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Note Book

Fall 2004 • Volume 10, Issue 4

Building our lives on the backs of others

This is an excerpt of a speech given by Barbara Proctor Mantz Drake ’67 MLS ’82, Journal Star editorial page editor, at the spring initiation banquet for the national academic honorary Phi Kappa Phi.

You’ve heard the story of Bradley’s founding a dozen times, and every retelling tends to make it routine, which it does not deserve to be…A middle-aged woman loses her husband in a freak accident, takes over his business, and makes it into a phenomenal success. She does this in an era when female business executives are about as rare as female football players. One by one by one, she loses all of her children—six of them. Not one becomes an adult.

How does Lydia Moss Bradley come to terms with grief greater than any of us wants to imagine? By giving you—and me—a university that would outlive her.

It is very tempting when we have done something well to think that we alone are responsible. I believe there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Every life is built on the backs of those who went before, those like Mrs. Bradley, who found a way to make her life count for something. Much of what I have been able to achieve is built on the backs of people like Paul Snider, a fabulous journalism professor long ago retired, and [the late Dr.] Kalman Goldberg, [professor of economics], who taught me about guns and butter and humanity when I was an 18-year-old, reluctant enrollee in Econ 101, there only because the journalism program required a course in economics.

One of the most rewarding parts of my job has been talking to people who have [changed the world]. I want to acquaint you with two of them. Both are Peorians.

Nancy Goodman Brinker’s promise

The first is Nancy Goodman Brinker. She and her sister Suzy were the daughters of a prosperous Peoria developer. In their early 30s, first Suzy and then Nancy got breast cancer. Nancy would live; Suzy would die.
In their last visit together, Nancy promised her sister she would do something that would honor her memory. That something became the Race for the Cure, run first in Dallas and second in Peoria and now an annual event in more than 100 U.S. cities and at least three foreign countries. Proceeds from the races and dozens of other related fundraisers go to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the largest private sponsor of breast cancer research in the United States. Researchers have come up with treatments that have greatly prolonged the lifespan of breast cancer victims and dramatically increased the odds of recovery. Furthermore, by calling attention to one terrible disease particular to women, the Komen Foundation has shone necessary light upon women’s health in general. For example, it is no longer tolerable for medical researchers to include only male subjects in their studies, overlooking the fact that women’s bodies react differently.

I interviewed Nancy two years ago in Budapest, Hungary, where she was eight months into her new career as the U.S. ambassador. She was working in an embassy that was barricaded after 9-11, struggling with loneliness and anti-Semitism. Yet, beyond the duties asked of all ambassadors, she was visiting hospitals and talking to cancer patients and trying to encourage them, all the while working to establish in Hungary the voluntary, non-governmental organizations that are commonplace in this country.

Betty Friedan’s revolution

The second woman is Betty Friedan HON ’91: author of The Feminine Mystique, The Second Stage, and four or five other books; and founder of the National Organization of Women. She grew up just around the corner from Bradley, the daughter of a jeweler and a resentful stay-at-home mom. The Feminine Mystique, which attacked the idea that a woman’s highest goal in life was to have shiny floors and a clean oven, came out in 1963, the same year I started at Bradley. I read it in a freshman sociology class.

Here are some statistics:
In 1960, three years before the book came out, less than 3 percent of all law school degrees went to women, as did less than 1 percent of all dental degrees and less than one-third of all bachelor’s degrees. Forty years later, women made up 43 percent of all law school graduates and 36 percent of dental school graduates. They had become the majority, 62 percent, of all recipients of new bachelor’s degrees issued in this country.

Friedan launched a revolution. It is no wonder that in an end-of-the-millennium ranking of the 100 most influential women of all time, she was placed 29th. (She was behind Eleanor Roosevelt and ahead of Joan of Arc.) The Feminine Mystique is rated among the 100 most influential books ever written.

I flew to Washington in 1999 to interview Friedan. Given that she has not always spoken kindly of Peoria, I was surprised to hear her credit her hometown with teaching her “the can-do spirit of community organizing.”
Betty Friedan and Lydia Moss Bradley are among the 200 members of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, an extraordinary feat, I think, for a city this size.

You are young and talented. Let no one tell you that one person cannot make a difference in a big and complex world. You have done well, but you did not do it alone. So before you forget what I told you, spend a few minutes thinking about those who helped you. Say thanks, and phone home, OK?

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