Jean Grossholtz, Professor of Politics, contributor to Asian studies, and the force behind women’s studies at Mount Holyoke died on February 9, 2021. Colleagues describe Jean with some common phrases: “a legend,” “an inspiration to live up to the ideals [we] profess,” “a fierce and fearless advocate for justice,” “a force to be reckoned with,” “the epitome of the scholar/activist,” and “a one-of-a-kind force of nature.”
For me, what stands out most is that Jean understood the connection between relationships and deep structural change. She grew up on a farm and went on to forge ties with farmer activists all over the world to fight agribusiness. She served in the US Army, and later joined up with other vets, in Veterans for Peace, to work together in opposition to war and militarism. She studied philosophy at MIT, wrote her dissertation on Sri Lanka, and connected with South Asian feminists, with whom she collaborated for years to come. Jean landed in the Department of Politics at Mount Holyoke in 1961, and from that platform changed untold numbers of lives in this place and around the world.
I don’t think we even begin to know the reach of her love and her activism.
Jean taught “The Politics of Patriarchy” and decided to give an A to everyone. Some found it scandalous. But Jean wanted to attract as many students as possible to that class, to think with her about injustice, about racism, about global inequality and about every aspect of what she called “patriarchy” -- because it was all of a piece for her.
She would start every class by drawing a stick figure of a baby on the board and asking students to imagine that baby’s future. And they were thrown: Well how can we know? What’s their gender? What’s their race? What did their parents do for a living? That was the point. She would get big conversations going from a simple start.
She spoke up and she taught us all the power of speaking up. Many whom she taught to speak up have been doing so ever since. And we don’t even know, when we read in the news, for example, that the president of Princeton University has finally come around to putting serious resources into reversing institutional racism, that it was a student of Jean’s who made that happen.
Jean knew how to step up, and she knew how to step back. Sometimes it was the same thing. In 1977, she stepped up and she stepped back. Fellow activist and Mount Holyoke alumna Barbara Smith had a plan to bring together a group of Black feminists and they needed a place to meet. As Barbara Smith recently told it:
Jean was extraordinary as a teacher, an intellectual, an activist & a friend. We held the first Combahee River retreat in 1977 at her home in South Hadley, which she & her housemates vacated for the weekend. Solidarity is the word I think of when I remember Jean. Genuine, principled solidarity & sisterhood.
That retreat produced the Combahee River Collective’s Statement on Black Feminism, which in turn became the inspiration to the women who founded Black Lives Matter and a shaping force in the Movement for Black Lives.
We don’t begin to know the reach of Jean’s love.
Jean was always thinking about who didn’t have what they needed: Maybe they lost their connection with their family because they came out. Maybe they just gotten out of the military and now, back in school, they needed to get on their feet. Maybe they were facing illness, and Jean wanted to make sure they were never marginalized, that they had what they needed. Her home was a refuge and a shelter. She opened it as needed, for the short and long term. She let students and friends deeply into her life.
One of those students, who is now the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Utah, told me, “Jean was a tremendous force in my life.” “Jean taught me,” she said: “How to cook vegetables that I was willing to eat; how to build a friendship [over] a morning coffee [or] a walk with the dogs; how to show up for dinner on time and enjoy the company of people I didn’t know; and how to build coalitions anywhere, around any issue, to create effective changes. Above all, she did not let me out of her sight until I graduated!” And thinking back over all the times Jean was there for the milestones of her life, and the lives of her children, she said, simply: “Jean taught me what it means to show up.”
Jean was a force of nature. But then, I think, so are we all. The thing about Jean is that she wanted as many of us as possible to know that, and to act on it.
(with thanks to many colleagues who contributed their memories of Jean)