This is an article from the spring 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
On December 8, the Beach Boys release their first single, “Surfin.’” On December 11, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn receives the first acceptance of a fictional piece that will become the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And on December 31 — New Year’s Eve — at a glittering gala at the Royal Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal — explorer and climber Edmund Hillary is introduced to Elizabeth Hawley (A.B. 1944, M.A. ’46). The year is 1961.
Less than a decade prior, Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had successfully summited Mount Everest for the first time. Now, here was Hillary, fresh off a new climb in search of a Yeti (as in Bigfoot) and claiming to have found the mythical creature’s hide. (Spoiler alert: It was a bear skin.)
That night, as champagne glasses clinked and music played, a whip-smart and sharp-tongued Hawley held her own with Hillary. Hawley was on her own in Kathmandu, patching together a living as a stringer for Time, Inc., reporting on Nepalese politics. But as Hawley’s time in Nepal wore on, her world became more and more intertwined with the world of climbing. Newspapers abroad couldn’t get enough of the bold new adventures happening in this part of the world.
Something in the steep peaks and larger-than-life climbing personalities called to her. It may have been that she herself shirked conventional boundaries so often that she couldn’t help but connect to that same inclination in others. She had traveled the world, lived for long stretches of time overseas, and was at the beginning of a remarkably successful career as an archivist and journalist. She spent her life elbowing her way again and again into male-dominated arenas. She was a feminist, a pioneer, and an unparalleled archivist.
To be fair, she never would have said any of that herself. She might even chastise you for suggesting it.
Elizabeth Hawley was born in Chicago on November 9, 1923. Her grandmother and mother were both college educated, and Elizabeth grew up with a firm sense that education led to opportunities. In high school, she refused to take typing or shorthand. Whatever she became, she knew it wouldn’t be “someone’s secretary.” These and other stories about Hawley’s life and career are collected in biographer Bernadette McDonald’s book I’ll Call You in Kathmandu: The Elizabeth Hawley Story.
In 1941, Hawley came to U-M, where she discovered her love for history, all while struggling socially. She rushed several sororities, but none chose her. She became president of the Post-War Council, only to be demoted — twice.
Academically, however, she excelled. Her honors work in history proved to her that “she could work independently, do her own research, and come to her own coherent conclusions,” writes McDonald.
In 1946, Hawley took her newfound skills to New York City and became an editorial researcher for Fortune magazine, but found little opportunity for advancement in the role due to gender discrimination. At Fortune, all the researchers were women and all the bylined writers were men. Hawley lived simply, saved her money, and traveled whenever she could.
By 1956, Hawley was ready for an adventure that didn’t lead straight back to a desk job. She cashed out her profit-sharing funds from Time, Inc., and went on an around-the-world journey alone.