Meda Chesney-Lind '69 told 2011 graduates that Whitman faculty significantly influenced her own work in sociology and women's studies.
When Meda Chesney-Lind '69 graduated from Whitman, she was acutely aware of the obstacles that lay in between her and a number of educational and career paths.
Though the bright young student had been valedictorian of her Portland high school class and graduated summa cum laude with a sociology degree from Whitman, she still had one, seemingly insurmountable, impediment: her gender.
"I knew that I probably couldn't go to medical school or law school because those doors were barely open to women at that time. I couldn't apply to be a Rhodes Scholar because that was only open to men," said Chesney-Lind, now professor of women's studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "I tell my students these things now because, thankfully, the world that young women face today is much different than the one in which I grew up."
Returning to Whitman in May to deliver the 2011 Commencement address and accept an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from her alma mater, her life and career are proof that she indeed triumphed over the social adversities of an earlier era. She credits much of her success to an innate determination, a passion to advance gender equality, and the early guidance and support she received while attending Whitman.
"I was able to take the 'tool box' of skills and talents that I developed at Whitman and join in the renaissance of feminism. I just went for it … and it's been a great ride so far."
— Meda Chesney-Lind '69
"The fact that I majored in sociology at Whitman was very important, but the influence that faculty members such as sociology professor Lee Bowker had on my work was especially significant," she said. "Lee was finishing his Ph.D. while teaching at Whitman, and he was a very passionate and fun person to be around. He was a great criminologist and was pivotal in my early career. He allowed me to write a chapter in a book that he wrote on women and crime and included another chapter by Joycelyn Pollock '78, a close friend of mine. Lee helped launch a number of careers and is a great example of the type of meaningful, faculty-student mentoring that takes place at Whitman."
After graduating from Whitman, Chesney-Lind earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Hawaii, a system comprised of 10 campuses across the Hawaiian Islands. Nationally recognized for her work on women and crime and the author of seven books on the subject, she is well-known as "an outspoken advocate for girls and women, particularly those who find their way into the criminal justice system."
Her scholarly work and focused advocacy have brought light to a number of important social issues, including the problem of sexism in the juvenile justice system, an area in which she has helped bring attention to the need for additional services for girls. Her efforts also have been channeled to raise national awareness of the increasing rate of women's imprisonment and the need for alternatives to women's incarceration.
The many accolades earned throughout her career include being named a fellow of the American Society of Criminology and honored by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the Western Society of Criminology and University of Hawaii Board of Regents.
"I feel very fortunate to have been able to follow my passion. I was always very interested in the issues of justice, law and feminism, but during the time I attended Whitman the world wasn't talking about women's or girls' issues," she said. "But as soon as these issues appeared on my radar I was able to take the 'tool box' of skills and talents that I developed at Whitman and join in the renaissance of feminism. I just went for it … and it's been a great ride so far."
Her journey that brought her back to Whitman to share words of wisdom at Whitman's 125th Commencement ceremony also led to a special family moment. As a Whitman student, Meda preceded her sister, Margaret Chesney '71. As the Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient, she followed her sister on the Commencement stage; Margaret is a world leader in AIDS research and prevention and received an honorary doctor of humane letters from Whitman in 2008.
"What a treat it is for both of us share this honor. I think it's a measure of how far we've come as women — and as a society," Chesney-Lind said. "It's also important for students to see women who have done good things in their lives; that they might see themselves in that space, too. Just knowing that there is a future that includes them is very powerful."
— Joe Gurriere
Editor's note: The Alumni Association also has named both sisters Alumna of Merit: Margaret in 1987 and Meda in 1997.