By: Courtney Eker and Justine Hall
Photos courtesy of friends and family of Francis and Piepmeier
Fierce. Magnificent. Activist. Inspiring. Badass. Family.
If you could sum up the legacy of two vibrant, passionate and influential women in one word, what would it be?
Alison Piepmeier and Conseula Francis were more than colleagues of the College of Charleston faculty. They were friends — family. They spent weekends and holidays with each other and their children. They published together. With their third counterpart, political science professor Claire Curtis, they formed what Curtis called a “smug writing group.” They made an impact on the College of Charleston campus community through their courses, their involvement, their compassion and their activism for social and racial justice.
This summer, Francis unexpectedly passed away shortly after being diagnosed with leukemia. Roughly three months later, Piepmeier lost a six-year-long battle with a brain tumor.
Bonded together by Star Wars and coffee dates, Piepmeier and Francis founded a pure camaraderie upon a mutual desire to enact change in a world that so desperately needed it.
Francis came to the College to teach in the Department of English in 2002. Piepmeier followed shortly after, joining the department in 2005 as the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies.
“Their resemblances were uncanny,” English Department Chair Scott Peeples said. “I really think of Conseula and Alison and Claire being this trio of really great friends, great colleagues and strong women.”
The trio’s writing group, fondly referred to as “The Super Ninja Writing Force” met for roughly two hours each week, rotating whose work would be read and edited. “45 minutes were spent chatting about this and that,” Curtis said. According to Curtis, there were strict rules that kept the group going. For instance, “no skipping, no jumping over, if what you produced was one paragraph, that was fine.” Though often, they submitted much more than one paragraph. Throughout the course of the group, they worked on the full draft proposals for both the Women’s and Gender Studies and African American Studies major and each achieved tenure.
Their writing group transcended the professional realm: the three often spent weekends together with their children, or at their favorite Charleston coffee shops like Brown’s Court Bakery, Caviar and Bananas and Jack’s Cafe. Curtis’s daughter took horseback riding lessons on Saturday afternoons and Alison and her daughter Maybelle would tag along. Francis and Curtis’s kids were on the same soccer team and attended school together. It was a long-standing tradition for Curtis and Francis’ families to spend every Thanksgiving together. “I can’t remember what we did before we had Thanksgiving with Consuela,” Curtis said. Piepmeier’s family also joined in on the holiday celebration on two different occasions. This year, Francis’s husband and daughters are coming from Louisiana to continue the tradition with Curtis and her family.
Creating a major is no easy feat, let alone a major in a controversial discipline. Provost Brian McGee recalled Piepmeier’s determination while she was working to get the Women’s and Gender Studies major approved.
Although she faced extreme adversity from several members of the College community, she remained steadfast in advocating for the profound importance and career opportunities that would be made available to students who pursued the major. According to McGee, it “should have been impossible” given the resistance that existed when she first proposed the idea of the major. But anyone who knew Piepmeier would not have expected anything less.
As director of Women’s and Gender Studies, Piepmeier’s job encompassed so much more than the typical paperwork, meetings and class approvals. She served as a resource not only for students on campus, but for countless faculty, staff and members of the Charleston community.
Piepmeier was often the only person who people felt comfortable confiding in after a sexual assault or sexual harassment in the workplace. Her office door was always open — and not just for the bad stuff. It was a frequent occurrence for students to simply spend time in Piepmeier’s office. McGee described students who would “walk on water” for her. He said students have called time spent with Piepmeier as “life transforming” and “life saving.”
Piepmeier also published extensively, including the foremost book on girl zines, a type of self-made feminist magazine. McGee described the book as “frankly famous.” He added, “if you work in that area, that is the book you have to read.”
When the College was facing controversy about its College Reads! choice “Fun Home,” Piepmeier was a ringleader of campus protests in front of Randolph Hall. Lisa Ross, a professor of psychology at the College, recalled one of her happiest memories of Piepmeier when she was so clearly in her element, rallying students and faculty, leading chants and standing up for LGBT rights.
Not only were Francis and Piepmeier unapologetically audacious women, they were both avid instigators of racial progress and social change. Ross commented on both Francis and Piepmeier’s willingness to “say what they mean and mean what they say.”
“They both had a way of inspiring the best in other people,” Ross said. “With them, they made me feel — and I think they touched other people’s’ lives this way, too — that you want to do more, you want to do better, you want to give more, you want to fight more to make the world a better place.”
In 2007, Francis was appointed director of the African American Studies Program, where she developed the African American Studies minor into a major by 2014.
“Charleston is too important in the history and culture of the African diaspora for us to ignore,” she said at the time. “We should be educating our students about that history and training them to document, preserve and tell that history themselves.”
A year ago, Francis became the first black female to serve as Associate Provost. She was in a “position of real power at the College of Charleston,” Curtis said. “She really recognized the degree to which that mattered to a lot of staff on campus, to a lot of people on campus, that she was a black woman who had power on this campus. And not just power because people liked her but power because she was in that office.”
“I think that she really got students to think more closely about social and issues of race in literature and pop culture,” Peeples said of Francis. “She was great at showing students how to do that and how to do that reflectively, not just be a consumer of pop culture. She was a tremendous role model to students, and not to just students of color or women, but especially to them.”
Patricia Williams Lessane, executive director of the Avery Research Center and close friend to Francis, believes that her progressive vision for African Americans on the College campus was in part driven by her desire to pave a smoother path in higher education for her own children. Both first generation college students, Francis and Williams Lessane bonded over their gumption to overcome institutional racism and exceed expectations.
“We really hurt for our black students,” Williams Lessane said. “We both knew what it’s like to have to work twice as hard as other people to be acknowledged.” Williams Lessane said she always admired Francis’s courage, as evidenced by her immense love for the College and its students — even for its shortcomings. “She had such patience and fortitude to push through the blatant sexism and racism that exists on this campus,” Williams Lessane said. “She had a way of handling a myriad of challenges with incredible grace.”
Both women were strong role models as professors and leaders, but also as mothers to their daughters. Piepmeier is survived by her daughter Maybelle. Francis is survived by her two daughters Frances and Catherine McCann.
“Consuela loved her daughters,” Curtis said. “I think it would be be hard to imagine her not saying, ‘My greatest accomplishment is producing these two fabulous girls.’”
Piepmeier’s extensive research spanned several disciplines, but she most recently focused on “the perception of women who confronted the possibility of aborting a fetus with Down Syndrome or that would be likely to have Down Syndrome and that either chose to give birth or to abort,” McGee said. Piepmeier’s daughter, Maybelle, was born with Down Syndrome a little less than a year before Piepmeier’s brain tumor was found. Cindi May, professor of psychology, heard about Maybelle’s birth and reached out to Piepmeier because of her own role in the advocacy for people with Down Syndrome. Since Piepmeier’s passing, May and her husband Steve Feingold have adopted Maybelle into their family.
Francis and Piepmeier’s intermingling passions birthed a lasting legacy not only on the College of Charleston community, but in every aspect of their lives.
“They were both just fierce,” Ross said. “Fierce in their feminism, fierce in their love for their children…They were fierce badasses.”
Piepmeier and Francis’s contagious passion to take a stand for change will reflect through Ross and her desire to, “fight more, do better.”
Peeples will remember Francis through swapping favorite CDs and sharing rides to the College where conversations about pop culture, teaching and their children were exchanged.
Flooded with memories of mid-meeting text conversations with sarcastic emojis and plans to have Beyonce’s “Lemonade” watch parties, Williams Lessane will live out the legacy of Francis’s “Black Girl Magic” and her fervent ambition to bring the African American narrative to light.
Curtis will carry the legacy of colleagues who turned into family. Of friends who spent holidays with each others’ families. Who built a “pretty special” community out of a weekly writing group.
McGee will continue to carry Piepmeier’s legacy of advocacy and compassion in creating a campus of openness and inclusion for all students.
Frances and Catherine will build upon their mother’s legacy. They will enter the world of higher education envisioning more possibilities because of the impact Francis’s fortitude has left on institutions like the College of Charleston.
Piepmeier will live through Maybelle’s effortless positivity and compassion for others. She will congratulate her new brothers and sisters for “how well they brush their teeth” and make a great leader. According to May, that’s her strong suit — just like her mom.
*This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Yard.