Hometown: Lewistown, Montana
Vocation: Creative Writing Professor at the University of Idaho
Known to friends and graduate students for: authentic Chinese cooking and homemade cheesecake
What kept her going as a woman in male-dominated academia: “I’ve no idea. I just remember being absolutely determined to keep going.”
Author and professor Mary Clearman Blew grew up on cattle ranches outside Lewistown, Montana in the 40s and 50s. She’s written about that legacy in her own family and about the changing West, from nonfiction about being the great grand-daughter of homesteaders (All But the Waltz: Essays on a Montana Family) to a novel about ranchers selling out to developers and the rise of meth labs of the New West (Jackalope Dreams.)
Today, Blew lives in a suburban home in Moscow, Idaho. With a long red braid falling down her back, dressed in casual jeans and a t-shirt, she looks serious but bursts into a lively grin. The walls of Blew’s home are covered with hand-pieced quilts, reminders of the work the women in her family did and that she continues to do – mending, sewing, baking. But she’s followed a nontraditional path for women of her generation, and her house also contains artifacts of her other work –graduate students’ short stories and papers.
Blew knew she wanted more for herself than the modest ambitions her parents laid out – a rural schoolteacher. She and a friend conspired to apply to the all-women’s Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. When her guidance counselor and Blew’s family members found out, they were furious because they believed Blew was getting ideas that were above her upbringing.
Although she didn’t end up applying to Mt. Holyoke, she earned a scholarship to the University of Montana where she studied English literature. She married after her first year of college. Blew’s husband and in-laws assumed she would give up on college, but in 1963 she went on to the University of Missouri, where, with two small children in tow, she earned a doctorate in English literature. Blew was determined to become a professor, and she searched the advertisements until she found one for the kind of job she wanted – a tenure-track position in the English department at Northern Montana College in Havre.
She dragged her family to Montana and became only the second woman to teach English at Northern Montana College and the first to wear a pantsuit. “A lot of the ‘prejudice’ against professional women in the 1960s and 1970s was self-imposed and internalized,” says Blew. “I also remember the “fraud” syndrome: I got where I am by accident, because I fooled my professors into thinking I knew something, etc.”
A few years later, her husband left, and Blew suddenly had to support herself and her children. She says, “When my lawyer pointed out to me that I had money and security most women didn’t have, I remember feeling thankful but also a kind of mean satisfaction that, in spite of all the voices warning me against it, I’d done the right thing in going to college and insisting on keeping my job.”
Although Blew had earned her doctorate in literary criticism, she found that Northern offered scant resources for scholarship. She returned to writing fiction, something she had enjoyed as an undergraduate. Drawing on her ranch experiences, she wrote Lambing Out, the title story appearing in 1970 in the North American Review. She began flying a private plane and wrote about learning to do something she calls “spooky and dangerous.”
After nearly two decades as chair of the English department and then a dean, she decided to leave Northern and its severe budget cuts. “The fiction finally saved me,” she says, as her background as a critic and fiction writer landed her a position teaching Shakespeare and creative writing at Lewis Clark State College in Idaho. Later on, the University of Idaho asked her to help start their graduate creative writing program.
Blew’s most recent book, a memoir titled This is Not the Ivy League, began as a collection of essays about events during her teaching career at Northern. One of Blew’s inspirations was Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novel, “Gaudy Night.” Set at an Oxford women’s college, it explores questions surrounding women in academia. Blew describes how gender prejudice seemed to inform her colleagues,’ in-laws,’ and even students’ views of what a woman could do.
“I survived because I was persistent,” Blew says of her career, “and also because I was competent.”