The Heroines

Annette TenElshof

is honored with a Brick from Carol Wolfe Konek.

I recall Annette Ten Elshof, my friend, my opposite. She was very much alone, her own person. Both parents were dead, and she was only loosely connected to a sister and a brother. Her sister lived in Denver; her drug-addicted brother in California. She was of Dutch descent. Occasionally I see her prototype in a portrait by a Dutch master. She urged me to look ahead, to take care of my career, even as I felt the bonds of my marriage fraying and loosening, and as I felt myself less and less capable of managing my wild and growing children, diverse, individualistic, destined for perfection I then could barely imagine.

I was teaching Freshman Composition when we became friends. Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Wichita State University, she made it her business to know faculty and to involve us in shaping students' academic and co-curricular lives. When she first mentioned Women's Studies, I had an epiphany, suddenly comprehending an absence I had never noticed. As an English major who had written about Katherine Ann Porter and the women in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (idiotic essays devoid of feminist theory), I had heretofore not seen what was missing, although I considered myself a liberal interested in justice.

Annette shared my interest in opening academic doors to the previously excluded. Annette and I team-taught Women in Society, a course we invented with theories and works from many disciplines, inviting academic and community women to tell students the stories of their aspirations and successes. Annette insisted that I accompany her to community and academic gatherings where we co-presented. She addressed my fear of public speaking by assuring me, "I'll be with you. We'll just talk to them." Then she would add, "We must think of the young women. What are their opportunities to be?"

She was evangelical in her approach to opening the university doors to previously excluded students. She was aggressive in her approach to improving my future. "You must get a Ph.D." When Annette took me to a conference in Oklahoma to do a presentation on women's equity, I realized her hidden agenda was to introduce me to Dorothy Truex. She had selected a mentor and a university, and dismissed my concerns for my four children as though I were merely making excuses. She initiated a forgivable loan from Wichita State University, and I was on my way, still protesting that I could not leave my children, my classes, my life. Optimistic, visionary, insistent, she minimized my terror, my doubt, my reluctance.

She initiated a Women's Educational Equity Act grant, designating me as director, even as she applied for positions offering her the career opportunities she sought. Women's Studies was well-established and I was on schedule to receive a Ph.D. and tenure by the time she accepted a position as the first woman to be named as Dean of Students at Tulane University. We knew she would need to subordinate her feminist beliefs to gain credibility and administrative power in an all-male administration in a university steeped in southern tradition.

She gave me custody of the Pre-Columbian terra cotta fertility goddess we called Happy Mother, a woman whose smiling face was the larger version of the smiling face of the baby emerging between her thighs. We strategized her approach to the dangers awaiting her in the previously all-male leadership domain she entered at Tulane. We decided she would shelve no feminist books on the first floor of her university-owned house, that she would wear pale blue to match the pale blue carpeting in the home where she would entertain students frequently, breaking with the tradition of faculty serving alcohol to students.

Annette was prim and fragile, well-versed in scripture from her undergraduate study in theology at Wheaton College, after which she was thwarted in her desire to become a minister. When Phyllis Schafly came to Wichita, Annette won their theological debate, hands down. Annette had been told, after earning the degree, that, were she a man, her scholastic record would have earned her a pastor's position. She was told, after earning a degree in Electrical Engineering, were she a man, her fine scholastic record would have earned her an engineering job.

She believed Student Affairs would not only provide her career opportunities as a change agent, but also position her to initiate institutional and social change on behalf of women's equality. She found no such possibilities at Tulane, a bastion of southern male privilege. She was in trouble from the beginning, unable to collaborate with the passed-over insider white male candidate who not only knew everyone, but knew how things were done. She tried to curtail customary student drinking. She tried to develop a women's network inclusive of faculty women at Tulane and Sophie Newcomb. She tried to create leadership opportunities for women students. She tried to fit in as she tried to change an academic culture she barely comprehended. She failed in her simultaneous search for inclusion and transformation.

After she was relieved of her administrative duties and evicted from her prestigious administrative mansion, she never hung her pictures in the substitute housing the university provided. When I visited her, a thin veneer of cheer seemed to barely disguise her disappointment. I called her office from the Project DELTA office in the middle of the morning the day she had her mastectomy. I insisted on knowing where she was, persuading her secretary I was psychic before she divulged the secret she had sworn not to tell. We met in New York at the Waldorf Astoria for a National Association of Women Deans, Administrators and Counselors meeting, and she came to Wichita to participate in a regional meeting for academic women's leadership sponsored by Project DELTA. We talked often.

After learning that they had lost the test for estrogen dependency of her breast tumor, she had a preventative hysterectomy. I flew to spend a day with her after Kay Camin suggested I hurry. Although she had insisted I admit I "understood" the reasoning of her metastasized spinal, pelvic and rib tumors, I was a coward till the end. As I left her bedside, I promised, I'll see you in the spring. We'll go to the mountains where it is green. She smiled faintly at my optimism, as she let go.

I celebrate Annette's vision, optimism, and audacity. Her feminist activism was inclusive, caring, and imperative. She instilled strength and wisdom in the lives of those she touched. Were her voice not so often the voice that prods me on, I would miss her even more. As it is, I often experience a kind of double vision when I think how she would have viewed our progress, our transformation, our journey.

Submitted by Carol Wolfe Konek

September 5, 1998