A Legacy of Women
A Legacy of Women
From May 19 to 21, 2023, more than 250 alumnae of all ages returned to campus for a Women of Williams Conference to celebrate 50-plus years of coeducation at Williams. Organized by the Alumni Engagement Office, the conference events included morning fitness activities, a showing of the Paul Lieberman ’71 film Williams Women of 1971, a networking reception, three keynote addresses, a dozen breakout sessions and a celebratory three-course vegetarian dinner.
The Dwelling of the Gallant, typically a reunion tradition in which four alumnae share their stories, took place at the beginning of the conference in a special edition featuring Williams President Maud S. Mandel, Dean of the College Gretchen Long, Provost Eiko Maruko Siniawer ’97 and Dean of the Faculty Safa Zaki.
Keynote speakers were award-winning songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez ’94, on rewriting her own story as a woman in the male-dominated entertainment world; Yvonne Hao ’95, Massachusetts’ secretary of the Executive Office of Economic Development, on the challenges she has faced as a Chinese American woman in business; and Holly Phillips ’93, a doctor and author, on the pressure many women feel while balancing careers, motherhood and family responsibilities.
The concurrent sessions ran throughout the day on Saturday, with guest speakers from the alumnae community and Williams staff and faculty. Panel topics ranged from women in sports to being good stewards of the Earth.
Attendee Erika Jorgensen ’81 noted of the sessions, “There were times I thought you could probably go around the room if you had four hours and everybody could’ve weighed in on a topic, because everybody brought something interesting to the table.”
Dwelling of the Gallant
President Mandel talked about her mother’s influence as a single, professional woman who often brought a young Maud to work with her. Encouraging the women in the room to help one another succeed, she invoked her own mother’s advice: “If you have a seat at the table, you have a responsibility to get others a seat at the table.”
“Rewriting Narratives: Life as a Draft in Progress”
In the opening keynote address, Kristen Anderson-Lopez ’94 spoke candidly about her many foibles as she navigated to her current career. She recalled a time when, as a student at Williams, she created a dance move to land on the word epistle—elbows at chest level, fists pumping backward. However, she hadn’t thought to look up the meaning of epistle and realized later, in dismay, that a more accurate move would have been to hold out her hand as if receiving a letter. Later, with husband Robert Lopez on piano, Anderson-Lopez sang a few lines of “Let It Go,” the iconic song the couple wrote for Disney’s Frozen, and invited the audience to sing along.
“Everything I Know About Leadership, I Learned From Williams”
Yvonne Hao ’95, the second keynote speaker, related a few encounters with audacious prejudice that often brought gasps from the audience. Her advice for combating discrimination: “Try to get calm, find allies and make the arc bend to justice.” She also acknowledged the difficulty of raising children while working in a demanding job, admitting that her house is chaotic but saying she would rather cuddle with her children when she has time at home with them than clean or push them toward academic success. “I’m the opposite of a tiger mom,” she said. “I’m a panda mom.”
“Bouncing Back from Burnout: Overcoming Exhaustion and Reclaiming Your Vitality”
“Many women don’t feel they deserve energy,” said Holly Phillips ’93 in the closing keynote. “Pushing through fatigue is seen as a badge of honor.” Relating her own experience of developing severe fatigue and autoimmune issues, she talked about trying numerous so-called cures—some of which, like resting in an oxygen tank, actually worked. She shared with the audience the recommendations she now makes to her patients, all bolstered by her extensive research and personal trial and error: Get plenty of sleep, ask to be screened for other causes of exhaustion, stay hydrated, exercise, maintain good posture, eat for energy and set yourself up to sleep soundly. As she shared the checklist for good seated posture, women around the room suddenly straightened themselves up and uncrossed their legs, then laughed about their adjustments.
“The First, The Few: Female Pathbreakers at Williams”
A group of alumnae from the early 1970s led a discussion that included former staff member Nancy McIntire, who worked in admission and as assistant dean at the time and was a vital advocate for the newly arrived females. They recalled difficulties in the early days of coeducation at Williams—the isolation, the signs saying “Coeds go home,” the need for privacy in changing rooms and a gynecologist on campus. Reflecting on the reason for holding the women’s conference, panelist Ellen Vargyas ’71 said, “We look around us today and see so much of this progress threatened. It’s important to reflect on the ‘dusty history’ and remember how we got here.”
“Opening Doors, Creating Spaces: Making Art Accessible”
With Williams College Museum of Art Director Pamela Franks serving as moderator, professionals in the art world reviewed the inroads they’re currently making to break down barriers of all kinds and bring art to everyone. Stephanie Dockery ’07 of Bloomberg Philanthropies leads projects that help build community around art, such as transforming former dump sites into outdoor art spaces in Camden, N.J. Mikka Gee Conway ’98 expands the reach of the National Gallery of Art as chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer. And Rachel Watts ’97 of Arts Connection works with NYC schools—where some 42% of school districts have no art teacher on staff—to encourage young children, especially immigrants, to consider a career in the arts.
“Women’s Health: From Periods to Pregnancy to Perimenopause and Beyond”
In discussions on birth control, hormone replacement therapy, gender-affirming care and more, expert panelists encouraged women to take an active role in their own healthcare and offered specific advice to those asking frank questions. Panelist Elizabeth Curtis ’17, founder of the Berkshire Doula Group, displayed a tattoo on her forearm representing the female fertility cycle, saying she has long been obsessed with tracking menstruation, as it often provides a window to what’s going on inside a woman’s body.
Top photograph by Caitlin Brown
Regina Velázquez is an assistant editor and senior writer in the Office of Communications.