When Nancy Bekavac was a young trial attorney in 1975, a court bailiff mistook her for a secretary. When Bekavac corrected him, the man laughed at the notion of a woman lawyer.
Fifteen years later, Bekavac recounted the story as she became the first woman president of Scripps College, the women's school among the Claremont Colleges. This time around, nobody questions whether the 43-year-old attorney and educator is the right sex for the job.
"She's witty, forceful, very bright, very thoughtful," said Nan Keohane, president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Keohane knew her when Bekavac was a student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "Nancy has a marvelous quality of being both interested in talking and interested in listening," Keohane said.
Since July, Bekavac has met individually with each faculty member at Scripps. She wants all the advice she can get to help her run and promote a women's college during a time when some single-sex schools have had declining enrollment.
Twenty years ago, there were about a dozen women's colleges in California. Now there are three. At Mills College in Oakland, going co-ed caused an uproar last spring--trustees at first voted to admit men, then reversed themselves. The third women's college is Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles.
At Scripps, students can take classes with men if they choose. That's because Scripps shares some facilities with the other Claremont Colleges and allows cross-registration.
Despite their diminished numbers, women's colleges still have a mission, Bekavac said. "We want women to be the best students, athletes and leaders they can be. When we say leader, we don't close our eyes and think of a man in a three-piece suit," she said.
Bekavac attributes her own self-assurance to her mother, Patty Bekavac, who raised three children and took over the family's Pennsylvania funeral home when her husband died. Besides having a strong role model for a mother, Bekavac's secret weapon, she said, was a family who "unrealistically" treated her as if she were gifted.
Now it's Bekavac's turn to become role model for the 630 students at Scripps. She graduated in 1969 with high honors in English from Swarthmore, then attended Yale Law School, where she edited the Yale Law Journal before earning a fellowship for independent study abroad.
Bekavac went on to become a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson after only six years. Outside of her practice, she worked without pay defending impoverished senior citizens from real estate scams.
She also has served as counselor to the president at Dartmouth College. In that job, she advised the New Hampshire college's president on long-range planning, public affairs and grant applications.
She has taught at UCLA Law School, served as a trustee for the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. and is on Swarthmore's Board of Managers.
Bekavac never attended a women's college, but she's become a convert to the cause. "We take it for granted that women's colleges do a better job of preparing women than coeducational schools," she said.
Proportionally, graduates of women's colleges are more successful than women educated elsewhere, she said, citing examples of women in Congress, academia and business.
"One theory is that in women's colleges, you take the noise out of the system, the men's noise," she said. "The school is not divided as to its mission. There are no football teams. No NCAA recruiting scandals."
All the student dorm leaders and student officeholders at Scripps are women. The setup builds confidence, which will serve these young women well after graduation, Bekavac said.
"Studies suggest that young women hit their peak of confidence at age 11, and lose their self-confidence thereafter, probably because of messages they receive about what it's important to be: thin and pretty, not smart and competitive," she said.
Though Bekavac admits to being noisy, opinionated and aggressive, she's also charming, energetic, funny and gracious. And she isn't too proud to cry, as she did when embracing her mother at her Nov. 16 inaugural in Bridges Auditorium. She also wiped away a tear when one inaugural speaker quoted poet William Butler Yeats:
Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends .
"When I was growing up, I thought I would have a very happy life if I knew people who wrote books that got reviewed in The New York Times," she said. "And it's happened. I'm very proud of my friends."
Bekavac would rather talk about her favorite authors than herself, but sometimes her descriptions of them resemble what some people have said about her. Of poet Adrienne Rich, she said: "She's the best listener in the world and has a particular viewpoint which changes, but which is always startling and new. She's strong, as a woman."
She admires novelist Leo Tolstoy for combining philosophy with realism, vitality and drive. "He will make it all fit or die in the attempt, or kill you," she said.
When it was Bekavac's turn to speak at the inauguration, she received a 30-second standing ovation from students, faculty, guests and alumnae, including at least two members of the school's first graduating class.
"I feel your affection as almost a physical force," she told the audience of about 900.
She talked of her 16th birthday, when she heard civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tell the nation, "I have a dream." She spoke of the necessity of realizing this dream of equality for women and minorities.
Women with more education and better qualifications than men are still forced to endure lower salaries and longer periods of unemployment, she said. "We can't afford to waste at least half the talent, genius and creativity" of the nation, she added. "Whenever someone says 'We,' we have to ask, 'Who is included?' "
She said her mission at Scripps is to help young women answer the question, "What life ought to be lived in the United States?"
It was a theme that senior Christine Lane, 21, could relate to. "It's important she's achieved what she has and still maintained her energy and personality," Lane said. "It hasn't hardened her. It shows that to be successful, you don't have to give some things up."