This time, I promise, you’re reading my very last “Last Laugh” column in Women in Higher Education, June 2014.
First appearing as a filler on the back page of a 1990s issue, the column has allowed me to share stories from my personal and professional life, opinions and general craziness. Many readers go to this last page first.
Some columns directly concerned women in higher education, such as speculating on whether a male leader at the University of Virginia would have challenged his ouster by political rivals, or whether a female president of Penn State would have blown the whistle on the sexual abuse of boys in its locker room when she first learned about it in 2001, instead of hiding it for a decade.
Others included stories of my many adventures with family members, dogs and cats, hockey and tennis teams and major trips on the water. Readers have followed my daughter Liz’s transformation from a teenager into an amazing young professional.
My rants include one in July 2013, admonishing campus leaders to call rape a felony rather than an honor code violation. The Female Privilege Checklist in March 2006 also generated much response.
Now I’ve fulfilled my agreement to write six columns after the sale of WIHE on December 2, 2013. After this column goes to press, I’ll celebrate my 70th birthday on Friday June 6, 2014, and enjoy the freedom of retirement.
Earning a BA in journalism and MA in mass communicationsfrom the University of Wisconsin in Madison prepared me for a career in journalism.
My career began with a marketing job in the UW business management unit of University Extension. All the academics were men and all the secretaries were women, so my position was tenuous. A tendency to offer unsolicited advice to improve our products got me fired.
I struck out on my own, starting an ad agency called Heavy Words. I then became editor of an in-house magazine called Top Shelf for members of the Wisconsin Tavern League and did carpentry projects for friends and neighbors.
Next I worked for Magna Publications, publisher of many subscription newsletters in higher education. My job was to create and manage marketing of existing titles and create new ones.
My proposal to create a newsletter for women leaders in higher education fell on deaf ears: The male owner believed that women had no special challenges on campus. He fired me.
Finally I landed a job marketing external publications for the Credit Union National Association aka CUNA Mutual. In just 13 weeks, I saved it an estimated $60,000 in postage annually by suggesting mailing its magazines as periodicals rather than first class mail. Again my passion brought dismissal. I didn’t fit into its conservative corporate culture.
They fired me on a Friday afternoon, my birthday. It was 13 weeks after my first day there, chosen to avoid paying unemployment compensation. That evening my daughter would host a sleepover. Could I afford to buy the pizza?
Enraged by having been dumped from three professional jobs despite being smart, educated and passionate, I decided never again to allow a lesser being to separate me from my work. I’d be my own boss from then on, a radical plan for a single mother in 1992.
Although today the buzzword on every campus is entrepreneur — in every classroom, department and administrative unit — 22 years ago the goal was to get and keep a safe job.
Since that plan hadn’t worked out for me, I listed potential benefits for this new professional career I would create, and another list of potential vehicles to reach them.
Starting a new subscription newsletter to serve women in higher education was on my list. After all, I’d already done some research before proposing it years earlier. So I interviewed leaders in the field, created a business plan and pushed ahead.
Luckily I didn’t need to seek financing. A small inheritance through my mother and originally from my great Aunt Mae, an entrepreneurial milliner in the 1930s, paid our bills that first year.
Although untrained, I followed the classic pattern for creating a business: Find a niche, set the plan and goals, do the work, find others to help you toward the goal and be persistent.
Publishing WIHE opened my eyes to the reality of gender inequity. I learned that my being fired from jobs in three major segments — the state, a private company and a nonprofit — were less a result of my failures than those of leaders determined to squelch a bright, competent woman who threatened their empires.
Today more women than men are turning their backs on a stifling corporate culture and starting their own businesses, following their passions and vowing to do the right thing. And they are twice as likely to survive as businesses started by men.
Mary Helen Conroy, former director of Career Connections at WIHE, is a new entrepreneur. She has created a web site that allows anyone to throw a virtual retirement party via the Internet for a friend, relative, co-worker or employee.
To celebrate the confluence of my total retirement, starting with my turning in this last “Last Laugh,” and my 70th birthday, she’s hosting a virtual retirement party for me as the beta test of her new site.
Because my friends from 22 years of publishing WIHE live all over the country, a virtual party is a great way to include everyone. Her site features photos, places for comments and games, all the fun without the cost of transportation and lodging. Join the fun by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s my way of thanking you for your support and good wishes as I move into the next phase of life. Being a successful entrepreneur has brought me all that I wanted and much, much more. I got the Last Laugh. You can too.
Wenniger, Mary Dee. (2014, June). THE LAST LAUGH: That’s All She Wrote. Women in Higher Education, 23(6), 20.