WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY 2014
Dr. Linda Kaboolian:
My career is inspired by my family’s experience. Survivors of the first ethnic genocide of the 20th century, reduced to refugee status, their fortune diminished to a few suitcases, these brave souls set out for the United States and started over. They found safety and opportunity, established families, small businesses, civic and religious organizations and they prospered. These heroes provided several lessons that have motivated my work: that robust and just democracy is important to minorities and that public assets and services help individuals with will and aspiration but without means. I am the proud graduate of good public schools from P.S. 36 in the Bronx, through my PhD from the University of Michigan. My career has been dedicated to assuring that public infrastructure and services continue to provide opportunity to our diverse population.
I am fortunate that I came of age when opportunities for women were expanding. Everything seemed possible, every obstacle surmountable. But expansion into a void meant that there was very little to build on. “Inventing the airplane while building it” is a analogy too often used but in this case it is apt. Women were inventing new forms of gender relations and building new lives for themselves but we were making it all up as we went along.
I always knew I wanted a life centered around a career but I found it very difficult to visualize myself into any professional role, no less strategize about a career and imagine blending my career and home life. There were so few live role models and so little known about the women’s careers. In preparation I wrote my senior college thesis analyzing the memoirs of notable women, Anne Morrow Lindberg, Margaret Mead, Georges Sand, Eleanor Roosevelt, looking for clues on how to balance the tension between social expectations and personal aspirations. I found inspiration but few lessons.
Graduate school at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor was a wonderful opportunity to further explore these issues. Cross-disciplinary work was encouraged, and I benefitted from the fertile intellectual conversations with women scholar-activists in Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology, History and Economics. Together we developed the curriculum and degree program in Women’s Studies as well as work in our own disciplines. We left Ann Arbor filled with aspiration and strong bonds but we didn’t have the keys to successful academic careers with families. We soon learned that child bearing years are limited, family leave didn’t come in time for us, and while male roles were changing, dual careers in a shrinking industry necessitated sacrifices. We knew little about the importance of mentors to arc of successful careers. We consulted with each other but we were peers trying to read the invisible treasure map to the top of our professions.
I spent thirty years on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where I was one of a very few women faculty. During my Kennedy School years, women at Harvard a few years more senior than I were my only supporters. They alone read my papers, coached my talks and advised about career and family options. These women rarely rose to positions of power within the university but upon assuming administrative positions, helped as they could.
I am now a fellow at Harvard Law School and continue my work in multi-stakeholder public problem solving. I teach and write about negotiation and the changing shaping of the public sector. I work with constituent parties to education reform efforts to improve outcomes through better new forms of governance and leadership. I sit on the boards of several institutions, notably Landmark College, where we are inventing college curriculum and pedagogy for people with learning differences, including autism.
I started my career with few, poorly defined expectations. Nevertheless, I have had more opportunities to work on important projects both in the US and around the world than I could ever have imagined when I graduated from high school in 1972. I work with extraordinary people dedicated to expanding opportunity in newly emerging democracies. I see a parallel in their work to my cohort’s struggle for full participation in the workplace. In both realms, the success of the enterprise requires the full economic, political and social participation of women.
I am happy to say that the conditions for women starting their careers today are much more supportive. It is now accepted that women will progress and succeed in their careers based on their merit. More is known about the tensions between work and family life, family leave is now available, tenure calendars more adequately reflect the responsibilities of childbearing, and many men have changed -- expressing a desire for a better blend of work and family than was available to them in the past and doing more of the necessary to keep a home and family life intact. Women today seem to come to academia with clearer visions for their careers and expectations about family life. They marry and have multiple children, not “onlies” or no children, like my generation. They assume that women and men will be treated similarly and find support when they demonstrate the opposite. They can spend their energy doing their work rather than reforming their institutions. While more can be done to support women, it gives me great satisfaction to know that women’s careers are no longer “terra incognita” but a landscape of models and choices for my daughter to use.#