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Jing Lyman: A pioneering campus leader takes another bow
In 1976 the New York Times ran an article about women’s liberation and its invigorating effect on college presidents’ wives. Case in point: Jing Lyman, the dynamic “first lady” of Stanford University from 1970 to 1980. Apart from her reputation as a skilled and gracious campus hostess, “Mrs. Lyman is admired for the way she has carved out a position for herself,” the Times noted. “She travels with her husband, is active in fund raising, gives speeches to alumni groups, and speaks out on issues such as fair housing, volunteerism and equality of opportunity for women.”
Now the 85-year-old campus matriarch in the news again – this time because Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research is launching an annual lecture series in her honor. The idea harks back to the 1980s and ’90s, when the university’s former Center for Research on Women hosted a popular monthly lecture series bearing her name. “I wanted to find a way to recognize both current contributions to gender equality and past contributions of members of the Stanford community,” says Shelley Correll, professor of sociology, who is taking over as director of the Clayman Institute this fall. “Jing was one of the early leaders on gender issues on campus. Naming the new lecture series after her thus serves to recognize her contributions.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1925, Lyman hails from a long line of feminist pioneers, beginning with her great-great grandfather, a Vermont cleric who led one of the first co-educational schools in the United States. A great-aunt founded a girls’ school for French war orphans, and her own mother worked in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, helping to resettle rural families displaced by the Great Depression. Lyman met her future husband, Richard, while they were both at Swarthmore College. The couple married in 1947, in a bohemian outdoor ceremony on Great Sprucehead Island, Maine. Eleven years and four children later, they wound up at Stanford, where Dick had accepted a position as professor of British history.
Finding her own political voice
Lyman first became politically active around the time of her 40th birthday, when she successfully teamed up with other Stanford and Palo Alto residents to defeat Proposition 14, a state referendum that would have allowed rental property owners to discriminate on the basis of race. Later she became a leader in the Stanford Faculty Women’s Club, hosting meetings at her campus home and spearheading programs to address the needs of re-entry women for continuing education and job placement.
After her husband assumed Stanford’s presidency in the tumultuous 1970s, Lyman spent considerable time presiding over university functions. In 1974-75 alone, she told the Times, she entertained nearly 50 groups at Hoover House, not counting the 2,200-guest commencement reception. Yet she still found time to work for causes that mattered to her, including the promotion of women to tenure-track faculty positions. “I had a touchy role to play because I had to be behind the scenes,” she recalls now, sipping iced tea in her comfortable living room at Channing House in Palo Alto. “I didn’t want to put Dick or anyone else in an awkward position. But he was incredibly supportive. I’ve always said that he was a feminist long before I dared call myself one.”
Lyman’s skills at networking and organizing were particularly appreciated by the founders of Stanford’s first Center for Research on Women, established in 1974. As its first director, Myra Strober, recalls, Lyman immediately recognized the value of setting up a house on campus where serious academic research on women could be nurtured and disseminated. “She really gave me a lifeline,” says Strober, now a Stanford professor of education and professor by courtesy in the Graduate School of Business. “Not only did she like the idea herself, but her advocacy in high places was very important . . . And then she opened her friendship network and helped start CROW Associates [then, the center’s fundraising arm]. Without that we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did.”
A focus on women and philanthropy
Lyman’s impact was felt on the national scene as well. In 1976, for example – stunned by a Ford Foundation report showing only 0.6 percent of private philanthropic resources funding programs for woman and girls – she helped launch an organization called Women and Foundations/Corporate Philanthropy (WAFCP), bringing together representatives from nearly 200 private and corporate foundations. Another of her groups, now called the Women’s Foundation of California, works at the state level. “WAFCP had a two-pronged agenda,” she explains. “One was to get women into policy-making positions within the philanthropic community; the other was to increase the level of funding for women and girls.”
In some ways, Lyman is thrilled with the progress she’s seen since then. “My goodness,” she says, laughing. “When we first came to Stanford in 1958, women could not even go into the inner quad unless they had on skirts and stockings!” She’s grateful for the growing number of prominent women in policy-making positions, and she’s an enthusiastic supporter of microcredit programs for female entrepreneurs. At the same time, she’s troubled by persistent traditions of sex discrimination in developing countries, and disappointed by the continuing dearth of resources for women’s programs. “Even though women have moved up into leadership positions [in philanthropic organizations], the level of funding for women’s programs still is small potatoes,” she laments. Thirty years after the Ford Foundation report, “never more than 10 percent goes to women and girls.”
Over the years, Lyman has been recognized numerous times for her pioneering work. In 1991, she and her husband were presented with Stanford’s highest honors, he with the degree of Uncommon Man, and she with the first-ever degree of “Uncommon Woman.” Six years later, his name was placed on a new graduate student housing complex at Governor’s Corner, and hers on the dining commons – a fitting tribute to one who fed the multitudes. The Clayman Institute’s first annual Jing Lyman lecture will be held in the winter of 2011.