One of the most fundamental goals at The Women’s Network is building the confidence of a generation of ambitious women. For me, one of the best places to find confidence is through role models. I found an exceptional one the first day of fall quarter here at UCSB, when I watched my first lecture of my Art History class. My professor, Dr. Ann Jensen Adams, opened with a synopsis on her background and her journey to becoming a professor. She is a woman who has changed her career path many times, yet is very confident and passionate about her life’s work and secure in her decisions that ultimately led her to be my teacher. I sat down with Dr. Adams to further understand her journey and to ask for her wisdom concerning today’s young women.
Dr. Adams is a professor of Art History at UCSB and one of just two experts in the world of 17th century Dutch portraiture. Adams’ long list of accomplishments began early on in her youth. Growing up in a small town in Oregon, Adams graduated high school as valedictorian and earned a scholarship to Harvard for Mathematics. However, it was there that she made the first pivot that would begin her unconventional path towards success.
“The Math courses were actually in the ROTC building, and we were picketing the military during the Vietnam War and I was not about to cross a picket line,” said Adams. “So that was the end of my Math majoring…And also given the times, it just seemed important to learn more about politics, so I majored in Political Science.”
At Harvard, Adams was also interested in art, but was not enthusiastic about memorizing countless names and dates to major in Art History. After graduating with a degree in Government, Adams’ path took another turn as she found herself apprenticing as a stained glass artist in England, which subsequently rekindled her interest in art.
“After [college] was over, I’d basically had enough for a while of tear gas and protests…My former husband and I went to England and we apprenticed ourselves to a stained glass artist and learned how to make stained glass,” said Adams. “[Then] we went to San Francisco and lived in Haight-Ashbury and made stained glass windows.”
It was while living in the Haight Ashbury Lanes of San Francisco that Adams discovered her passion for reflecting on art, after being invited to speak at multiple events. She made the decision to go back to Harvard and earned a PhD in Art and Architecture History.
“People started asking me in particular to lecture about stained glass and I realized that even though I really loved making it I loved reflecting on art more,” said Adams. “So at that point I moved back to Boston and then went back to graduate school in Art History.”
Today, Dr. Adams is one the of the leading experts of 17th-century Dutch art and visual culture, focusing on the history of science, portraiture, and the role of images in constructing gender identities.
Clearly, it has been a long and winding path. Dr. Adams is an example of someone who didn’t stick to the allotted, acceptable path that many of us feel pressured to take. Although she changed her academic focus multiple times—from Math to Political Science to Art to finally, Art History—Adams emphasized that every discipline has contributed to her current success as an art historian and professor.
“The really important point to be made is that even though these were vastly different kinds of disciplines, every single one of them has contributed to the kind of art history I do,” said Adams.
Despite her long list of feats, they did not come without hardships—the main one being the self-doubt that came with being a woman in the male-dominated field of academia.
“We as women always have self-doubt. There were no women professors in Art History. When I went back to graduate school, they hired one woman the year I arrived — and she lasted two years,” said Adams.
This, coming from someone who has taken what most might consider to be an uncommon path to an incredibly successful career, is especially reassuring. Imposter syndrome is something that creeps into the mind of almost every young woman, especially during transitional stages like high school, college, and one’s early career. Although there is still much progress to be done, this era’s young women are in a relatively fortunate position. In the past 20 years, we have seen a dramatic increase in women leaders, and it has become distinctly less socially-acceptable to exclude women and minorities from key leadership and decision-making roles.
Dr. Adams expressed her delight regarding this progress, noting that the growing female representation in various professional industries has created a resource that all young women should strive to take advantage of: mentorship. There are women leaders now that are able to mentor and empathize with the new generation of ambitious women.
“Find a mentor. It’s the only way to do it,” said Adams. “And you know, I was unable to do that because there weren’t any female mentors but there are plenty now…It was hard. Two of my professors tried very hard to be mentors—they were good, but they were men and they didn’t understand the female perspective.”
Another key piece of advice she gave: life is short.
“Life feels like it goes on forever but it is short. It goes really fast, and if you’re not doing what you enjoy doing, it’s not worth it,” said Adams.
This may sound like repetitive or inconsequential advice to some, but there’s gravity in those words coming from a woman who has lived her life to the fullest, taking every opportunity to pursue her many passions.
At TWN, we celebrate ambitious women and encourage them to be confident in whatever field they choose, regardless of whatever barriers they face. Women like Dr. Ann Jensen Adams serve as role models for today’s young women. They fearlessly blazed trails during their youth, inserting themselves in new and sometimes scary situations in order to become the “firsts” that we look up to today. In addition, Dr. Adams is a prime example of someone who pursued her interests and went after careers that she was passionate about. Her path was long and winding, but she used the skills she’d learned in her education and past experiences to end up with a job that has put together all of her interests into one. As young women, we might all take a page out of her book. If we aim to do what we love and find someone who can help us do it, we’ll end up where we need to be.