Alene Moris is Ready for Action

Alene Moris is on high alert, but that’s nothing new. Alert is her default mode, and it has been for 89 years. Yes, she was an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton, and yes, she is heartbroken. But curling up or giving up is just not what she does.

“I’m doing everything I can to stay logical, rational—and emotional. I don’t discount emotions,” Moris says. She contends that it is our emotions that guide us toward doing what we know needs to be done, which is not always the most logical or rational thing to do.

For example: In 1965, when Moris and her Lutheran pastor husband were happily posted at a parish church in Helena, Montana, their hearts said yes to a job offer in Sabah (then British North Borneo), Malaysia, where they stayed, with their four children, for four years. Moris was asked to teach at the local college preparatory high school. When her students began to pepper her with questions about America’s involvement in Vietnam, she ordered a stack of books.

“I read day and night for one whole weekend,” Moris said. What struck her, as she read, was the complete absence of women from diplomatic and military leadership in the United States. Men, and only men, had made the “logical and rational” decisions to send young soldiers off to a doomed war. Moris vowed then and there to devote her life to encouraging and training women to become leaders.

When she returned to the U.S., she pursued a master’s degree in psychology with the goal of becoming a college and career counselor. Her husband was offered a church position in Seattle, and Moris got a job working with Dorothy Strawn, then dean of women at the University of Washington.

It was a turbulent time at the UW. Student activism was at its peak and the administration was tense. After Strawn successfully lobbied for equal treatment of female students, university officials deemed her job redundant, and she was asked to head a new, minimally funded continuing education program for women who were re-entering the workforce. Strawn and Moris thought they might get 20 students in their initial “What are you going to do with your life?” workshops; instead, they were soon running five workshops a week on their shoestring budget and serving 150 women at a time. It was the hectic beginning of what is now the UW Women’s Center.

For Moris, it was also the beginning of a new career. She knew she would never have the autonomy, or the budget, to reach all the people she wanted to reach if she stayed in academia. So she founded her own career counseling center, called the Individual Development Center. Her early clients included women struggling to start careers (“displaced homemakers” was the quaint phrase of the time); women and men laid off by Boeing, which cut 86,000 jobs in the early 1970s; and contracts with the Sisters of Providence and Weyerhaeuser, the timber giant. She became a frequent speaker, particularly on her favorite topic: the importance of getting more women into leadership roles in all sectors, but especially in politics and business.

In early 1992, Washington’s then-governor Booth Gardner and his wife Jean Gardner hosted the national Governors’ Conference. Jean Gardner asked Moris to speak to the governors’ wives on “what to do with your life when you’re married to an important man.” Moris recalls that in the front row was the “most active participant you’ve ever seen,” Hillary Clinton, then the first lady of Arkansas. Moris and Clinton began corresponding. When Bill Clinton was elected president and Hillary was pilloried for her commitment to her own career (“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” she famously said, “but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life”), Moris sent her a note in which she printed, in large letters, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Two years later, Hillary Clinton was the guest speaker at a luncheon honoring Moris.

So it’s no surprise that Alene Moris was heartbroken by Hillary’s loss. And that she is now alert—“and I’m going to stay alert”—and ready for action.

Sutapa Basu, director of the UW Women’s Center since 1993, says she “used to be so intimidated” by Moris but she now considers Moris her mentor. They talk every few days and have dinner once a week. Of Moris’ career, Basu says that she “tremendously contributed to getting women in leadership and to training men to shift their thinking” about women.

Through the Women’s Center, Basu runs the Alene Moris National Education for Women’s Leadership (NEW) program, a six-day summer institute designed to give undergraduate and graduate women the necessary skills and networks to become political and civic leaders.

The UW Women’s Center is housed in Cunningham Hall, the first building built for women on campus in 1909. In its early years, it was a meeting place for Washington state suffragists. The day I visited, young women of every description strolled through or studied in its tiny, airy library. As I left, a woman in a cheerleading outfit came running up the steps. I thought of her later as I read Moris’ 1982 book of essays called Uncommon Sense, in which she predicted that “in the future, women will be impossible to categorize. They will design complex, individualistic life patterns. What is good for one woman will no longer be seen as necessarily good for the next woman. And this uniqueness will nurture creativity, the one essential for survival. We must not lose this honoring of a woman’s right to design her own life and to keep the gains she has made.”

Moris takes great satisfaction in the work of the NEW program which bears her name and is now in its ninth year. “I’ve always seen myself in a relay race,” she told me. “And we’ve got to pass the baton to the next generation.”

 

Ann Hedreen is a writer, filmmaker, and the author of Her Beautiful Brain, winner of a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award. Together, Ann and her husband Rustin Thompson own White Noise Productions and have made more than 150 short films and five feature documentaries, including Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story. Their newest film, set in Peru and inspired by Ann’s great-uncle, is Zona Intangible.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Helen Coyne-Hoerle

    Hooray! So good to learn more about Elena and celebrate her accomplishments. I now live in Marina Del Rey, California, and very much appreciate the opportunity to stay connected with the Pacific Northwest where I did live for 40 years.

  2. I am one of the very fortunate women who has been inspired by Alene’s words, wisdom and most of all, action. My life has been directly impacted by my association with her, especially in my work as an executive coach for women leaders. Supporting women in their professional growth is indeed a privilege. Thank you Alene!

    • Victoria Marshall

      Thank you for your post, Jan, and for sharing how Alene Moris has impacted your life. I’ve just recently met Alene and am moved and motivated by her commitment, her voice, and her grace. I have deep gratitude for the work she has done and continues to do for all women.

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