrong door to choose.—Lauren (via Facebook)
• I remember feeling the same way during my last year at Mount Holyoke. Professor [Christopher] Pyle gave me some valuable advice that I’ve turned to many times—something along the lines of: “Don’t think too far into the future. Consider where you might like to be in three to five years and strive towards that.” He also told me that your paid job doesn’t have to define your contribution to the world. So, even if you take a “common” job, you can still be uncommon on the side. Both pieces of advice have served me pretty well in striving to be uncommon!—Lara R. Sheikh ’92
Feedback on “Strands of Time”
My memory of knitting in Professor Lobb’s classes was his steadfast rule “no ripping out in the front row.” He said he couldn’t stand the tears!
BTW, the [spring] issue was fantastic with all the beautiful photographs of the campus. My favorite spot on campus was sitting in my third-floor room at Buckland and looking toward the hill where Mandelle was, especially in the fall!—Georgia Smith Regnault ’64
Feedback on “Fighting for Reproductive Freedom”
• [A letter in the spring issue by] Mary McPhillips Menendez ’89 discusses only two options of birth control: the pill and the “rhythm method.” However, there are numerous others. The Planned Parenthood website lists the many different options of birth control and their percentage of efficacy rate.
The “rhythm method” only has a 25 percent efficacy rate. Condoms, vaginal sponge, cervical cap, and diaphragm are 76-85 percent effective. The vaginal ring “NuvaRing” is 98 percent effective. The intrauterine device (IUD) has a more than 99 percent efficacy rate.
Please talk with your physician, become informed about the benefits and disadvantages of all methods of birth control, and then select the best method for you.—Thea G. Sewell ’89
• There is a bit of logical miss on Mary McPhillips Menendez ‘s part about religious freedom.
If a “Catholic” organization would be exempt from laws about providing services under HHS mandate, it should 1) not receive any funding from governmental sources and 2) not contract to provide wholesale services to anyone who is not Catholic.
I do not want my tax dollars to support churches that use their pulpits to thwart the civil rights of large numbers of Americans, including mine.
Regarding point two, my employer formerly used a Catholic healthcare provider as its PPO in Oregon. Most Oregon employees are not Catholics. The alternative was out of pocket, meaning a loss of benefits associated with our employment.
Rather than lose employer contracts, Providence provided birth control services to those under employer contracts. Due to benefit changes, I don’t know Providence’s current policies.
I take exception to healthcare providers mixing religion and politics with medicine. Providence asks about religious affiliation as part of intake. I don’t know what that has to do with treating any condition. Part of my religious freedom means not having to provide information about my religious beliefs to receive medical services.
Back in the 1990s, there was a ballot initiative in Michigan to allow medical providers to refuse to provide treatment to gays and lesbians based on a medical provider’s religious beliefs. The Catholic Church led this effort. Imagine a rural ER doctor who refused to treat “queers,” faced with a flagrantly gay accident victim who needed immediate care to live. This doctor is the only provider with the requisite skills for miles around. So much for “pro-life.”
These are solely my opinions; they do not reflect my employer’s positions on these matters. I am not authorized to represent my employer in any matters.—Dominic V. Luppino ’76 (name at MHC: Nicki Nicolo)
Feedback on MHC Timeline
• You can imagine my surprise to turn to page 8 of the [spring] Quarterly and see our HP group photo. However, it was taken during the 1959–1960 school year as we graduated in 1960, not 1950. The gracious living assembly took place in Buckland with our housemother, Mrs. Woodward and two other girls. Those wonderful years at Mount Holyoke will always be remembered so fondly by us all, and hopefully the three members we have lost will be smiling down on the rest of us. It is hard to believe that we are seventy-five years old and anticipating our fifty-fifth reunion. Thank you for including us as part of the 175th “Remembrance of Things Past.”—Nan Jones Clarke ’60
• I enjoyed reading the spring Quarterly, and am certainly proud of our distinguished alums. But I was also amused by a bit omission [from the MHC timeline]: the abandonment of required church and chapel attendance in 1956. That is very much a part of my story at MHC.
As a student returning from junior year in France, I found it absurd to have these requirements continuing, particularly as I had a number of friends just check off their names as attending and then going back to bed. I had experienced, in that year abroad, how to take responsibility for my actions and for what I held to be important.
Upon my return to the MHC campus, I solved my own dilemma by reporting myself to the Judicial Board, [saying] that I would no longer attend these functions. That led me to President Roswell Ham, whom I felt would have been happier if I had stayed silent. In the end, we took steps that made the requirement less onerous and one year after I graduated, the requirement was overturned. I am now curious as to how that was not part of your story.—Helen Jacobs Altman ’55
Feedback on “Breaking Out of the Frame”
The Spring 2013 Mount Holyoke Quarterly “Breaking Out of the Frame” article brought back a memory of a writing assignment for Ms. Jean Sudrann’s “Baby English” class in 1961. We were sent to the art museum to write a descriptive essay on a work of art of our choice. I chose “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” by Albert Bierstadt. The close examination of that painting made me so well acquainted with that impressive landscape, its majestic scale, the characteristic lighting on the rock cliffs.
I was so enamored of this artist’s style that years later, I sought out the museum in Stockton, California, dedicated to Bierstadt’s paintings. I still have that essay I typed on the kind of paper forgiving to erasures of typing ink, and I keep a postcard image of the painting.—Sallie Wright Abbas ’65
July 16, 2013