50 Years Ago I Told Glamour I Wanted to Change the World. Here’s My Advice for Women Starting Out Now

Cristine Russell

Fifty years ago, like many young women of my generation, I had my cause: saving the threatened environment. I was passionate about matters that demanded public attention, like clean air and water, and preventing oil spills. I studied biology at Mills College, edited the student newspaper, and was selected as one of Glamour’s Top 10 College Girls. As I wrote in my essay for the magazine, I wanted to be a science journalist “with a pen sharp enough to pierce public awareness.”

That year—1970—was a year of college activism on many fronts. Environmentalists held the first Earth Day, with marches and teach-ins on campuses across America. Students joined women of all ages in marches in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities, carrying signs that read “Women Demand Equality” and pushing for equal employment and educational opportunities. Protests against the Vietnam War turned deadly when the Ohio National Guard killed four students and injured nine others at Kent State University. The national outrage led colleges and universities to shut down spring classes across the country. The student unrest of the 1960s rolled right into the start of the 1970s and, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the times, they were (still) a-changin’.”

Times were changing at Glamour as well. The annual student contest, started in 1957, was originally the The 10 Best Dressed College Girls.” In 1968, Glamour made history when Top 10 winner Katiti Kironde became the first Black woman to appear on the cover of a major women’s magazine. In 1969, Glamour shifted the focus toward leadership, academics, and extracurricular activities and changed the name to Top 10 College Girls.” (It finally became Top 10 College Women in 1978!)

The August 1970 college issue featuring the Top 10 (purchase cost: 60¢) promoted student activism, with a headline proclaiming, “Happiness Is Being Committed to Something More Than Your Own Small World.”

“It’s not so much what interests you as what you DO about what you’re interested in that’s the mark of the new student culture,” the text went on. “Whether it’s college curriculum, women’s lib or ecology problems that get to you, you don’t just sit around and rap about it, you do something, you move out of your own private world. Like GLAMOUR’s Top Ten College Winners, for example. They’re involved in everything from their own campuses to local government to the whole universe.”

So what were we doing? The 10 of us came from diverse colleges and universities from coast to coast—New York to New Hampshire, Texas to Virginia—half of which were all-women at the time. I was a junior at Mills College in Oakland, California, a thriving women’s college with feminism embedded in our culture. Among our Glamour college group, half were active in environmental issues, marching in Earth Day celebrations and organizing campus teach-ins and teach-outs—including going to local grade schools to help install environmental values at a young age. Several pushed for new campus curricula in urban and Black studies; others were student organizers and political leaders. Half of us worked for our college newspapers, and two of us were elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the national academic honors society. One was a poet. We wanted to be marine biologists, journalists, photographers, and teachers.

Five decades later, the diverse Glamour 2020 College Women of the Year are making their mark as leaders too, pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge, serving in government, shepherding student journalism, and fighting for disability rights.

What has changed in these 50 years?

American students today are also living in terribly troubled times, and many of the burning issues of 1970 are still with us. The strong environmentalism of that time is now focused on the cataclysmic dangers of human-caused climate change, which poses a dire threat to the future of young people. In protests around the world, they are pushing for government and private-sector action to cut carbon emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency, started in 1970, is now under severe attack by the Trump administration.

Protests and riots over racial injustice and police brutality have recently erupted in countless cities across America and around the world, evoking the student unrest and civil disturbances of 50 years ago—and renewing their calls for justice.

In the intervening years, the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s has gone mainstream. I remember hippies gathering in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, the smell of illegal pot wafting through the air. As of May 2020, marijuana was legal for adult use in 11 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Many others are likely to follow. And the fashions of 50 years ago are still very much with us: Then, as now, young women wore their hair long and their skirts short (although the midi was making headway). Jeans were a unisex college uniform (think bellbottoms). Men were bearded and long-haired, a look almost ubiquitous today.

But some things have changed. For women, without a doubt, there have been major improvements in gaining access to male-dominated jobs. In 1972, Katharine Graham took the helm of the Washington Post Company, America’s first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1983, astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. In 1987, Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 1992, Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) became the first female African American elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1998, Julie Taymor was the first woman to win a Tony for best director of a musical—The Lion King. In 2007, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) became the first female Speaker of the House. And in 2020, the number of women serving in Congress is at a historic high—127 of 535 members—more than 11 times the number in 1970.

Women have entered journalism, in particular, in greater numbers, although the women who succeeded in newsrooms have been mostly white, as the past month has illustrated with painful clarity. I was fortunate to be on the PBS weekly public affairs show Washington Week in Review in 1988 when we had an all-female panel for the first time. New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, Wall Street Journal White House and political correspondent Ellen Hume, and I (then at the Washington Post) were contemporaries. We were joined by syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, a pioneering globe-trotting foreign correspondent.

Today there are far more female television commentators. They may, however, experience some of the same sexism we did back then. PBS viewers often wrote letters (yes, letters!), not about the substance of what I said, but about how I looked. When I first appeared on Washington Week in the late 1970s, I was still in my 20s and usually the only woman among three older white men. I got letters complaining about my long hair or clothes, asking if I was “trying to look young.” I was young, I thought. Some chided me for being too aggressive in the roundtable panel conversation. I was surprised by the genteel sexism of public television audiences.

I also faced some sexism in the newsroom or on the road—including when I was pregnant and my male editors urged me to go home and rest long before I needed to (I didn’t). I was fortunate, however, to have support from both male and female mentors, colleagues, and bosses and to avoid the far more offensive sexist behavior or harassment so many women in the workplace have faced—and continue to face. There was also a more equal playing field in science and medical writing.

Despite progress, today there are still too few women in leadership positions in many fields. In corporate America there are a record number of female Fortune 500 CEOs in 2020—37—but that is just 7.4% of the total. Equality—and equal pay—is still elusive in the workplace. The #MeToo movement demonstrated that women of all ages still face sexual harassment—and assault—in their professional and personal lives. Work-life balance is still elusive. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that differential for women working from home and taking care of their families. Like many women in my generation, I thought change would come faster.

But equality—and success—goes beyond numbers and titles. For each of us, it is a personal journey, with twists and turns along the way and our own definition of “success.”

Becoming a Glamour college winner made an unexpected difference in my life. The magazine flew the 10 of us to visit the magazine’s offices in New York City, my first trip east of the Rockies. We had a whirlwind visit, with a press tour that included a group television interview on The David Frost Show. When Frost asked us who we admired most, many of my Glamour colleagues wisely named their mothers and fathers. I stammered out an obscure anthropologist and nature writer named Loren Eiseley (author of The Immense Journey), stumping Frost and generating a collective groan from my family watching live from California. We were treated to an all-expense-paid trip to Spain and Portugal (of course, my first trip to Europe), where the 10 of us touring Madrid and Lisbon were quite a sight.

Our “chaperone” was Glamour’s remarkable college editor, a former child actress and ex-nun from Los Angeles who met her future husband, American tennis star Ham Richardson, on an airplane flight. They later married, and Midge Turk Richardson went on to be the accomplished editor of Seventeen Magazine for 18 years, bringing frank discussions of topics from sex to suicide onto the pages of the teen-focused publication.

Before my Glamour experience, my career sights were focused exclusively on California. Instead, after college I went out of my comfort zone, accepting a media fellowship in Washington, D.C., that eventually led to a newspaper job as a national science reporter, first for the Washington Star (where I was one of two female reporters on the national staff) and then for the Washington Post. I covered the toxic environmental waste dumps of the 1970s; a historic 1975 conference in Asilomar, California, on the risks of genetic engineering; the 1976 Viking 1, the first spacecraft to land on Mars; the 1979 nuclear power accident at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania; the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; as well as other public health stories, from the dangers of cigarette smoking among young people to the raging debate over abortion. (Glamour also did pioneering coverage of women’s equality and abortion rights in the 1970s.) I made international science-writing trips to China and Antarctica (and had my picture taken at the South Pole).

I served as president of two leading American science-writing organizations and have continued to write, research, and teach about climate change and the media at Harvard Kennedy School, working with an inspiring group of international students. Along the way, I was fortunate to combine my professional work with family—a 45-year happy marriage to Ben Heineman, an accomplished lawyer and supportive husband. We have two wonderful sons, Zachary (an architect) and Matthew (a filmmaker).

I’ve gone from typewriter to Twitter (@russellcris) and seen the communication changes wrought by technology and the internet, as well as the downside of growing misinformation and disinformation about the crucial issues confronting the world today.

Five decades after my Glamour experience, I am fortunate that I ended up fulfilling the dreams I set out with. I have some advice that may be of value to the young college and career women starting out today, who suddenly face a world turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, you face dramatic changes in professional and lifestyle choices. But you have many opportunities ahead.

Here are my “Top Ten” tips on becoming who you want to be:

  1. Be confident but not arrogant. Show that confidence in the classroom, a job interview, or work presentation. In the crazy new world of Zoom, you need to project beyond the screen to establish your special identity and talents. Speak and respond confidently, especially if someone underestimates you.

  2. Be prepared—in fact be overprepared. It’s still the case that women often have to do more than men to get ahead. Once you’ve achieved success, and even while you seek it, support other women who are facing those same headwinds.

  3. Be bold. Think outside the box. Have the courage to try things you are not sure you can do and to speak up when you have something to say. You may surprise yourself.

  4. Be impatient. You don’t always have to wait your turn. If a job isn’t the right one for you, establish a good track record there—then leverage it to the next job.

  5. Be passionate. Emotional IQ is often as important as academic IQ. Don’t be afraid to show how much you care.

  6. Be part of the sisterhood. Keep your network of female family and friends close. I’m fortunate to have had life-long support from a strong mother who inspired me and two younger sisters. Find female role models and mentors—and be a role model and mentor yourself. (I recommend keeping your maiden name).

  7. Be “both fun and serious simultaneously” (as a columnist once described former first lady Michelle Obama). While you’re at it, read or listen to her memoir, Becoming.

  8. Be protective of your personal life. Be ambitious, but don’t let work crowd out the joys of friendship, relationships, or family.

  9. Be ready to take advantage of what fortune throws your way. Think serendipity. Expect the unexpected.

  10. Be involved in making the world a better place. As Glamour said in 1970, happiness is being committed to something more than your own small world.

Cristine Russell is a freelance science journalist, a Harvard Kennedy School senior fellow in the Belfer Center’s Environment & Natural Resources Program, and an HKS adjunct lecturer in public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @russellcris. 

Originally Appeared on Glamour

More From