Letter to my Feminist Hero

by Jennifer R. Keup

Dear Lena,

I have just finished reading your recently-published autobiography, The Road from Serres: A Feminist Odyssey and two sentiments come to mind:  “wow” and “thank you.”

My first sentiment—“wow”—is nothing new with respect to my reaction to you. I still remember being a new graduate student in the Higher Education and Organizational Change division of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA many years back.  I felt like I had fooled the admissions committee into admitting me and kept awaiting the tap upon my shoulder from a faculty member who would say, “we are so sorry, we meant for that admissions letter to go to Jennifer Kemp not Jennifer Keup; please gather your things and leave.” Add to that the fact that the larger-than-life Alexander “Sandy” Astin was my assigned advisor (truly one of the greatest gifts I have ever had in my academic and professional career) and that I was one of the few members of my cohort not already convinced that I had a future in the professoriate, and I had an absolutely towering case of imposter syndrome.

As with nearly all of the advisees of one of The Astins and as a graduate student researcher at the Higher Education Research Institute, I truly felt as if I had been academically “adopted” by the both of you even though Sandy was my advisor (talk about winning the graduate student lottery!). And when I met you, I was in absolute awe. In those days when I was a budding feminist, you truly offered a model unlike almost any other I had experienced and, in many ways, were a picture of balance in what I thought should have been contradictions. You have always been a respected intellectual who also has a great fashion sense and a jewelry collection that makes me swoon.  You are a fearless advocate for women’s issues but you embrace your femininity.  As I was contemplating when (or, truthfully, even if) I wanted to have children, you offered an incredible model of “having it all” by balancing your professional life with your role as a mother and grandmother. Your signature drink, Jack Daniels over two ice cubes, is more than respectable by any barfly’s standards but I have frequently seen you order it with a smile that bewitched the waiters and caused them to shamelessly flirt with you.  You could “hold court” as effectively at the hotel bar as you could in any ASHE or AERA panel presentation on an important academic issue.  I have often seen you challenge a colleague or student but in a way that was civil, respectful, and inviting of discourse.  And you are as quick with your friendly, fantastic laugh as you are with a theoretical or policy reference.  Although my first reaction to you was feeling very intimidated, I also was drawn in by your warmth and always felt welcomed by both you and Sandy, which was a critical support to me during my years as a doctoral student and postgraduate professional at UCLA.

As I read your memoirs, I was reminded yet again of all of your incredible traits. However, I was also reminded that there is so much more to your amazing life than I had previously understood and I am not ashamed to share that the pages of my copy of The Road from Serres are tear-stained from both laughter and crying. While you shared some details of your life prior to your time in Los Angeles and at UCLA with me previously, my relationship with you began, quite literally, in the very last chapter of your book and I realized that I had never known your full story.  I was fascinated to read about your childhood in German-occupied Greece during World War II; the fantastic combination of determination, faith, and even a bit of naiveté that fueled your immigration to the United States to pursue your college and graduate degrees; and your academic experiences as a “stranger in a strange land” as an international undergraduate and a feminist trailblazer in your doctoral program as only the second woman in the history of your department to earn that Ph.D.  I had heard stories about the early days of your romance with Sandy—your response to his proposal (not “yes” but “when?”) was the stuff of legend among the women in our graduate program—and witnessed on a daily basis the intellectual, personal, professional, and amorous partnership that the two of you shared.  However, reading your very real account of the trials and tribulations of an egalitarian, complex, two-career marriage struck a deep and resonant chord with me.  And while I have studied your scholarship on feminist leadership and gender issues, it was such a rich and meaningful experience to read your first-hand account of what it was like to be the token woman in so many academic environments, to face and call out acts of overt and covert sexism, and the challenges, obligations, and implications of being a feminist trailblazer. To borrow language from the book that you and Carole Leland wrote, as an “inheritor” of the academic world that you helped shape into a more equitable universe, I will forever be indebted and grateful to you for the walls you knocked down and the ceilings you cracked as an “instigator.” I can only hope to don the mantle of feminist leadership and do you justice in my own career to continue to work toward gender equity and advance women’s leadership initiatives.

However, I cannot let this letter end without telling you that you have taught me yet another lesson. Besides being reminded of how incredible you are, learning more about you, and being inspired by your story, reading your memoir allowed me to reflect a good bit upon how my understanding of heroism has evolved. Because, yes, you are one of my feminist heroes and, although I don’t wear a “what would Lena do?” bracelet (someone should market that!), you continue to influence my choices as a woman, mother, and feminist in higher education.  Yet, I also realize that my rather youthful and naive understanding of heroism in my graduate-student days kept me from truly experiencing the fullest range of mentorship that you would have provided.  Because, even though you looked as beautiful as a statue from your Greek homeland up on the pedestal that I placed you, I realize that one of the main reasons that I didn’t know more of your story until now was because I did not have the confidence to fully engage with you about it despite how welcoming you were. I am sure that you would have generously shared much of your personal history, both the graceful and “gory,” with me if I only had the courage to ask.  It made me realize how much my view of heroism, especially with regard to women, has changed from my graduate student days. Today, I view authenticity, flaws, and resiliency as critical components of my heroes. I am inspired by those, like yourself, who are brave enough to bare themselves openly to others and share what they have learned from their challenges as well as from their successes. Inaccessibility is no longer the hallmark of heroism to me but, rather, a genuine and honest spirit is the key accoutrement, which you have always possessed and demonstrated.  These traits are ones that I hold as foundational to my leadership principles, management philosophy, parenting style, approach to interpersonal relationships, and professional journey.  Sincere thanks for always modeling them in your own career and personal life and making the notion of heroism a bit more accessible to me in my own feminist odyssey.

Since I cannot truly repay you for all the gifts you have given to me and for your continued generosity, know that I am dedicated to “paying it forward” to the next generation; it is the least I can do.

Love,

Jenny

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2 thoughts on “Letter to my Feminist Hero

  1. Second time I have read this. Beautiful. You write so well. What a loving tribute to a truly beautiful human being… I miss her dearly. How fortunate we were to know her. Thank you for this…on a sleepless night, it was great to read again.

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