Story by Nancy Pick; portraits by Peter Strain
On the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Williams, we celebrate alumnae across the decades who’ve made a difference on campus and in the world.When Williams opened its doors to women in the late 1960s and early 1970s, news reports speculated about what would happen. Would women be a “civilizing influence,” as the Washington Post stated? Would they be as inquisitive as men? Would they flock to art and English classes to become more well-rounded wives and mothers?
Would they be, as one male student said in the Williams Record, “an invading horde?”
Looking at the accomplishments of Williams women of that era, and ever since, turns those questions on their heads. Whether it’s A. Clayton Spencer ’77, who’s changing the face of higher education, or Cheryl (Robinson) Joyner ’85, a top senior entertainment executive in an industry where women are rare, or neuroscientist Elissa Hallem ’99, whose work on parasitic nematodes won her a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the so-called “Genius Grant”), or Elissa Shevinsky ’01, a serial tech entrepreneur who publicly called out sexism in her industry—each generation of women has forged a new path.
In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the graduation of the first women admitted to Williams as first-year students, the magazine takes a look at the lives and the impact of these Ephs—one from each decade—and that of one of the newest additions to their ranks. As she ventures beyond Williams, Sara Fatima Hassan ’15 plans to continue the work she began as a student on campus, breaking down stereotypes of Muslims and engaging with social and environmental justice.
Why Williams: “I wanted to be at the table with the best.”
Majors: German and history
Favorite Professors: Binks Little and Mark Taylor, religion
When she was growing up in North Carolina, Clayton Spencer felt she had two paths to choose from: that of her aunt, an accomplished academic who never married, or that of her equally brilliant mother, who married and raised four children but didn’t finish her Ph.D.
“It didn’t seem very fair to me,” Spencer says. “After all, men didn’t have to choose. But if I had to make a choice, I wanted to be at the table, doing the interesting work.”
She attended Phillips Exeter Academy in its first fully coeducational year and was thrilled when Williams began accepting women in 1971.
“I felt that the doors were opening,” she says. “I wasn’t the one pushing them, but I couldn’t wait to walk through. It was inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t have the same opportunities as boys and men.”
At Williams, it took Spencer a while to find her niche. There were few female role models among the faculty, but religion professors Mark Taylor and Binks Little became mentors and lifelong friends.
As a college student in the 1970s, she felt the fire of the women’s movement. “I wasn’t burying myself in Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, but that brand of feminism was very much in the air,” she says. The era’s watchword stated, “The personal is the political”—and for Spencer, that turned out to be true.
“My notion as a very nai?ve 18-year-old was, ‘Thank God we’ve got this equality problem solved,’” she says. “College had opened up for me just in the nick of time, and I thought that when I got married, everything would be even- steven, split right down the middle. This was my fundamental error, thinking that a switch had been flipped rather than understanding that feminism was a broad cultural movement that would require decades.”
After Williams, Spencer went on to study religion at Oxford and Harvard and then to Yale Law School. In 1989, she became an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston, prosecuting federal criminal cases in “the most male place I’ve ever worked.” She then worked as chief education counsel for U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. In that role, Spencer was central to developing the federal government’s direct student loan program.
She continued to push for major changes in financial aid policy at Harvard, where she became a high-ranking administrator in 2005. Her reforms altered how the top Ivy League schools handle aid for families in a large swath of the middle of the U.S. income distribution. She became vice president for policy for President Lawrence Summers and, later, for Drew Faust, Harvard’s first female president.
Spencer also served as a Williams trustee from 2003 until 2012, when she became president of Bates College.
Ultimately, Spencer says she followed neither the path of her aunt nor her mother. She devoted herself to her career and her two children, with little time for anything else. She and her equally career-minded husband divorced after 20 years of marriage.
She tells young women, in particular: “Pick the field that unleashes your creativity. Find a partner you’re wild about. And then have some very fundamental discussions with that partner about your values and how you will support each other. As Freud and Tolstoy said, there are two things you need to get right in life: work and love. You’ve got to sort these things out early and keep working at them every day.”
Why Williams: “The college had a program to attract academically successful minority candidates, and I received an invitation to tour the campus. I thought Williams was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen and the perfect place to study.”
Favorite Professor: Ilona Bell, English
At Williams, Cheryl (Robinson) Joyner used to unwind in the common room of her dorm, watching videos of Prince, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen on the fledgling MTV network.
Within a few years, she was creating global marketing campaigns and producing concerts for those same artists and many more. Today she’s a senior entertainment executive in a field where top-ranking women are still rare.
Looking back, she says, “I did not realize the industry was male-dominated, nor did I really care, for I fully expected to succeed.”
Joyner says she struggled to find her voice in college. Only 16 when she arrived on campus, she came from an inner-city high school in New Jersey. At Williams, she was one of about 20 black students in her graduating class. “I felt like a fish out of water that landed in the Purple Valley,” she says with a laugh.
Despite coeducation, the college still hadn’t yet shaken its all-male roots. “It seemed like the frat houses had merely closed and tried to rejigger themselves to fit women,” she says. Still, the challenges prepared her for what lay ahead in a business that requires “very tough skin and nerves of steel.”
She credits two leaders of the Black Student Union, Keith Hopps ’83 and David Bowen ’83, with helping her transition to college and beyond. But she had no shortage of initiative. She once waited for Arthur Levitt Jr. ’52 to exit a meeting of Williams’ Board of Trustees, introduced herself and asked if she could intern with him at the American Stock Exchange. He hired her on the spot.
MTV was only a few years old when Joyner watched its videos in her dorm, and she found the channel “keenly tuned in to what I valued in culture at the time, namely music and style.” She decided that “contributing to society within the creative community was something I was driven to do.”
Joyner graduated from Williams at 19 and became one of the youngest students accepted to Harvard Business School. From there, she made a name for herself developing marketing strategy for musicians represented by major labels including Sony Music, Warner Brothers Records and Universal Music Group.
She went on to serve as vice president of alliances for Live Nation music and events, executing multimillion-dollar entertainment contracts for companies including American Express, GEICO and Major League Baseball.
This year she became chairman of her own company, PARA Music Group, which sources music from 144 countries for use in film,
TV and ad campaigns. A typical day finds her immersed in a major project with rapper Timbaland, the executive music producer for Fox TV’s smash hit Empire.
“I’ve now worked with and had great relationships with every major recording artist and entertainment executive on the planet whom I ever admired while I was a student,” Joyner says. “I am also proud to say that I have helped and mentored many people along the way.
“I think careers in the entertainment industry are well-suited for Williams grads because their liberal arts education makes them uniquely prepared to think fast on their feet,” she says. “In my business, no two days are the same, and you have to wear many hats in order to succeed.”
Why Williams: “The students seemed very relaxed and happy. The atmosphere was really positive.”
Majors: Biology and chemistry
Favorite Professor: Marta Laskowski, chemistry
In September 2012, Elissa Hallem returned to her office from her neurobiology lab at UCLA and found dozens of missed calls and emails. She wondered what on earth was happening—until she saw an email from a macfound.org address. The MacArthur Foundation had awarded her one of that year’s 23 fellowships for her work on parasitic nematodes.
Hallem’s lab works on understanding how parasitic worms detect odors to find hosts. Worldwide, some 20 percent of the human population is infected with various parasitic worms, and the problem is particularly severe in the tropics. In announcing the five-year, $500,000 award, to be used however Hallem wished, the foundation emphasized her potential to improve global health. Her discoveries, the foundation stated, may lead to drugs or behavioral changes that could “eventually reduce the scourge of parasitic infections in humans.”
Until that day, being selected for such an honor was “the furthest thing from my mind,” Hallem says. “What meant a lot to me is that they award the MacArthur to individuals who they feel have the potential to make a difference in their field, as opposed to simply recognizing something they’ve already done. This validated both my work as a scientist and my career path.”
Hallem had an inkling early on that she might become a scientist. In eighth grade, she participated in a summer program run by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, where she learned about neuroscience. “After the first homework assignment,” she says, “the teacher said, ‘You seem really interested and good at this. You should think about working in a lab.’” In high school she did just that, working in the UCLA neurobiology lab of Professor Lawrence Zipursky, a family friend, whose research focused on the visual system of Drosophila, the fruit fly.
By the time Hallem arrived at Williams, she was already thinking neuroscience. At the time, the biology faculty had more men than women, but its female professors were quite accomplished. Hallem’s mentors included biochemist Nancy Roseman, who held several administrative posts at Williams before becoming the first female president of Dickinson College in 2013, and molecular biologist Wendy Raymond, who worked at Williams to increase access to STEM fields and is now vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty at Davidson College.
“They were really encouraging to their students,” says Hallem, who also majored in chemistry. “Now that I teach undergraduates, I appreciate that even more.”
Perhaps the most important class that Hallem took at Williams was Marta Laskowski’s senior seminar in biochemistry and molecular biology, which had only six students. The high-level format of the class involved presenting academic papers, “and that inspired me to pursue grad school,” she says.
Hallem headed to Yale, where she got her Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2005. Her dissertation on odor receptors—work that has the potential to lead to new biological pest controls—won a prestigious national award from the Council of Graduate Schools.
She says her first role model was her mother, a successful attorney in Los Angeles who raised two kids. Now Hallem is raising her own children, ages 3 and 7, with husband Joe Vanderwaart ’99. The two met at Williams, and he works as a software engineer at Google.
Hallem says female role models are important for young women dreaming big: “My 7-year-old daughter is really excited that there’s a woman running for president.”
Why Williams: “Statistics showed high alumni satisfaction. Plus, I wanted to be locked away in the middle of nowhere.”
Major: Political science
Favorite Professor: Mark Reinhardt, political science, “who introduced me to feminism as an academic discipline.”
“I’m pretty happy hanging in the boys’ club—bourbon and cigars,” says tech entrepreneur Elissa Shevinsky. But when an app showing photos of men staring at women’s breasts kicked off the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference in San Francisco in fall 2013, it crossed a line for her, personally and professionally.
A debate erupted on social media over whether the app was misogynist or just bad taste. Shevinsky, then a partner with the startup Glimpse Labs, fired off a blog post for Business Insider titled “That’s It—I’m Finished Defending Sexism in Tech.” Her male business partner, meanwhile, stood up for the developers, prompting her to quit. She rejoined the company several months later as CEO, after her partner apologized publicly for his remarks. Their story landed on the front page of the New York Times Sunday business section in April 2014.
Until that incident, Shevinsky hadn’t questioned her place in the tech industry. At Williams she immersed herself in coding, which she learned from a boyfriend. Her programmer friends, with whom she found a home in Berkshire Quad, were “forward-thinking feminists,” split evenly between women and men. And she received encouragement from professors in the computer science courses she took.
In 1999, she worked for Ethan Zuckerman ’93, who was developing the pilot program for Geekcorps, a volunteer organization that sends experts to help technology businesses in developing countries. Zuckerman, who’s now director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab, “was a very close mentor for many years,” Shevinsky says. “I still find myself quoting him on a regular basis.”
As she made her way in her career, she says she responded to “the dominance of white male nerd culture” in tech constructively: by founding her own startups. That way, she says, “You create your own culture, and you create your own path. I love my companies, because I hire everyone who’s there. If someone is out of line, I can fire them.”
Calling herself a “serial entrepreneur,” she worked in product development for several startups and co-founded an online dating site called MakeOut Labs before joining Glimpse, an app for disappearing text messaging.
In January she founded JeKuDo Privacy Co., which is building a platform for encrypted group messaging. (The name comes from Bruce Lee’s fighting style, Jeet Kune Do.) Shevinsky plans to raise capital for the product in the fall, after a few dozen companies test the platform over the summer.
“The need for secure group collaboration is so urgent,” says Shevinsky, who hopes to hit at least $3 million in revenues next year. “I want to lead the market for ‘easy to use privacy.’”
She also published her first book in June, an anthology called Lean Out (OR Books). With a nod to Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Shevinsky calls her book an expose? on the reality of the tech industry for women.
“I can speak from my own experience: I have dropped out of more than one company because bigots were not going to let work get done,” she says. “Women are leaving tech, and it’s clear that intolerance is a real factor.”
Shevinsky is a frequent speaker on privacy and innovation, giving talks at events such as South by Southwest, DefCon, Schmoocon and the NY Tech Meet-up. She advises young people, among them student interns from Williams, to go into tech and startups only if they truly love it.
“Startups are incredibly hard, and so is making software, even within established companies,” she says. “When I started in tech, it was not a trendy thing to do. But I loved technology, and I loved building things. I’m a really good example of someone who followed my sense of adventure and pursued career paths because I loved the work—and who has done well because of that.”
Why Williams: “I wanted to come to a smallish school, and I wanted liberal arts, where I could try a number of things.”
Favorite Professor: Susan Engel, psychology
“When people first meet me, they don’t just see me as a woman, but also as a person of color and a Muslim,” says Sara Fatima Hassan. “And they tend to make a lot of assumptions about me and my opinions.”
One of those assumptions is that a person can’t be a practicing Muslim and a feminist. In particular, the hijab—the headscarf worn by Muslim women—is considered a sign of oppression by some in the West.
Yet Hassan says faith and feminism “are not necessarily disparate identities,” something she’s defended when classroom discussions turned to politics or religion. “I believe in equality for all people as well as in the teachings of Islam and its role in my life.”
At Williams, the history major has worked to break down stereotypes and raise awareness—not only about herself and other Muslim students, but also about Islam in general. An active member of the Muslim Student Union (MSU), serving as treasurer and co-chair, she says that work can be difficult.
“You can’t just get to know other people who are just like you and disappear into that community,” she says. “Williams’ size forces you to form relationships with people you might never have engaged with at a bigger school— and in doing so you learn how many shared experiences you have with these ‘different’ people as well as how much you have to learn from those who hold different identities.”
In the spring of her sophomore year, she helped organize a public demonstration in the Paresky Center to bring attention to the conflict between the Israeli army and Palestinians in the West Bank. Students participated in staged “security checks,” in which their backpacks were searched as they knelt on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. The demonstration raised many eyebrows and launched many conversations.
“For me the goal … was not to interest every student passing by,” she wrote in an op-ed about the demonstration for the Williams Record. “The larger goal is to encourage people to delve into the Israel-Palestine issue, to come to their own conclusions.”
And when a portrait of a recent Muslim graduate—a friend of Hassan’s—was vandalized in Paresky this past October, Hassan worked with the MSU to “create space for healing and conversation.” The incident happened during the week of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, one of the most important Islamic celebrations of the year. So the MSU moved services from the small Muslim prayer room where they’d normally be held into Paresky.
“We transformed Paresky into a mosque-like space that allowed for the whole community to join us in prayer, stand in solidarity and get to know the Muslim community better,” Hassan says. “The response was intended to indicate that the ignorance and hate demonstrated by this act could not diminish or intimidate us.”
Hassan was born in Pakistan and grew up in the U.K. and Canada, where she attended an all-girls high school. Her mother, Marzia Habib-Hassan ’86, an internationally recognized expert on parenting and couple and family relationships, was one of the first Muslim women to attend Williams. An economics major from Pakistan, Habib- Hassan earned a law degree and pursued a master’s in social work at the University of Toronto. Her work includes counseling attuned to the cultural sensitivities of Muslims and South Asians.
Habib-Hassan says it’s been interesting to see Williams through her daughters’ eyes. (Sara’s older sister Zehra graduated from Williams in 2012 and encouraged Sara to join the MSU.) “In my day, there was much less awareness of Islam, so I was met mainly with curiosity or, to put it crudely, with ignorance,” Habib-Hassan says. “In a sense, that was easier than what my daughters have faced: trying
to break down stereotypes and stand up for a billion people in the world.”
Hassan, who’s also been involved with Students for Justice in Palestine, the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives and the Davis Center, says she plans to continue to engage with these issues in the future. She’s looking at jobs and fellowships in education, child welfare and urban planning. She might also work as a writing tutor and teaching assistant at a university in Karachi, Pakistan, so that, she says, “I can educate myself about development challenges the city is facing and improve my Urdu language skills.”
No matter what, she says, “Engagement with social and/or environmental justice is a requirement.”
Martha (Winch) Asher and Katharine “Kathie” (Mills) Berry stand among the handful of women who pursued full- time study at Williams in the 1950s, two decades before the college officially admitted female students.
They weren’t political—the women’s liberation movement hadn’t even taken shape yet—nor were they out to change the world. They knew they were barred from receiving a Williams degree (though each eventually received one). And yet they understood the power of a Williams education.
Asher is the daughter of Williams physics professor Ralph Winch. “I’m a townie and a faculty brat,” she says with a laugh. She spent her freshman year at a small co-ed college—one she’d rather not name—where, she says, “I was rather bored.”
So she came back home, got a job at the Williams library and enrolled in some courses in 1953. Classes were open to women, even if formal matriculation was not. In fact, in the 1940s, many World War II veterans returned to the college with their wives, who were permitted to take courses for credit. Faculty wives also took classes over the years, though they typically audited.
For Asher, the difference between her freshman-year experience and her Williams experience was startling. “I was just blown away by the level of intellectual excitement,” she says. “And I found that I could hold my own.”
Williams was also where she met her future husband, Anil Asher ’55. After he graduated, they moved to his hometown of Kolkata, India, where they married and lived for 12 years. He worked for the family businesses in cotton and cement; she raised their family. Ultimately, they returned to Williamstown, where she took a job, first as secretary and then as registrar at the Clark Art Institute. Attending Williams part-time, she also completed her final year of requirements. (She was excused from gym.)
“My timing was unusual,” she says. “I started with the Class of ’56 and finished with the Class of ’76.” Asher considers herself a member of the Class of 1955 and counts her husband’s classmates among her closest Williams friends.
Berry has a somewhat different story. She was a student at Vassar when she met and fell in love with a Williams student, Charles Berry ’57. They married before their junior year, and she moved to Williamstown. “Younger women tell me they’re surprised I didn’t just drop out,” she says. “But that thought never even occurred to me. I wanted an education.”
Berry wasn’t daunted by her singularity. “Williams was enlightened in accepting me and being so welcoming. Yes, even my husband’s fraternity house, where we often ate dinner.” Granted, she says there was one professor who didn’t want “girls” in his classroom, so Berry simply steered clear of him.
For a time after Williams, Berry pursued what she calls the basic ’50s vision of happiness: three children, house in the suburbs, station wagon, dog. But in the ’70s, as soon as the kids were solidly on their feet, she went to work in public affairs and administration for a variety of large organizations, including Prudential Insurance and United Way. Friends began calling her to ask, “How did you manage to get a job? And how can I?”
In June 1975, when the first fully coeducational class graduated from Williams, Berry received her degree retroactively along with Beth Stoddard ’61 and Linda Armour ’62. Another early female student, Louise Ober, fell just short of the necessary number of credits to receive a diploma. But she was made an official member of the Class of ’64 at its 50th reunion last June. A talented actress, the Williamstown native starred in the 1969 movie Riverrun. She died in 1978 from cancer.
Berry has been hugely active as a Williams volunteer and, in the 1980s, became the first female president of the Society of Alumni. She also received the Rogerson Cup for alumni service in 2007, at her 50th reunion. “Ever since the moment in 1955 when Dean ‘Triple R’ Brooks told me I’d be allowed to take classes at the college, I’ve been flattered by Williams,” she says. “The college has had a huge, positive influence on our lives.”
And to top it off, Benjamin Gips, the son of Berry’s daughter Elizabeth Berry Gips ’82, will enter the college this fall. Berry says she’s delighted he’ll be “among the first Williams students who will be able to say, ‘My grandmother is a Williams graduate.’”