Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts) is a teacher who leaves her boyfriend behind in Los Angeles to teach at Wellesley College in
Massachusetts. This college is a conservative private liberal arts college for women.
Watson encourages her students to embrace their studies and become career professionals. She believes that women should not simply be wives and mothers; they should be leaders of the society. Using modern art, Watson suggests that women should not conform to the norms of society, they should experiment. Just as Jackson Pollock rejected the artistic conventions, so too should women challenge the expectations of society.
Given the school’s conservative leanings, Watson comes into conflict with the administration. She is told that she should not use her class as a platform for her personal beliefs. If Watson does not conform, she could risk her job.
Watson is undaunted by the administration. She becomes even more forceful in expressing her beliefs.
After a disastrous wedding proposal, Watson breaks up with her long distance boyfriend, Paul Moore. After ending things with Paul, she starts a relationship with the school’s Italian teacher, Bill Dunbar. Although the school’s administration frowns upon their relationship, they continue to see each other. When Watson finds out that Bill lied to her about his military service, she ends their relationship.
The film also devotes time to the life of Watson’s students. Elizabeth “Betty” Warren comes from a wealthy, conservative family. She marries a man named Spencer Jones, an unfaithful lawyer who continually clashes with Watson. Other students include Constance “Connie” Baker, Giselle Levy and Joan Brandwyn.
While many of these students are put off by Watson’s teaching style, the students eventually begin to admire and respect her. Even
Betty, Watson’s most vehement initial critic, grows to love Watson.
After one year teaching at the school, Watson decides to resign. As her car leaves campus for the last time, her students follow her car, showing their respect and love for her. The film closes with narration from Betty, saying that Watson is “an extraordinary woman” who “seeks truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image.”