Colleen Willoughby

Trustee emerita Colleen Willoughby ’55 urges women students to “step up, step out and engage” in this year’s Women in Leadership Symposium.

By David Brauhn

When Colleen Seidelhuber Willoughby ’55 graduated from Whitman College, the primary career options for women were teacher, nurse or secretary.

“Also, many were airline hostesses,” she said. “That used to be a very attractive job. We called them stewardesses in that day. They traveled all over. It was considered a great job for women then.”

Thirty years ago, women were a long way from being considered for college president positions, Willoughby said. “President Murray's appointment demonstrates just how far women have traveled and succeeded in leadership. We are proud of her appointment.”

“Young women need to have courage to step out and step up, engage, be proactive about their own abilities.” A college education can be the beginning of that journey, and “Whitman is a grand laboratory for exploration and personal growth,” Willoughby added.

This has been Willoughby's message since 1981, when she organized the first symposium, titled Women's Education: For Living and Leadership. An overseer at the time, Willoughby felt this was something she could do to provide role models for women like her daughter, at that time a first-year college student who was interested in the younger women her mother was bringing to Whitman.

The women Willoughby brought to campus were going beyond the traditional path her mother was leading primarily as a volunteer leader in the community, combining work-life careers and engaging in community leadership at the same time.

Willoughby graduated from Whitman with a degree in politics and speech. She is an emerita trustee who has made a career of community service and leadership in the Seattle area, most notably as cofounder and board member of CityClub and founder of the Washington Women’s Foundation and Global Women – Partners in Philanthropy.

She has worked with five of Whitman College’s 14 presidents—Robert Skotheim, David Maxwell, Tom Cronin, George Bridges and, now, Kathleen Murray.

According to statistics from the American Council on Education’s American College President Study, about a quarter of U.S. college presidents are women. This comes at a time when the majority—nearly 60 percent—of college students are women. ACE statistics show that, in 1986, only 10 percent of college presidents were women. Higher education is making gains in leadership gender equality, but it is slow.

During the symposium, Willoughby called this “a propitious time to be discussing leadership and celebrating women's leadership,” welcoming the appointment of both President Murray and the announcement of Ana Mari Cauce as the new president of the University of Washington. She added that “we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.”

According to Women in Higher Education, mentoring plays a key role in helping women to attain leadership roles. The Women in Leadership Symposium is a perfect example of providing women students with successful role models.

Three accomplished Whitman alumnae from the Classes of 1983 and 1984 returned to their alma mater this year to speak at the symposium and build on the legacy of women helping women that Willoughby established nearly 35 years ago.

As Sarah Geren-Ziegler ’84 said, “Leadership is not about who you are. It’s all about who you are fortunate to lead.”

Geren-Ziegler is an elementary school teacher for the Bellevue School District. After her graduation from Whitman, she earned her master’s degree at the University of Washington’s Jackson School for International Studies. She stayed home with her two sons for 14 years before earning her teaching credential.

“It is a privilege to work with students living in poverty whose parents are first-generation immigrants to our country,” she said. “My students come to school with several external disadvantages, but internally they have a spirit that inspires me every day.”

A lifelong learner as well as a lifelong educator, her passion for teaching led her back to graduate school, and she is working on earning her doctorate in literacy curriculum and instruction.

Classmate Ann Watson ’83 joined her at the symposium. Watson, chief operating officer for Seattle-based investment bank Cascadia Capital and chair of the Seattle Foundation Board of Directors, said the examples her grandmothers set for her were important in shaping her sense of what was possible for women.

“My grandmothers, who were both professional working women, were well ahead of their time,” she said. “My Grandmother McMahon was the executive assistant to the CEO of a large oil company in Detroit. During the Depression, she was the only one in the extended family with a job and the only one with a house.”
 
Her other grandmother was a nurse in Wenatchee, Washington, at a time when most women stopped working when they got married.

“My Grandmother Watson enjoyed her work immensely so she continued to work as a nurse after marrying my grandfather, despite the immense scorn she received from the other nurses.  After she had my father, she wanted to continue working as a nurse,” she said.

“According to family lore, she had to get a letter from the governor of Washington in order to be allowed to continue working as a nurse after she was married.” 

Maria Denny ’84, who has played a leadership role in arts, environmental and educational institutions for more than three decades, said her two new heroes are President Murray and the new president of the University of Washington, Ana Mari Cauce.

“Sometimes it’s not the one who screams the loudest but the one who patiently waits,” she said. “Ana Mari waited 30 years for the world to be ready for a gay Latina to run one of the largest universities in the country. Congratulations to both of these women leaders.”

This year, a group of women students raised concerns that there were no women of color represented on the symposium panel. “It’s a valid issue,” Willoughby agreed. She invited the women to “work with her next year to develop a panel that reflects the inclusivity they would like to see.”

But President Murray’s appointment is a watershed moment for Whitman, Willoughby concluded.

“I think it shows great progress for women’s leadership. It is a historic moment—she calls it that herself. We look forward to her leadership.”