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Know the West

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


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."