Suzanne Ciani ’68, Jean Kilbourne ’64 and Nancy Kornblith Kopp ’65 joined a long list of honored Wellesley alums, including figureheads such as Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 and Madeleine Albright ’59, when they were awarded the prestigious Alumnae Achievement Awards last Thursday.
Ciani, who has always loved music, is now considered one of the most innovative electronic musicians of the last 40 years. Kilbourne emerged from a series of secretarial jobs in her youth to become one of the most sought-after speakers in the country, exposing the exploitative nature of advertisements that glamorize substance abuse and saturate everyday life with negative images of women. Kopp went from writing her Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy to working on Capitol Hill to serving in the Maryland State Legislature, where she has since earned a reputation as one of the most effective public servants in the local government.
The first alumna presented with her Achievement Award was Ciani, an electronic music pioneer, composer and recording artist. Ciani was first recognized at a national level in the 80s and early 90s through her commercial scoring and electronic sound effects for General Electric, AT&T and Coca-Cola. One of her most famous creations was the “Pop ‘n Pour” noise in Coca-Cola commercials. She went on to become the first woman hired to score a major Hollywood film, “The Incredible Shrinking Woman.” While on campus at Wellesley and during the awards ceremony, there was also a crew filming Ciani for an upcoming documentary on her life, “A Life in Waves,” by Windows Pictures.
Ciani is most proud of her music albums, of which she has made five and is continuing to create. Ciani’s “Silver Ship” won in The 5th Annual Independent Music Awards for Best New Age Album.
“The thing that I always wanted to do was make my record albums. That was my destiny,” Ciani said. “It was so new then, people couldn’t even say the word synthesizer… An electronic music instrument was an actual interface for the human body where you could play it, in a new way, not mechanically. It was a whole new concept of how you interacted with an instrument.”
According to Ciani, this exploration into the unknown was what made it exciting.
“It was really like a Dark Ages that you can’t imagine, in a way. But that very same thing made it interesting because you were like a pioneer on the edge of something that was new,” Ciani added. “Live with the unknown, wake up every day and see what is new.”
In her acceptance speech Ciani explored her journey through Wellesley, graduate school at the University of California in Berkeley and the challenges of her career. She touched on her love story with New York City and arriving in SoHo with nothing but herself and her Buchla.
“There’s nothing to do and everything will get done,” was Ciani’s personal mantra during the stresses of her career, such as high-pressure recording sessions, that she shared with the audience.
Ciani continued to provide words of wisdom to the students at Wellesley.
“[Fame and fortune] are not real goals; they might be tools to do something but they are not objects in themselves,” she said. She expanded on this in her interview: “Fame is cheap. I mean, everyone can be famous.”
Although Ciani feels her real education happened on the streets of New York, while immersed in the music business, she also believes Wellesley College gave her a different kind of education.
“What Wellesley prepares you for is just your self-confidence,” Ciani remarked. “It’s a very respecting institution towards it’s students and it gives you a lot of self-confidence and that goes a long way with whatever you do,” she said. “Because you need [confidence] to break through really, be strong.”
Second to receive her award was Kilbourne, who made a name for herself critiquing the images of women in advertising even before the term “sexual objectification” emerged in the 1970s. Fostering the birth of a new field of feminist research, she has traveled the world speaking about the power of advertising in distorting women’s body image and normalizing images of violence against women. In her lectures and films, she is known for speaking with a wry wit, which has won over her many skeptics, both women and men.
Even at Wellesley, Kilbourne’s later ideas about advertising would have been considered radically new in the late 1960s. She graduated in 1964, at a time when Wellesley students were still required to wear skirts to dinner and were only allowed to host male guests for two hours a week on Sundays, and even then, only if they left their door open.
Out of college, Kilbourne worked a series of menial jobs as a secretary, a waitress, and occasionally, a model. Few other options were available for women at the time. During her brief stints in the modeling industry, she experienced continual sexual harassment.
“There was a lot of, ‘Baby, I’ll make you a star. You can go really far with this. All you have to do is sleep with me’, ” Kilbourne recalled.
The harassment didn’t stop when she went from posing in front of a lens to sitting behind a desk. Once, she was offered a rare position as a writer for a famous cartoonist. However, in order to get the job, part of the deal was that she would have to sleep with him.
“Obviously, I didn’t,” Kilbourne said. “But I’ll tell you, it crossed my mind, because job options were so limited.”
During one of her jobs placing advertisements into a British medical journal, Kilbourne came across an ad that she says changed her life. It was an ad for birth control which read, “Ovulen-21 works the way a woman thinks — by weekdays not by cycle days.” Next to the text was an image of a smiling woman with her head filled with seven boxes, one for each day of the week. On Monday, there was a laundry basket. On Tuesday, there was an iron.
“It somehow crystallized so many of my experiences — the sexist slights, the catcalls, the terrible jobs, the sexual harassment, the objectification,” Kilbourne said. “I thought, this is atrocious.”
She began to collect advertisements and paste them on her refrigerator. Those images later became part of a slideshow that she would deliver all over the country. They also provided the basis of her popular movie, “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women,” which she remade four times with each passing decade.
Of course, many more of the ads were much more subtle. A psychology minor at Wellesley, Kilbourne says her job was to “make the subconscious conscious.” In order to do that, she had to challenge the idea that the ads are trivial. She learned that the best way to win over her audiences was through humor.
“I encouraged people to laugh at the ads, because the ads are so ridiculous,” Kilbourne said. “In those days, there was a saying that feminists had no sense of humor.”
Kilbourne never forgot to emphasize the power of the images she showed. Today, she says, images of women in the media have only gotten worse with time, not just in the United States, but across the world, where lightening creams and cosmetic surgery are marketed as the key to achieving that “ideal” look.
“Wherever capitalism goes, the public health problems that are associated with it go too. Eating disorders are now a problem everywhere,” she said. “The problems that are associated with this, we export them.”
Kilbourne says she is glad that she is no longer alone in her critique of women’s portrayal in the media. Her once radical ideas are now widely accepted.
“The only typical path for the Wellesley Alumnae is the one that she forges with courage and passion for her own convictions.”
Kopp was the last to be presented her award. Kopp entered Wellesley right before President John F. Kennedy was elected and graduated soon after he was shot. For 27 years, she served in the Maryland state legislature and was named one of the ten most effective members by her colleagues. She is only the second woman to be elected State Treasurer in Maryland and currently the only woman serving in a Constitutional Office in the state.
Kopp was studying political science at Wellesley during a formidable period in American politics.
“When I first came to Wellesley, we had just elected a wonderful, bright, charismatic, young president. The first young national politician I had heard of, John Kennedy,” she said. “By that summer, Kennedy had been shot. Lyndon Johnson had become President, and the schisms within the Democratic Party were becoming more pronounced.”
Kopp found herself drawn to Capitol Hill, even though only 14 of the 535 members of Congress at the time were women. She first applied to work at the Office of Management and Budget. However, as she was walking from one interview to another, she took a look at one of the memos which had been written by her last interviewer and addressed to the next. It read, “She’s very nice, but we have enough girls already.”
“I decided I didn’t really think that was the place for me,” Kopp said.
Instead, she went to work for Edith Green, one of the few women in Congress at the time, who would play an instrumental role in passing Title IX some years later. However, Kopp was torn between the draw of Washington, D.C. and her love of academia. In the end, she decided to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Yet, as she was finishing her dissertation, she and her husband moved to Capitol Hill, and she once again felt the pull of working as a legislative aid. She eventually abandoned her dissertation and resolved to become, as she put it, “the world’s greatest staffer ever seen.”
Kopp soon applied for a position on the Montgomery County delegation to Annapolis and quickly became swept up in local politics.
“Congress was very large,” Kopp explained. “Now there are 535 [members]. You can work on an amendment to an amendment for years. State legislature — you get in there, and you can really do something…It turned out that it was terribly exciting.”
By 1974, redistricting had opened up new seats that were no longer secured by entrenched incumbents. As a result, new people had the opportunity to hold office, leading to a spike in women and minority representatives. Even though she had her doubts, Kopp decided to run to become a state legislator in the Maryland General Assembly.
“I had always been happiest in the library, being left alone and leaving other people alone,” she said.
Running a campaign was an entirely new experience, but Kopp found herself fascinated with the people she met as she went door-to-door.
To her surprise, she won. At that time, there were only about 10 women out of over a hundred delegates. Today, there are 45. Kopp says she was the first woman serving in the state legislature to have a baby while in office.
In 2002, she was elected State Treasurer and is now in her fourth consecutive elected term. She is known for playing a leading role in consistently maintaining Maryland’s pristine Triple-A bond rating and for leading the state’s Retirement and Pension System. She is also a founder of the Women Legislators of Maryland and was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012 for her pension and savings planning. She has been called a “pillar of strength” in Maryland’s state government.
Kopp says she owes much of who she is to Wellesley.
“I was able to do what I really wanted to do [at Wellesley], which was to read and to study and to talk to friends about things that were of interest to me, not to worry about what to wear or what I looked like or what the boys in the back thought of what I was saying or what I was doing or how I looked,” she said. “It was liberation of the most immediate, personal sort.”
All the recipients encouraged students to take risks in their personal and professional life. Career paths have ups and downs and are rarely clear cut, they said. Wellesley gave this year’s honorees the tools to succeed, but it took passion and grit to get where they are today.
“For 46 years, the Alumnae Association has kept the tradition of honoring outstanding accomplishments of Wellesley alumnae in a wide range of fields,” President H. Kim Bottomly said. “The only typical path for the Wellesley alumnae is the one that she forges with courage and passion for her own convictions.”
Kilbourne’s message to all Wellesley students—you deserve to be here. Kilbourne herself came to Wellesley on a generous scholarship. She recalled that she was shocked when she got a D on her first paper at Wellesley. Jokingly, she described herself as a “mediocre student” who “rarely spoke in class.”
“Someday, to your amazement and against all odds, you may well be standing here,” she concluded.
Photos courtesy of Wellesley College