The fifth annual “Conversations With Exceptional Women,” a two-day series hosted by the Alturas Institute, brought together a dozen females who all share exceptional experiences in their personal and professional lives. This year’s group at The Community Library in Ketchum on Thursday included an Olympic champion, successful actresses and the first female director of athletics to be named at a Division 1 university in Idaho, along with other women working in the fields of law, banking, academics, sports and journalism.
The conversations began when three-time Olympic freestyle swimming champion Allison Schmitt was asked where her four gold, two silver and two bronze medals are. She said they live under her bed at her parents’ house, noting that the medals don’t hold value, they simply highlight a moment in her life.
“They don’t mean much in the grand scheme of life,” Schmitt said on stage in the library’s lecture room.
Today, as she trains to qualify for her fourth Olympics in Tokyo next summer, a landmark that only two other American swimmers have ever achieved, she is also working on a master’s degree in social work in preparation for a career in counseling.
“My calling is to help others in the world of mental health,” she said.
In 2015, Schmitt came out to her family, her coach and her fellow Olympic teammate Michael Phelps about the depression she had felt since the weeks following the 2012 London Olympics, where she took home three gold medals.
“Mental illness is an invisible disease,” Schmitt told the audience.
After coming to terms with her mental illness, and seeking therapy, she saw what her life work could be after her swimming career ends: a counselor for others like herself who suffer from depression and mental illnesses. As she sat on the stage at the library, she reflected on the personal growth she’s had since then and encouraged others to be honest about their mental health, and seek help and support to buoy themselves up.
Schmitt was later joined on stage by seven-time world champion and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee Rebecca Rusch, together with New York Times sports reporter Karen Crouse, who talked about what winning means to them and about the will to achieve greatness, in whatever form that might be. Rusch and Schmitt said minor victories are just as valuable as the big ones, and being around people who encourage and support you is vital to those successes.
“Surround yourself with people who think you’re awesome,” Rusch said.
For women working in the film industry, finding one’s way to the top is not only a challenge, but sometimes the opportunities do not even exist. Naomi McDougall Jones, an actress, writer and producer, is trying to show how impactful media are on society and how women see themselves through social lenses that in the film industry are predominately set by white men.
According to Jones, there were actually fewer female producers and directors in 2018 than in 2017, with 5 percent in 2017 and a drop by 1 percent in 2018. The highest rates were in 1995, according to Jones, when 8 percent of the industry was female.
“We’re all getting really tired of this conversation,” Jones said on Thursday.
She encouraged the audience, almost entirely women and young girls in high school, to take steps to support women in the film industry by investing in female directors and producers, going to the movies to pay to watch female-directed films rather than consuming all entertainment via media streaming platforms likes Netflix. Most importantly, Jones said, pay attention to the role women play in mainstream media, whether they are the secretary or the boss, whether they are in the shot for eye candy or because they are acting in a leading role.
Other conversationalists included Tara Buck, a Hailey native who now lives in Los Angeles as a full-time actress; Jeannie Ralston, co-founder and editor of an all-female-staff magazine for women over 45; Michele Coffey, an attorney with Morgan Lewis, a global law firm; Kate Morris, a native Idahoan and Murrow Award-winning journalist who is president and general manager for KTVB-TV in Boise; Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles; Jeanette Schneider, senior vice president and institutional client advisor at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Corp.; and Pauline Semons Thiros, the first female director of athletics at Idaho State University and the first female director of athletics at a Division 1 university in Idaho.
Next year’s conversation will feature U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for which this year’s attendees, a sold-out crowd, will be given priority in purchasing admission tickets.
The Alturas Institute is a nonpartisan, educational organization dedicated to advancing American democracy through defense of the Constitution, gender equality, equal protection and civic education. For the past five years, the institute has brought women from a broad range of fields to have open conversations about the challenges being faced by women in a variety of industries, and how women are finding their voice and empowering others along the way. This year’s theme, “How Far We’ve Come,” paid tribute to 100 years of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote.
For those who were unable to purchase tickets and attend, a livestream version of the series is available on the Alturas Institute’s Facebook page.