2011 Smith Medalists

Honored alumnae share advice, encouragement, and wisdom

2011 Smith Medalists

The 2011 Smith Medals were awarded during the Rally Day ceremony.

Five distinguished alumnae came to campus on Rally Day, February 23, to receive the Smith College Medal, awarded each year to alumnae

e judgment of trustees of the college, “exemplify in their lives and work the true purpose of a liberal arts education.” The day before Rally Day, the Medalists gave talks about their work to the Smith community. What follows are reports on those talks by women’s sexuality activist Alice Kahn Ladas ’43, social entrepreneur Susan McWhinney-Morse ’55, professor and anthropologist Sarah Franklin ’82, national-service innovator Shirley Sagawa ’83, and social networking entrepreneur Laurel Touby ’85.

Alice Kahn Ladas ’43, MSS ’46
Pioneer and activist for women’s sexuality

Students in Leslie Jaffe’s class on women’s medical issues had plenty of reason to be intimidated by the day’s speaker. After all, Alice Kahn Ladas ’43 had once lunched with the Roosevelts at Campobello, studied with famed psychologist Erich Fromm, had her dissertation topic rescued by anthropologist Margaret Mead, and is credited with having taught the first Lamaze childbirth class in the United States. Plus, in 1982 she co-wrote the book, The G Spot, an influential sex-therapy book that is still in publication.

“I was born in 1921. In 1922 women won the right to vote, but not to pleasure,” she said, reflecting on her long career and the need for her work in sex therapy. “I’ve helped a lot of women and men. We’re all as different as snowflakes in our sexual response.”

In class, Ladas clearly wanted to connect with the students. “There’s a seventy-year gap between us that I hope to bridge, despite the fact that I don’t Twitter or text,” she told the students, who immediately warmed to this petite 89-year-old with the youthful, tall gray boots and thick, steely gray hair. “Your generation is facing much more serious problems than my mine did.”

She exhorted the students to get politically active, to work hard for the environment, to fight against what she called the war against women and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. “What are you going to do about it? We can’t go back to the Dark Ages. And we can’t have more people on the planet,” Ladas said. “This is what Mrs. Roosevelt taught me: Get active at the local level with local political groups.”

For Ladas, a political science major at Smith who also studied at the School for Social Work and at Columbia, her interests turned to psychology, breastfeeding, and female sexuality. “I became convinced that the early moments of life are an important foundation for emotional health,” she said. “My immodest goal was to change mothering practices in the United States.”

Ladas’ unique and groundbreaking career has included teaching educated childbirth, advocating for breastfeeding, counseling couples, and helping to found the Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis, which she describes as body psychotherapy. She continues to maintain a private therapy practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lives in a multi-generational co-housing community.

Her wide-ranging career is evidence in itself of the wisdom she imparted to students. “If you don’t know what you want to do, don’t worry about it,” she said. “It will reveal itself.” —Elise Gibson

Susan McWhinney-Morse ’55
A different view of aging

You don’t have to be young to be at the top of your game was the Rally Day message that social entrepreneur Susan McWhinney-Morse ’55 brought to students. “These last ten years have been the great adventure of my life,” she said.

McWhinney-Morse received the Smith College Medal for answering a need common to many seniors, who would prefer to stay in their own homes if only there were services to help support them. “I have to tell you, being old in this society—in most societies in the world—is not a happy place,” McWhinney-Morse said in a talk at the Campus Center. Determined to change that, she joined with a small group in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood to create Beacon Hill Village, a membership network that enables seniors to remain in their own homes as they age but with access to support services and resources. There are now sixty such villages nationwide, and hundreds more in the works.

McWhinney-Morse described her experience in becoming a social entrepreneur and guiding a small business through rocky start-up challenges to its present widespread success. Getting the business started required drawing on each person’s talents within their group—some were better at fundraising, others in making a business plan. To get the word out, the group used social networking, and eventually a page-and-a-half article in the New York Times. After that, they received three thousand calls in one week.

She shared advice for would-be social entrepreneurs. “Step one is finding some social injustice you find is intolerable,” she said, “and you think, if I don’t do something, will anybody do something?”

The other steps are:

  • Find information about the area you’re interested in
  • Find what’s out there to help you
  • Look at resources available to you in a new, creative way
  • Make a business plan
  • Tell the world what you’re doing

An equally important step is realizing and dealing with mistakes—that’s step seven. “I think we’ll always be in step seven,” McWhinney-Morse confessed, “always trying to improve and reinvent.”

Two of her social entrepreneurial role models—both from the nineteenth century—are Florence Nightingale, who professionalized nursing, and Susan B. Anthony, who played a pivotal role in women’s suffrage in America. “Am I a social entrepreneur?” she wondered
aloud in conclusion. “Did I make a difference in the conception of aging? I would answer, perhaps—perhaps a little bit. But is that enough? You’ll have to answer that for yourselves.” —Zoë Gioia ’13

Sarah Franklin ’82
Professor and anthropologist

Sarah Franklin ’82 showed up to her talk in McConnell Hall ready to talk sheep, specifically Dolly, the famous sheep that was cloned from a mammary gland and named for Dolly Parton. In her talk, “Dolly the Sheep and the Future of Biology,” Franklin used Dolly to focus on the questions—biological, social, feminist, medical—raised by ever-advancing reproductive technologies. “Dolly showed there’s no such thing as biological impossibility,” she said.

Franklin also spoke of how her Smith education led her to where she is today, a professor of social study and biomedicine and associate director of the BIOS Centre for the study of bioscience, biomedicine and society at the London School of Economics. “I was so inspired by the teachers here at Smith that I went ahead and became a university lecturer. And so I’m a bit of a clone myself,” she quipped.

When Franklin was at Smith in the early 1980s, she explained, the whole issue of women’s reproductive rights began to change as a result of reproductive technology and the wide range of choices it offered, from amniocentesis to in vitro fertilization (IVF).

“It divided the feminist community,” Franklin said. “Some saw reproductive technology as potentially empowering, but others saw it as an encroachment by a male-dominated technology.”

The topic so intrigued her that she focused her dissertation on IVF. “I asked women why they wanted to undergo a procedure that had a 90 percent failure rate,” she said. “What I found is that most women knew they were likely to fail, but they would also know that they had exhausted all of their options. I learned that IVF isn’t just about having a baby. They needed to try and needed to be seen trying.”

As IVF technology has improved so has the success rate, resulting in five million people whose lives began with in vitro fertilization. Within that success story, Franklin sounds a note of caution. “I personally view the celebration of IVF with ambivalence. It still brings with it uncertain consequences to offspring and to women,” she said. “This is one of the biggest biological experiments that has been conducted on the human race. It’s right to be skeptical still.”

In fact, for Franklin, asking the big questions may be a habit of mind acquired at Smith. “The most valuable thing Smith gave me,” she said, “is an education that not only allows you to question but gives you the entitlement to question.” —Elise Gibson

Shirley Sagawa ’83
Policy entrepreneur and author

As she was on her way to developing Americorps and eventually becoming known as the “founding mother of the modern service movement,” Shirley Sagawa ’83 also found time to be the mother of three children—even when that meant taking her kids to work in the White House. “I did my share of breastfeeding in the West Wing,” she said, laughing as she remembered receiving a call from Hillary Clinton, asking her to be her policy advisor a month after her first child was born. “You have to seize these opportunities as they come.”

During her time at Smith, Sagawa discovered her passion for government and interned with Senator Edward Kennedy. “It was a transformative experience,” she said in her talk at the Neilson Browsing Room. “I learned so much from the process of watching Ted try to stop Reagan’s dismantling of social programs.” After earning a law degree at Harvard Law School and a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, she got her first job as a lawyer, working on education issues for the senate labor committee. “If you’re young and fresh and have no idea what the rules are,” she told students, “then you’ll break them, and that’s a good thing.”

After leading Americorps, Sagawa returned to the White House as Hillary Clinton’s Deputy Chief of Staff, when she had her third child. “I’d learned by now that you can’t really time when you have kids,” Sagawa said with a smile as she showed pictures of her three sons and the Clintons. Now, Sagawa does consulting work to counsel nonprofit organizations, maintaining her commitment to promoting national service.

At the end of her talk, Sagawa encouraged students to become social entrepreneurs. “It’s a way of solving problems that’s much more sustainable than if the government just does everything,” she said. “Now, if you have an idea, there are all kinds of opportunities to get support. You can be an adventurer, in a way, and it’s really exciting.” — Zoë Gioia ’13

Laurel Touby ’85
Internet entrepreneur and writer

When Laurel Touby ’85 came to Smith, her grandfather attached three strings to his financial support. “You can’t get married before you graduate. You have to study something lucrative, and you should treat school like work,” she told a group of students and alumnae in the Neilson Browsing Room. In her own head were dreams of being a writer, but she followed her grandfather’s demands right down to majoring in economics.

Funny how life works out. She did become a writer, and against all odds, leveraged her freelance career into a business that she sold a couple of years ago for $23 million. “For two whole years I felt like I won the Lotto,” she said. Like all good lottery winners, she spent part of her bonanza on a trip around the world with her new husband.

Given her success, it’s small wonder that Touby, founder of MediaBistro, a career networking and job site that now attracts 1.5 million viewers, is in the position of handing out career advice of her own. Here are some of her tips for aspiring entrepreneurs.

  • “No amount of technology makes up for customers.” First, find out what customers want; the money will come later.
  • “Be audacious in your vision. I thought this community thing had possibilities but my question was, ‘How do I go galactic?’”
  • “Write a plan. No matter how simple you think your business is. A plan helps you clarify your ideas, your market.”
  • “Get funding.” Seek funds—at least six to twelve months of capital—from a bank, from friends and family, from your network of business connections. “Don’t starve your baby business.”
  • “Bluff when necessary.” Touby told about dressing up in her “million-dollar suit” and claiming to a potential investor that she already had a lead investor. That bluff led to her, in fact, finding the big-time investor she needed.
  • “Be fearless.” You don’t have to go back to school to succeed. Be willing, she said, “to fake it like a man. You can’t mind being seen as an aggressive woman.”
  • >“Know your strengths.” Touby is a skilled journalist, but she never attended business school, so she hires people with business expertise. “I also know I should never manage people. I’m impatient, too direct and aggressive. If I were a man I’d be worshipped,” she quipped.

Check out Touby’s personal blog, Culture Tripping, where, she said, she will soon announce her next venture. —Elise Gibson