wo extraordinary Texas women, one by birth and one by conviction, are making headlines in higher education these days. Ruth Simmons, from the Fifth Ward of Houston, former president of Smith, the women’s college in Massachusetts, is now president of Brown University in Rhode Island, the first black woman ever to head an Ivy League school.
It feels so odd to write one of those sentences again–“the first black woman ever to…” I used to write them all the time, mostly about Barbara Jordan. She is now the first and only black woman in the Texas State Cemetery. There’s a special connection between Jordan and Simmons, and it has a great deal to do with why and how minority women move up. When Ruth Simmons was a girl, every day as she walked to Phyllis Wheatley High School, she passed Barbara Jordan’s house. And every day she said to herself, “If Barbara Jordan can make it out of here, so can I.” As was also true in Jordan’s case, a supportive family made most of the difference. Simmons was born the 12th child of sharecroppers in Grapeland; the family moved to Houston where her mother worked as a cleaning woman.
“Role model” is one of those trite, annoying bits of psychobabble–I always thought “heroes” was a better word. But if you ever get to watch minority kids whose classes have been dragged in to see the Legislature you will notice the same thing every time. The kids are in the gallery looking down at this incomprehensible ant heap of white guys, talking about some incomprehensible subject, and the only interesting thing that happens is sometimes the white guy standing in front of everyone else whacks this hammer down and makes a big noise. As the kids watch a little longer, you will notice them suddenly glom onto a few figures down below. The black and Hispanic girls hone in on the black and Hispanic women; it’s like watching a cat focus on a bird–total attention. At the same time, the boys are focusing on the black and Hispanic men. If a black or Hispanic legislator takes the podium, they nudge each other and ask, “Who’s that? What’s she doing up there?” You can almost see the light bulb going on: “This is something I could do.”
Jordan, of necessity, created a towering dignity, a wall of gravitas that kept her from being dismissed because of her race and/or sex. As though to prove that it is easier for those who come after, Ruth Simmons is a woman of extraordinary charm. She laughs easily, is well-informed and interested in almost everything, and simply and genuinely likes all kinds of people. Because her family is still in Texas, she’s usually up on the latest news from home but listens to new stories about our doings with the fascinated air of someone hearing about a tribe of Iks.
Like all black Americans, Ruth Simmons has known and still deals with racial prejudice. And it is no more attractive in the civilized precincts of academe than it is anywhere else. But in contrast to Jordan, she is much less guarded, more apt to take people as they come without expecting prejudice, and always ready to laugh. When she appeared at the end of a faculty procession at Smith earlier this year, the students went berserk with enthusiasm and almost cheered the roof off. When was the last time you saw students going loopy with joy over a college administrator?
Cha Guzman, who has been executive vice-president at Austin Community College, is the new president of Palo Alto College in the Alamo Community College district. Upon hearing herself compared to Ruth Simmons, she promptly cracked up, then noted dryly that president of Palo Alto is not quite president of Brown by the standards of The Journal of Higher Education. Guzman is Cuban-American, born in Havana, but has been in Texas all her adult life. She is married to Gilberto Ocañas, a Tejano businessman and active Democrat (also a member of the Observer’s board.) Ocañas comes from a large family, and so Guzman is intimately familiar with Tejano culture.
Guzman and Simmons are in fact remarkably alike, starting with a bedrock of real ability. The vogue term for it is “exceptional people skills,” but I think it’s just plain old charm. Ready laughter, interest, enthusiasm, energy and tremendous empathy. One of Cha Guzman’s favorite things in life is talking to young Hispanic women: She travels all over the country to do so and can tell the most extraordinary stories about, for example, talking to teenage Latinas in L.A. and how they react to seeing and hearing a Hispanic woman with a successful career in academia. “Role model” is a pathetically inadequate translation of what this means to young people.
When I heard recently of Geraldine Ferraro’s battle with cancer, I was suddenly jerked back to that summer in San Francisco in 1984 when she became the first woman ever nominated for vice-president. I was a 40-year-old newspaper reporter of rather outstanding cynicism, if I do say so myself. Furthermore, I thought it was a bad pick politically: She didn’t have the credentials, and the First Woman must always have more credentials, so it was obvious her greatest draw was being female. That night, I stood in the back of the Cow Palace, notebook in hand, taking down every word she said, with tears running down my face for 35 minutes because one of us was finally up there.
Go, girls, go.
Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.