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MONA LISA SMILE

An Inspiring Generation
Several years ago, screenwriting partners Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (Jewel of the Nile, Planet of the Apes) read an article about Hillary Rodham Clinton's years at Wellesley College in the 1960s. "By the 60s the Wellesley curriculum had already been modernized and the students took their choices for granted," says Rosenthal. "But we wondered what it would be like if we went back a generation, before the vocabulary of feminism was handed to women on a silver platter."

In that prior generation, the writers learned that the curriculum was very different.

"They were doing French literature and physics in the morning and how to serve tea to your husband's boss in the afternoon" says Konner.

The writers did further research on women's colleges in the years following World War II. Even the progressive educational institutions were not exempt from the conservative swing that overtook the nation after the upheaval of the war, they discovered. Women, who had contributed to the war effort, taking physically demanding jobs, while their husbands, fathers and brothers were off defending the country, were expected to give up their jobs, return home and raise families.

Konner and Rosenthal also visited Wellesley, considered one of the most academically rigorous and prestigious of the female-only colleges referred to collectively as "The Seven Sisters." Besides Rodham Clinton, the school's alumnae include Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer, Ali McGraw, Cokie Roberts and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

At the Wellesley library, Rosenthal and Konner unearthed a photo from a 1956 issue of The Wellesley News that seemed to encapsulate the dilemma facing women of the era. It was a snapshot of a young woman in a smart dress and pearls with a frying pan in one hand and a book in the other. "The headline was something like ‘Survey Shows Married Women Make the Best Students,'" laughs Rosenthal. "What a mixed message. On the one hand, the school boasted that its academic standards for women were on a par with male institutions like Harvard. But there was a P.S.: ‘A woman's main purpose in life is still to get married.'"

The dramatic tension between what was expected of women in that era and the dreams and yearnings that were simmering underneath was too strong a premise for Konner and Rosenthal to resist. Wellesley College was an ideal setting, especially during the Eisenhower era when the first sparks of what would later be known as the feminist revolution were being kindled. The focus of their story would be Katherine Watson, a young woman who comes to Wellesley with idealistic notions of what it will be like to teach some of the smartest women in America.

"We've always been fascinated by the notion of someone who is 'enlightened prematurely' – someone who's ahead of her time. Katherine was our way of imagining that heroine," says Rosenthal.

Katherine herself is from a modest background and attended the more progressive UCLA. "As recently as 50 years ago, New England was still an extension of the Old World, while California really was the New World," says Konner. "So we thought that would be the perfect place for Katherine to have grown up both in terms of its less rigid class distinctions and more permissive social attitudes."

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