In Memoriam: Portrait of a Woman

In Memoriam: Portrait of a Woman

By Debotri Dhar | 14 May, 2016

A dash of red lipstick, a dab of Chanel No. 5, some Johnny Walker Red—and she was ready to take on the world. I could have finally met her last month, but my trip to India got in the way. She passed away in her sleep soon afterwards, at the age of 98. At the memorial service of Jean Winter Campbell, I was introduced to the life and times of this fascinating woman who lived according to one precious adage: upward and onward. Longtime friends and family, Professors Emeritus, members of the community, and beneficiaries of her work shared their memories of her. Her grandson showed a video of cherished moments of togetherness. “Morning has Broken” was played beautifully on the flute in remembrance, and the ballroom filled up with the dulcet notes of the piano. And I wept for a woman and educator I unfortunately never got the chance to meet in person.

Born in Chicago in 1918, Jean Campbell earned a Master’s degree in Education, was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa at Northwestern University, and came to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1946, where she became active in the League of Women Voters. A pioneer, she was instrumental in creating the Center for the Education of Women in 1964, to serve the cause of education for non-traditional students whose formal education had been interrupted. She also founded the National Center for Research on Women and the National Coalition for Research on Women’s Education and Development. In 1983, she received the University of Michigan Academic Women’s Caucus Power Award, and was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame ten years later. In 2010, the University of Michigan awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Laws in recognition of her myriad contributions to leadership, education and innovation.

At the memorial, Jean was described as intelligent, humorous, “lady-like,” determined, strategic, and generous. Our propensity to criticise past approaches through the lens of the present notwithstanding, intelligence, humour and political astuteness must have been critical to get projects moving during politically and economically challenging times. An early client of the Center—a farmer’s wife, mother of several children, and now an MD in her early nineties—spoke of Jean’s help in allowing her to realise her life’s dream of becoming a doctor as an older, non-traditional student. She praised Jean’s faith in dreams, her own and that of other women’s, and her ability to remain positive in the face of adversity; where others asked “why,” she asked “why not?” She also spoke, wittily, of how the friendship of men was often useful in navigating the world. From Jean’s twinkling eyes in all her pictures, she probably would have enjoyed the laughter that followed, and joined in.

The strength of Jean’s vision is not just that it gave back to the community, but that it evolved with time. “Choices” are born out of specific contexts; a choice is only a choice so long as its alternative is also available, rather than being economically unattainable or socially condemned. Understanding that women can also make non-traditional choices allowed Jean to expand the array of meaningful choices for women in the field of education and work, and to build bridges inter-generationally. Given the hundreds of recipients of her scholarships and services, there is much I would have liked to ask her, not about success but about “failure,” and the moments of angst and deep doubt that are a part of our existential condition. Were there times when she fell short of her own standards? In a world where generosity and female friendships are rare but loyalty and gratitude even rarer, how did she respond to those who took her time and love for granted? What did she do when provoked, when remaining “ladylike”—a middle class privilege, and a middle class burden—was humanly impossible? Would her answer have been just that: onwards and upwards? The most touching moment in the memorial service was when we reflected on the many meanings of immortality. Jean, who walked with many of us briefly along life’s journey, you have earned it. Through the lives and work of hundreds of women around the world, you will live on.


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