Paper Dolls and Jacks: Women Presidents Look Back

“What do presidents see when they look back? It really is about perception and memory.”

College presidents of today grew up in long-lost era of unstructured time and imaginative outdoor play. With no electronic games, indoors they turned to books, jacks or dolls. Children in groups tried on roles by playing house, school or cops-and-robbers.

Regina Toman, dean of students at Nebraska Methodist College in Omaha, is writing her dissertation at the University of Nebraska about the formative experiences of five women presidents (identified by pseudonyms). Stressing that her findings are preliminary and her dissertation a work in progress, she spoke at the University of Nebraska’s Women in Higher Education conference in Lincoln in October.

All five presidents contrasted their girlhoods with the structured, technology-driven lives of girls today. They grew up in stable, two-parent families with stay-at-home moms and siblings. All were confident and/or ambitious, while influenced by that era’s social norms for girls.

Toman described her qualitative approach as both a collective case study and interpretive biography. Most studies of women presidents focus on career paths. Toman is exploring roots: What do presidents see when they look back? “It really is about perception and memory,” she said.

Shy bookworm

Dr. Claire Evans, president of a private liberal arts university in the Midwest, grew up in a small town in the South. The elder of two children, she loved to read and excelled in school.

She described herself as ambitious, a bookworm, very well behaved and very shy. “I was going to be a librarian ’til I discovered that librarians didn’t get to read all the time,” she said.

Her unstructured activities included hanging out outdoors and playing baseball with neighborhood kids. She also played house, fort and jacks.

Her first intellectual conversation in high school was a kind of epiphany, and so was college. Ambitious and driven, she tried to combine teaching with marriage and motherhood, moving often to follow her husband. It was “one challenge after another” until they finally divorced.

Happy egghead

“All this love and all this support” surrounded “this happy little kid,” recalled Dr. Rachel Roberts, president of a private women’s college in the Midwest. She had a “spirited competitiveness” with her older brother. Growing up in a suburb, she enjoyed Broadway matinees with girlfriends and annual vacations with family.

She was an “egghead” who excelled in school and took leadership roles in high school activities. Still, career aspirations didn’t occur to her as a child or teen. During her first marriage, her personal life dictated her career options. As with Evans, that involved “a lot of boxes, a lot of cars.”

Her path as a career administrator was “a patchwork quilt and a chameleon.” The idea of career paths within the university followed from involvement in a professional organization, with support from boosters and her preference for embracing change.

Smart little bunny

When Dr. Sydney Cohen, president of a state university in New England, looked back she saw “a good little kid” and “a smart little bunny.” She’d played in the woods with her younger brother and the neighborhood kids. They climbed trees, pedaled bikes and rode in a red wagon. Indoors she did projects in her father’s workshop.

One of her milestones was the time she reached out to the new kid in seventh grade. Confident, with a zest for life, she grew into a leader who empowered others.

She was eager to grow up and become “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet! Super Woman . . . the cowboy in the white hat.” Still she attributes much of her career path to “plain dumb luck” and some good choices along the way. She taught for 15 years before joining administration. Being assistant to a university president changed her life. “It only makes sense looking backwards,” she told Toman.

Ballet dancer or biochemist

Dr. Olivia Scott, president of a private liberal arts college in New England, was bored in first grade. She described her childhood self as “very, very shy . . . very smart . . . and kind of precocious.” She wanted to be a ballet dancer, a bio-chemist, anything but the teacher she later became.

For fun she would read and play with dolls or paper dolls. Self-conscious about her height and glasses, she identified getting contact lenses as a turning point in her teens. Later, a junior year abroad in college gave her a chance to remold her social self.

Her career path emerged from her confidence, determination and openness to possibility and challenge. “I’ve been very lucky,” she said. Dedicated to the life of the mind, she was a faculty member before going into administration. She’s married to a supportive life partner and has two children.

Playing mass

Unlike Scott, Dr. Theresa Martin—president of a Catholic women’s college in the Midwest—always planned to teach. The second oldest of eight children in a Catholic family on the West Coast, she also wanted to be a nun.

She was an organizer, helping care for her younger siblings and organizing outdoor games with the kids on the block. They played mass, school and cops-and-robbers. She always felt secure, loved and nurtured. She described her career path as “a different kind of call”—a ministry driven by a sense of ownership rather than career ambition. The deaths of her father and brother were turning points. She taught high school and college as a nun before turning to administration. Unlike most women, she never had a male boss.

Their gender and the era when they grew up shaped all five presidents’ experiences. Women were expected to stay home with children and move to follow a spouse. Yet their skills and confidence pointed these women toward the top ranks of leadership. What can we learn from their memories to guide today’s girls toward leadership tomorrow?


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