Jean and Jeanne

Jean/ne was a popular name the generation just before mine, a Baby Boomer name par excellence. As it happens, Lynn/e was also a popular Boomer name, that I, a Gen Xer, happened to get because my parents chose a name, Lynne Sue, that had Korean sounds and syllable arrangements. (Oh how I wanted to be one of the Jennifers, though.)

Despite having an equally old-fashioned name, I looked up to Jeans and Jeannes. They were my teachers, my mentors, the more senior women at work who showed me the way.

How meaningful, then, to have recently won two awards named after them. The first was the Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, named after a prominent literary magazine editor who tragically died in a car accident. The second was the Jean Jew Award for Women’s Rights, honoring a professor who sued the University of Iowa for sexual harassment and won.

I never gave much thought to awards before, but then I had never really won any. But I now realize they can be a way to extend mentorship among people who have never crossed paths in person. I’ve never met either Jeanne Leiby or Jean Jew (though Professor Jew, now retired, sent me lovely flowers!), but I feel mentored by them nonetheless. From Jeanne: this path you’ve chosen, you can do it, I did it, you can be a woman editor. From Jean: Keep standing up for your rights and for the rights of other women.

I was asked to deliver “remarks” at the University of Iowa’s 2021 Celebration of Excellence and Achievement among Women. How terrifying! But I quickly realized I had something to say. Here’s what I said (and here it is on YouTube, with the marvelous Kate introducing me at 32:00):

Thank you so much for this honor.

My private definition of a mentor is someone who believes in you more than you believe in yourself.

I’ve been lucky to have female mentors who’ve encouraged me to reach beyond what I thought possible, and I want to take this opportunity to thank them.

My mother, Sookja Chung, who modeled female achievement by moving to a new country at age 21 and learning the language well enough to eventually teach calculus in it for many years.

My educators throughout high school, college, and graduate school, including Teresa Jorgen, Jan O’Neil, Lauren Berlant, Catherine Peyroux, and Florence Boos, who have been feminist to the core, and have made me a proud feminist from the get-go.

And last but not least my current colleagues who nominated me for this award. Though younger than me, they too are mentors as they set a bar for me to live up to.

Thank you Kate Conlow, Morgan Jones, and Emily Ward for setting that bar high, thank you to the Council on the Status of Women and the Women’s Resource and Action Center for mentoring women by sponsoring this award, and heartfelt thanks to Jean Jew for showing us all the way.

The only way I can possibly find myself worthy enough to accept an award in her name, and to stand among the distinguished other awardees at this ceremony, many of whom I’ve revered from afar, is to see it as a challenge to live according to Dr. Jew’s example of bravery and truth telling, and to in turn mentor and empower others.

Learning of her ordeal and those of countless other women and people of color teaches us that if you’ve been at the wrong end of an abuse of power, a pattern of events will likely play out:

– you will not be believed,
– you will be asked to keep silent,
– you will be told that something about you made you deserve how you were treated,
– the narrative will shift to your character rather than what happened to you,
– this will only become more entrenched if you speak out, because then you are officially a troublemaker,
– and larger institutions will seem to accept the now official narrative.

However, you might discover the following to happen as well:

– people you never expected will step forward in support,
– you’ll gain new insights into how power operates,
– you’ll become more comfortable and effective in making trouble,
– and you’ll be more able to step forward in support of others.

Narratives and institutions can change, as Jean Jew proved, and as the existence of her award and this very event, the Celebration of Excellence and Achievement Among Women, proves.

The community of mentors is deep, and is here for you.

I’ll stand here and say for them that yes you can do the hard thing you don’t think you have in you.

Thank you again. It’s a true honor to receive this award. 

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