A Woman Ahead of Her Time

An excerpt from Paul Dimond’s in-depth interview with Jorie from Jorie Loves a Story: Conversations with the Bookish, June 8, 2017.

Q: Given the timeline of Belle’s story, how did you approach bridging her independent ideals and her fortitude against moments in history where women were challenged the most for having an independent mind? What did you want reader's to take away most by Belle’s example?

A: Belle fought the longstanding, hidebound academic bias against women from her first days at Michigan to her last, as much as she bridled at her father’s male prejudice against any woman, even his daughter, running the family business. Yet from beginning to end, whether in pitched battles or nudges, suggestions, alliances with new allies, strategic investments or end-arounds and detours, Belle also came to love her Papa and the University more. This hard-won respect was a two-way street, as her Papa accepted Belle as an equal partner and named her his replacement as Chair of their Empire and as the University began to accept some of her suggestions, honor her, and ever so slowly to make a few changes.

Consider how Belle counseled her brother right after World War II when Pip wanted only to wash his hands of the University. Pip had started helped fund, and headed one of the largest and most important War Labs with many UM grads and scientists across the Huron River from the main campus: its goal, to win the “cat and mouse games” to detect any threats by enemy planes, ships and subs and to provide cover for Allied attacks by air or sea. But the University chose a full professor with a Ph.D. over Pip to oversee all research at War’s end and sent the rest of Pip’s best scientists and closest astronomer partner John Kraus packing. Ironically, Kraus ended up at Michigan’s biggest rival, Ohio State, along with their long planned “Big Ear” radio telescope to scan the universe for signs of intelligent life. Although furious at the University over another slight to her now war-hero brother, Belle doesn’t throw in the towel. Instead, she fought all the harder to keep the University open to qualified women, even as the WWII Veterans began to flood the campus; and she worked with her allies to get Michigan to sponsor a creative writers’ camp at her Homestead Inn. Over time, she also encouraged Pip to work with Michigan’s new CFO on several conservation and research initiatives up north and a new North Campus for engineering and scientific research. As a result, Pip and the University work so well together that Michigan’s new President (from Ohio State, no less) honors Pip by making him the keynoter at the opening of the North Campus.  

By such examples, Belle shares: (a) how a strong will, if not deterred by losses and slights, can with persistence and smarts make a difference; and (b) why it’s important to keep building on the good parts of an important institution or unique place rather than tearing it down or giving up and moving on. And along Belle’s journey, the reader will enjoy a great story.