Don't tell her she can't: a profile of author Mary Clearman Blew

  • Mary Clearman Blew

    University of Idaho
 

Author and professor Mary Clearman Blew grew up on cattle ranches outside Lewistown, Mont., in the '40s and '50s, the great grand-daughter of homesteaders. She's written about her family's legacy and the changing West in nonfiction (All But the Waltz: Essays on a Montana Family), short stories (Runaway), and a novel, Jackalope Dreams, about ranchers selling out to developers and the rise of meth labs in the New West.

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 until she grins, which happens frequently. The walls of her home are covered with hand-pieced quilts, reminders of the traditional work the women in her family did and that she continues to do -- mending, sewing, baking. But Blew followed a nontraditional path for her generation, and her house also holds artifacts of her other work: students' short stories and papers.

Blew knew she wanted more for herself than the modest ambition her parents encouraged -- life as a rural schoolteacher. She and a friend conspired to apply to the all-women's Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. When Blew's family and guidance counselor found out, they were furious; she was getting ideas that were above her upbringing, they said.  

Blew didn't apply to Mount Holyoke after all, but she did earn 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 her education, but in 1963, she went on to the University of Missouri, where she earned a doctorate in English literature, with two small children in tow. Blew was determined to become a professor, and she searched until she found 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. (She was the first to wear a pantsuit to classes.) "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."

Blew's doctorate was in literary criticism, but Northern offered scant resources for scholarship. So she returned to writing fiction, something she had enjoyed as an undergraduate. Drawing on her ranch experiences, she wrote a collection of stories called Lambing Out; the title story appeared in 1970 in the North American Review. She began flying a private plane and wrote about learning to do something that was "spooky and dangerous."

She spent nearly two decades at Northern, first as chair of the English department and then as dean, but decided to leave amid severe budget cuts. "The fiction finally saved me," she says. Her background as a critic and fiction writer helped land her a position teaching Shakespeare and creative writing at Lewis & Clark State College in Idaho. In 1994, the University of Idaho recruited her to help start its 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 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 the question of women in academia, the same subject Blew sought to address. Gender prejudice always seemed to inform the views of her colleagues, in-laws, and even students when it came to what a woman could do. "I survived because I was persistent," Blew says today, "and also because I was competent."

High Country News Classifieds
  • UTAH BEEF
    Grass-fed, grass-finished beef. Available in October. Reserve your beef now. Kate's Land & Cattle Boulder, Utah. [email protected], grassfedbeefbykatie.com
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...