Over the past 35 years, CNN, Whole Foods, and Abby Wambach have proven that 1980 was an auspicious year in which to get your start. Each of them successfully combined the audacity it takes to go first with the grit it takes to endure. The radically altered landscapes of their respective fields today are populated by numerous and varied players that they inspired. It’s difficult for many of us today to even fathom the vision it took for them to strike out on such unblazed, and even unimagined, trails.
Here at UVA, our entry in the successful class of 1980 start-ups that just turned 35 is Iris, A Magazine for Thinking Young Women. It was a year of both celebration and reflection here as the Women’s Center itself reached 25 and its founder, Sharon Davie, retired. It struck us recently that Iris, which Sharon started well before the Center’s founding, is now the senior member of our team. In its more than three decades on Grounds, Iris has reinvented itself several times over. But the important place it has held throughout that time was apparent in the remarks of several University luminaries who spoke at Sharon’s retirement celebration. Leonard Sandrige, in his inimitable style, recalled the magazine’s impact in its early days saying, “Now I was on the board of Iris Magazine. I always thought that Sharon was fortunate and I was fortunate that no one asked her to describe why I was on it because I certainly didn’t know anything about publications and Sharon has reminded me on a number of occasions that I knew even less about women. But I will tell you that I watched Sharon in that environment and I saw her teach us why articles and essays that we thought had no place here on Grounds were not only appropriate, but they were absolutely necessary.”
The format of Iris has shifted over the years from xeroxed zine to full-color glossy magazine to the current publication online. The way in which contributions to Iris are written and edited has evolved, too. After years in which the articles that appeared in Iris came from a variety of authors, Iris’ content is now generated entirely by students. Each year, several of the Women’s Center’s interns dedicate their time to Iris, drafting articles and meeting together to respond to each other’s ideas and plan for future articles. They are guided in honing their craft by a student Assistant Editor who has returned to the team after working as an Iris writer in a prior year and by a Women’s Center staff member who mentors them in her role as Editor of Iris.
Our two Communications Assistants’ leadership of Iris during their time as its Editors in 2015 has served the publication beautifully for this milestone year. Agnes Filipowski set high expectations for students’ writing and developed routines that resulted in tremendous growth of the young writers. Upon her move abroad midway through the year, the publication was thriving and Alison Kuhn (who had first written for Iris as an intern in the 2013-14 academic year) completed her Assistant Editor year and graduated just in time to move into the Editor role for the second half of 2015. The crop of interns that the two of them worked together to recruit before Agnes’ departure were prepared to build on Iris’ growing momentum in two ways. They had already demonstrated skills and commitment as freelance Iris contributors, and they each had a vision for covering a breadth of topics not being covered elsewhere despite students’ clear interest in them.
Throughout the year, we noted that Iris was thriving. Even so, when Winter Break arrived and we took stock of 2015, we were impressed by the tremendous gains made in the publication’s reach. We found that Iris’ writers and editors had entirely outdone themselves reaching 30,000 users – more than twice the number the site saw in 2014 and three times the distribution of the print version in the years preceding the shift to an online-only publication.
In keeping with Leonard Sandridge’s observation of the publication’s early years under Sharon’s leadership, Iris is going strong at 35 thanks to the team’s understanding of their audience along with their willingness to take risks and their dedication to high quality coverage of what’s relevant to that audience in 2015 and beyond. Visit iris.virginia.edu regularly to see them doing what they do so well – and share Iris with the thinking young women you know and with all who care about how young women are experiencing UVA and the world today.