At first glance, the two women may seem to have little in common. Elise Boulding was born in 1920 and died in 2010. Emma González, until two weeks ago, was a high school student studying for her AP exams. Right now she’s more famous than Elise Boulding. These two women, especially, have had deep impact on my vocation as professor and leader: Boulding gave me courage and hope when I was a struggling young professor. González gives me hope now.
The woman standing at the podium was no slave to fashion. Large-boned, with strong hands, she looked like the Quaker of Norwegian stock that she was. Her snow-white hair was pulled back into a bun at the base of her neck. Her orthotic-looking shoes were parked squarely under her modest skirt. The rest of the outfit was totally forgettable.
What was NOT forgettable, however, was the way she took up the space on the stage. “She’s planted there like a tree,” thought I from my seat in the tenth row, center section. “She looks totally at home in her body, and her face emanates light.”
Her name was Elise Boulding. She was 64 years old. She had recently written the audacious book The Underside of History: A View of Women Through Time (1975, 1992), tracing women’s history from Paleolithic times to the late twentieth century, a major contribution to the burgeoning field of Women’s Studies. She had also established two academic programs in peace studies (University of Colorado/Boulder and Dartmouth), led international organizations, and spoken around the world.
The year was 1984. I was an Associate Professor of English at Goshen College. Thirty five years old. Married and the mother of two children, the younger still a babe at the breast. It had been a struggle to get to the evening lecture, and I was near exhaustion. It seemed as though my vocation of teaching was competing with all my other responsibilities: to family, friends, church, and community. There were no married mother full professors on my campus and few on many others at that time, just 34 years ago. The mantra beamed to professional women in the culture was “you can’t have it all. Choose.”
Elise Boulding incarnated something profound; an integration (not a bifurcation) I could sense but not yet understand. That’s why her physical presence on the stage riveted me, opening my eyes and ears to a new way of thinking about my life.
In the midst of her speech she casually described how she had found her vocation.
Elise Boulding married Kenneth Boulding when he was already an established scholar in the field of economics. Together they reared five children and created a home hospitable to academics, artists, and peace activists from many fields and countries who brought fresh ideas and inspiring commitments to their table. After her children were grown, Elise earned a PhD from the University of Michigan (at age 49!).
Being a wife and mother, Boulding asserted, was not a distraction nor a burden but the beginning of her career. It was her school for living. It taught her as much sociology of the family, one of her fields, as any book could do. She simply blended the “who” she loved, into “what” she loved.
Did all of this effort on so many fronts exhaust her? I’m sure it did, sometimes, but, as she stood on that stage, beaming love and hope into all of us, the unspoken message I got was this: “Stay calm. Your story isn’t over yet. Moreover, what is happening now, with all your many loves, does not have to feel like internal warfare. At least not forever. Nothing truly loved is ever wasted.”
We are witnessing a new story, led by high school students, about school shootings, guns, and social change arising out of the tragic deaths in Parkland, FL, on Valentine’s Day. That week the nation and the world first learned the name of Emma González. Her speech on February 17 has already been seen more than 2.4 million times. On February 13 she did not have a Twitter account. Now she has 1.13 million followers, almost double the NRA number.
I’ve watched this speech twice because I heard the ring of truth in it. Nothing is more powerful than the truth being told from the heart. Because my vocation has always involved children, youth, and young adults, I see thousands of other faces when I see this young woman. I also hear her teachers and other adult mentors. She wrote the speech on her AP government class notes! Now she is making history: “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic . . . , but because, . . . we are going to be the last mass shooting [in America].”
Wiping the tears from her eyes as though she was swatting at flies, showing emotion yet not letting it paralyze her, Emma González reminds me of other women whose stories influenced the course of American history: Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Stady Canton, Lucretia Mott, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Winona LaDuke.
She also reminds me of peace activist Elise Boulding.
What these women, one old and one very young, one who died eight years ago and one very much alive in the present, have in common is the ability to tell the right story at the right time, to recognize that life itself is a story, and to share the stories of their own lives in ways that evoke the “better angels” of other natures.
I’m in Stage III of my calling right now. Older than Elise Boulding in that photo, I spend my days writing, speaking, reflecting, marching, and mentoring. I’m taking a year out to be a “granny nanny” while doing all of the above at the same time.
Turns out I didn’t have to choose. And the message I intuited from Boulding and again from González, I now share with you: “Stay calm. Your story isn’t over yet. Moreover, what is happening now, with all your many loves, does not have to feel like internal warfare. At least not forever. Nothing truly loved is ever wasted.”
Whose story has impacted YOUR vocational story? What stage of your calling are you in now?
Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay, “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017).