By Kamrin Baker
Women’s and gender studies professor Dawn Cripe is the kind of teacher that will wear a matching “Girl Power” t-shirt with a student, hand out snacks at the beginning of her class periods and call classroom housekeeping “a workout.” After spending years in sales (at Marlboro, to be precise), she calls teaching her “redeeming work” and couldn’t imagine herself anywhere else.
Cripe studied public relations and communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and minored in women’s and gender studies, as well. She never predicted being “land-locked” in Nebraska, but after meeting and marrying her partner, Dee, and having their now 7 and a half-year-old son, Jack, she learned to live with tornado season. The rest of Cripe’s adventurous history is told with her own voice below:
Answers were edited for length and clarity.
KB: For people who don’t know you or your background, tell us a bit.
DC: I was born outside of Seattle, at the base of Mt. Rainier, in a small town with one stoplight. I grew up in Boise, Idaho and was the first girl student body president in the largest high school in the state.
One day I read this response in an advice column. I couldn’t remember the question, but the response from the writer was everything. It was “most people are born, go to school, get married, and die within a hundred-mile radius of where they were born.” I read that one morning and said “not me.” A week later, I moved to New York City to be a nanny.
That was life-changing. The kids I took care of were 11 and 12 years old and a part of a Jewish family. I had never been exposed to a situation like that; their father was from Israel, and their Grandma was honored in NYC for being 100. She was in concentration camps in the Holocaust with her two children. She brought out her money from the concentration camps to show me. She lived next door to Anne Frank before she was taken, and that was really her big point. She found her son, but never her daughter. History popped off the page for me, and I really got an education through that job.
In my road trip to New York, I pulled off to get gas, coincidentally somewhere in Nebraska. It was flat, freezing cold, and the sun was just rising. I thought to myself, “I would never live here,” but now I’ve been here for over 20 years. I took a wrong turn and somehow ended up here, out of all the places I’ve lived, like New York, Delaware and Oklahoma. I started going back to school here, and that’s how I found UNO. I found a home on the steps of the university.
KB: Who is your favorite famous feminist?
DC: I hate to be cliché, but Gloria Steinem. Perhaps it’s because I met her. When I was in high school in the 70s, that’s when the second wave of feminism was happening, and I saw this amazing and dynamic woman. I thought she was larger than life, but when I met her, her glasses were bigger than her. She told me, “I wish I had a class like yours when I was a student, but I’m also sad we still need them.”
I would also say Helen Reddy. My best friend and I jammed to her “I Am Woman” song, all the time. Her family had a sunroom, and that’s where their record player was. We put on the vinyl, and we’d turn it up really loud, and we’d scream at the top of our lungs: “I am a woman hear me roar.” We thought we were something back then. The second wave movement made us feel like we’d conquer things.
KB: What is the best feminist slogan this year?
DC: Nevertheless, she persisted. I think every woman can own that.
KB: What is typically the reaction of people when you tell them that you teach women’s and gender studies?
DC: Usually, “oh, oh okay.” Some younger women are more excited, while others are more like “what is that? How do I respond to that?” Automatically, people think the class is less impressive because they think it’s only for women, which it’s not.
KB: What is your favorite thing about being a woman?
DC: To answer this, I should tell you what I remember from my campaign speech in high school when I was running for president. I ran against two guys. One of them was the drum major of the band. He was very popular, but we had a high population of Mormon and Catholic students. He was a Mormon guy, so there were a lot of people behind him. Then there was the Catholic captain of the football team. And there I was, this Protestant girl who had already been president of the school for the last two years.
The drum major gives his campaign speech before me and said something like “I don’t tell political jokes because the political joke is always elected.” I knew it was a jab at me because I was always trying to say something funny.
Now, I always wore a dress on speech days, I always looked dapper. I was always saving my dimes and nickels in an orange juice can to buy a car, too. The day for this speech came and I didn’t have a new dress, so I used my El Camino money to get one. I passed up the opportunity to save up for a car to wear a new dress that day.
I was up next with my speech, and I came back at him like “here I am, the political joke.” People were cheering, and I listed off reasons why they should actually support me. I got a lot done for the school. I knew people who provided funds to our school. I knew everyone in the class, too.
The final reason for voting for me was this: “because I’m a woman and I can cry.” It was the 70’s, right? It worked because I was in this political environment where these men kept telling me what I could and couldn’t be. But I won without a runoff.
Men will come up to me years later and tell me “don’t tell anyone, but I voted for you.”
I love being able to show a side of humanity that often escapes boys or men because of our society. Being able to shed a tear, to hug and embrace someone without question. And to still be strong, too.
KB: What would you tell students who are wary of taking a class like women’s and gender studies?
DC: It opens up worlds to you; whether you’re a woman or a man, whatever gender you may be. It goes a long way to helping us understand each other, to have compassion. Use this to look beyond these virtual walls and brick walls and think of what this can do for you personally and professionally. Gender isn’t just a woman’s issue; it behooves all of us to understand gender and how it affects us all.
And it’s a fun class! We can jump on tables and play bands, but we can talk about the hard things, too, and find common ground. You should approach your life like that.
KB: What is your biggest strength and biggest weakness?
DC: Once in a job interview, I said “my greatest strength is that I have no weakness.” But I would say my greatest strength is communication, but I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s it. Is being animated a strength? The depth in how I care about a situation, or how much I care about teaching. The strength of seeing the vision of what I can do in this world; I think that’s a strength.
My weakness is that I’m not a morning person. I don’t always get an early start. I’m changing my name from Dawn to Dusk!
KB: What do you like to do outside of work?
DC: A lot of time is spent with my son, Jack. I also love to golf. We go out as a family a lot to golf in places around Nebraska. Dee is a great golfer; she had a scholarship for it years back. But she tolerates me. Also being outside and walking. Not too far, not where there’s bugs or mountain lions, but walking.
I watch a lot of news, too. Not the best thing, I guess, but I’m a news and political junkie.
And the movies. Lately it’s been a lot of LEGO movies.
KB: Finally, what empowers you?
DC: Honestly? Seeing students after graduation—- whether a short or long time after—- and maybe this is ego-driven, but when they say “your class completely changed my life.” It’s not so much me, but the work I’m doing is the right thing for me. It’s helping change people, molding lives and awakening them to see that they’re not just wandering through this world aimlessly- that there’s something in the world out there for them.
I always say “I think I’ll see you on the world stage somewhere.”
And the football player who ran against me, right? A couple years ago, he friended me on Facebook, and he said “I am so proud to call you my friend.” After all these years, aside from all the stuff that happened in high school, we had something in common, which was to use our voices and stand up for what we believe in. I love allowing people to feel like they can step up, as well, because I put these ideas and these beliefs out in the universe. That empowers me, too.