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
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.