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  • To Be Underestimated Can Be a Good Thing
  • Helen M. Ingram

The curse of low expectations often diminishes women's lives. Growing up in the 1950s, as I did, young women were presented with only two options for their futures: Become wives, mothers, and helpmates to their husbands; stay single and pursue a career. My saintly mother was my role model for the first option. I believed that she worked way too hard, neglected herself, and got too little credit. The second path was clearly not preferable because giving up on romance was difficult, and jobs open to women were usually not high status.

The only thing that I was really good at was school. I adored politics, but I never got elected to anything, not even in Rainbow Girls, a Masonic- sponsored secret society with lots of offices to fill. I knew of few successful female politicians. The handful of women elected to Congress tended to be the widows of congressmen. Other women in politics were like my mother, dedicated, but under-appreciated precinct officials and party convention delegates. Both my grandmother and mother were teachers before they were married, and teaching credentials were considered "fallback" insurance. My decision to teach politics seemed a way to vicariously stay politically involved while pleasing my parents.

My ambition and intellectual ability were clearly underestimated in my family's choice of a tiny, all girls, junior college for me, and reflected their vast overestimation of my likelihood of getting into trouble unless closely supervised. While I was not part of the discussion, I do remember that I was pleased to be going to someplace out of state. As my daughters recount in their essay, the school was a poor fit, but subjected me to very useful life lessons. How fine it felt to be at the top of the class, and later on when academic expectations got higher, mine rose as well. Fitting in got a lot less important to me as I survived being profoundly unpopular among my junior college classmates. Having no social status to lose among my peers relieved me from fears that my ideas and opinions would be badly received. If invisibility was the price of acceptance, I was not willing then, or now, to pay it. [End Page 6]

There is a school of thought among conservative feminists that "affirmative action" is more damaging than beneficial to women who are advanced on the basis of gender. My own experience suggests that whatever the rules say, being female always matters. As my daughters write, I had to "talk" my way into the graduate program at Columbia University as an exceptional female worth the trouble. That stigma never went away. A male colleague and I took a first-year seminar together. He never did the reading in preparation for class discussion, but I explained the literature to him during long walks we took before class. When my male friend got a better grade in the class than I did, I decided to congratulate myself on being a better teacher than our professor. Further, my slavishness about getting the best grades dimmed, and I learned to rely more on the opinions of a network of critical colleagues. When entering the job market, the males in my graduate program were benefited by personal calls to recruitment committee chairs from their advisers. Newly married with a small baby, I am sure my adviser did not believe I would ever be a credit to him. He told me to set up a file in the placement office to which he would write a general letter. I was a "walk-on" to my first academic job at the University of New Mexico (UNM). It was there that I began water resources research, a subject matter choice any political science mentor would have vetoed. It was also at UNM that Dorothy Cline, an astute commentator on New Mexico politics, the only other woman in the department, smoothed the way for me. She might have seen me as a threat but never treated me as such. Ever since, I have tried to pass along this generosity.

At UNM my teaching load was heavy and my publications...


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