The Women’s Center in Vienna — a source of hope, comfort, strength and renewal for thousands of women living through tumultuous social change — has said goodbye to Judith Mueller, whose life became a template for how to cope with those changes.
Mueller was the architect for the counseling, workshops and lectures that helped women see their lives in the perspective of an evolving sea change in social attitudes about women.
After she went through a painful divorce in 1978, Mueller visited what then was called the Northern Virginia Information and Counseling Center.
Funded by a federal program called the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA), the center was floundering and about to fail. It gave Mueller a place to complete a practicum for her master’s degree in counseling. Up until July 31, 25 years later, she never left.
As she evolved through variously demeaning and uplifting stages of divorce, single parenthood and self-discovery, Mueller shared her discoveries with other women at the Center.
Many of the personal challenges she faced later developed into topics for classes, workshops and seminars such as “The Financial Aspects of Divorce” and “The Legal Aspects of Separation and Divorce.”
The Women’s Center taught women how to deal with child support, single parenthood, anger management, dating and remarriage, re-education and career transition. As they learned to be assertive and self-sufficient, the Center developed classes on how to develop financial self-reliance so they could support themselves after retirement — all this as they continued to nurture family relationships.
Through The Women’s Center’s spring leadership conferences, Mueller brought forward women whose lives proved that women could take control of their lives and be successful.
In 19 years, they have attracted role models including the late Katherine Graham of The Washington Post; Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York; journalists Christiane Amanpour and Charlayne Hunter Gault; political figures Madeleine Albright and David Gergen; human rights advocates Dorothy Height and Marion Wright Edelman, and Erin Brockovich, a paralegal, who became a nationally known victim’s rights advocate.
SHE IS NOW 64, and Mueller’s future will take a different track from The Women’s Center’s.
On July 31, she left the Center, with Chief Executive Officer Cynthia Huheey assuming Mueller’s duties in community relations and fund-raising.
Huheey joined the Center in 2001 as chief operating officer.
She has an executive director, board of directors, and large staff of counselors who field about 80,000 calls annually from women driven by everything from boredom to curiosity to the full-scale panic of an unexpected life crisis.
They seek psychotherapy, career services, financial and legal education, personal development.
“[Mueller] is gong to be missed by many people,” said Suzanne Wheeler Klein, director of media communications at the Center.
Characteristically, Mueller spent her first weekend too busy to talk about departing the Center. Her father, a former Episcopal minister in Richmond who is now 95, was celebrating his birthday, and she needed to be in the midst of the family celebration, she said.
It was her father, Mueller said, who “imprinted” her need to help others, she said.
“It is the most extraordinary thing to be the daughter of this man who is so beloved and who has taught so many people the way to express respect and affection, and to incorporate love as a minute-to-minute, day-to-day model of what all of us need to do,” she said.
ON HER FIRST DAY away from The Women’s Center, Mueller reflected on some of the changes she’s seen.
In 1978, when she first walked into the Northern Virginia Education and Counseling Service, she said, “The money was running out, and they were bankrupt.
“I became the chairman and the volunteer acting director. I didn’t draw down any pay,” she said. “I gave away eight or 10 years because I chose to. I did a front-end load.
“I had a tiny amount in child support and alimony to take that risk,” Mueller said. “What I did not imagine is that we would get so deeply into the clinical program at the same time the health-care industry collapsed, that we would actually suffer for making that such a huge part of our business.
“I had studied the effect on nonprofits’ health-care-delivery systems [that were] based on managed care. We all knew it would be bad,” Mueller said, but “we managed to survive."
But the exponential increase in red tape and administrative duties that came with managed health care “is not the thing I went in to do,” said Mueller. “Education, information, and support was the initial mission of The Women’s Center."
“And counseling. To women. In transition. That was the original mission,” she said. “My hope is the whole mission of The Women’s Center will be restored.
“My belief is that wellness results from coping,” Mueller said. “People who cope experience their own power, their own functionalism, their own survival. They have operational knowledge, and they know they are operating.
“That is a form of psychotherapy in itself, when you are pulling together all the tools and using them in a coordinated effort to restore wellness."
MUELLER SAID her own life, and her meetings with women in other countries, have shown that “most women do not have business-backed coverage [or] employer-based benefits that entitle them to mental health care.
“They get well other ways,” she said.
Those include “coaching, linkages and exposure to the ‘to do’ piece,” Mueller said. “Once you are doing it, you are feeling better.”
As a role model for women leading a major cultural shift, once again, Mueller sees her own life changing and isn’t exactly sure where she will go from here. But she knows she wants to build on what she’s learned.
“I want to adapt the model we developed at the Center to a global environment,” she said. “That is the model I want to use in working locally, nationally and internationally.
“I don’t know what I am going to be doing, but I do believe in this model of functionalism that is behaviorally based.
“That is what works for women, because their lives are sequenced,” she said.
“I have watched how women’s lives, and sequencing, have changed. Counseling is composed of determining ‘how do we guide women over their lifetime, given changed circumstances?’” she said.
“It is all so exciting to me to have this knowledge and experience.
“I want to take 26 years of passion and plug it in, where I don’t have to tune into the problems associated with a chaotic health-care system,” she said.
“I have been loved in this,” Mueller said. “I have been lifted up.”’
Editor’s Note: Like many women in Northern Virginia, McLean Connection reporter Beverly Crawford has been both a volunteer and later, a client, of The Women’s Center.