Maverick: Eleanor Volante '37
“I just don’t understand you girls!” Eleanor Irvine Volante ’37 used to tell her high school and college pals. “You have a whole world opening up in front of you, and all you want to do is get married and have children.”
“That wasn’t for me!” Volante informed her guests one recent fall afternoon on the gracious front porch of her family home in Delhi, a small town in upstate New York. Volante was born in the sprawling Victorian house that her grandfather built in the 1800s. And she spent a protected childhood there. But as a young woman, she remembers, “I wanted to step out and see every aspect of the world before I ever settled down again. I wanted to take some risks.”
And so she did. Volante traveled by boat, train and car, meeting friends in England, touring Spain with a classmate, taking Paris by storm—“and worrying my parents sick,” she recalls. That was after she received a degree (in government and economics) from Cornell and another from from Sarah Lawrence, where she did social work with migrant workers in the cranberry bogs and blueberry fields of southern New Jersey and studied with Max Lerner. “He was a real maverick,” she says of Lerner, the journalist and educator known for his liberal political and economic views. “And for some reason, he liked me. He had a bevy of students around him, but somehow he took a shine to me.”
In the years that followed her studies and trips abroad, Volante continued to heed her own advice, allowing only a career, not domesticity, to lure her on. She began her professional life working for I.B.M., developing a personal friendship with Thomas Watson, the corporation’s founder, and becoming assistant personnel director there.
“I was a pioneer,” Volante says, looking back on her two decades with I.B.M. “I was one of the first women executives there, and I guess I made a hit with Mr. Watson. I spoke up when everyone else was just a little mouse. That appealed to him.” She also attended night school at George Washington University, where she was awarded an LL.B. in 1957. And even though women made up less than seven percent of the enrollment, she was elected secretary of the Law School’s Bar Association.
After passing her bar exams, she practiced in the U.S. District Courts and the U.S. Courts of Appeal, and was later listed in the World Who’s Who in Commerce and Industry, Who’s Who in the East and Who’s Who of American Women.
In 1959, Volante did allow some domesticity into her life, marrying J. Don Volante, a colleague with whom she had started a personnel recruiting firm. She even agreed to a traditional church ceremony, she recalls, allowing her father to give away the bride. Always the maverick—like the men she so admired—Volante walked down the aisle in peach satin, not white, and carried peach begonias.
“In many ways, my husband was the traditional, domestic one in the family,” she says. “He even did needlepoint.”
And Volante didn’t let domestic bonds hold her back. Capping off her career, she returned to the house she was born in and became a trailblazer in another venue: politics. In 1973, she successfully ran for the top office in Delhi, becoming the first female mayor of the county seat.
Now in her 80s and a widow, her days are far quieter. She takes a daily walk into town, where everyone greets her by her first name. At home, she sweeps the leaves off of the front porch she so loves, and makes sure that all is well with the rest of the house.
“Those shades don’t match,” she says disapprovingly that autumn afternoon, looking up at one of the bedroom windows. “I must change them.”
Volante explains that she’s no longer out to change the world, but that doesn’t mean she can’t still set some things right. And then she looks at you with those still-glinty eyes, and smiles wryly.
– Elsa Brenner