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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ellen Black Winston, December 2, 1974. Interview G-0064. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Thoughts on women's opportunities and women's rights in higher education

Winston explains what it was like to be a female graduate student at University of Chicago in the late 1920s. According to Winston, the number of women pursuing graduate work was quite high at that time and she describes her interaction in living experiences with women from different fields. Moreover, she does not recall that the female students were overly concerned with issues of women's rights at that time, in part because they were enjoying opportunities that allowed them mobility and stability. Later in the interview, Winston notes that she did not see herself as a feminist or as a "trailblazer" and her comments here are indicative of her belief that women's opportunities were not highly restricted during those years.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ellen Black Winston, December 2, 1974. Interview G-0064. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ANNETTE SMITH:
Were there other women at the University of Chicago?
ELLEN WINSTON:
Yes. There were other women at the University of Chicago. In fact, we had several women in the general group at the time I was there. Some were ahead of me, some came at the same time and some came a little later, before I left the University. I don't remember any difference between the men and women students. Actually, that was the period when women made up a higher proportion of those getting advanced degrees than has been true for the last couple of decades. That was sort of the heyday for women students, really, certainly in the fieldsin which I was interested. I was very lucky, too, because at that time they had very strong faculty in cultural anthropology and that was one of my related interests. I also was living in Green Hall during the first period, which was really four and a half quarters when I was there. I went in the summer and stayed through the three winter quarters and then stayed through the middle of the second summer, when I went back home to get married. But I lived in Green Hall during that period, which was the graduate women's dormitory.
ANNETTE SMITH:
This was in the late 1920's?
ELLEN WINSTON:
Yes. I went to Chicago in the summer of 1927 and this was from the summer of '27 until the middle of the following summer. Sophronisba Breckinridge was the head of Green Hall. And of course, Sophonisba Breckinridge was great on women's rights and pushing back the horizons, and that sort of thing. And the Abbott sisters . . .
ANNETTE SMITH:
Grace Abbott and . . .
ELLEN WINSTON:
. . . were there at the time. So, there was a nice climate, as it were. Besides, this residence hall was a very good thing for someone coming up from the South, who hadn't had too much experience. We had a marvelous group of women, women in all fields, who were living in the hall. The dinner table conversation was really quite challenging. The first quarter, or maybe two quarters, I don't remember, I sat at Miss Breckinridge's table. because she always presided over the dining room hall for dinner at night. And of course that conversation was always interesting. She more or less, I think, picked the people at her table. Then after that I headed up a table myself and I could more or less control some of the directions of the conversation. But you know, I remember friends in education, in home economics, in biology, in chemistry. We had a great mixture and it really was great fun.
ANNETTE SMITH:
These were sort of formal sessions?
ELLEN WINSTON:
Oh, the dinners were quite formal. You started with soup and whoever was head of the table served, you know, and we were really quite precise in our manners.
ANNETTE SMITH:
You were expected, when you were head of the table, to bring up certain topics of conversation?
ELLEN WINSTON:
Yes. And then, you know, we celebrated birthdays and that sort of thing, so it was really a very good experience. I did a little tape for the University of Chicago a couple of years ago. The man who came down to do it was somewhat surprised that I didn't do more running around in terms of meals. But we had three meals a day at Green Hall, you know, so, you automatically went back there normally instead of going out with the other students, even at lunch time.
ANNETTE SMITH:
You ate with the other women students, then, most of the time?
ELLEN WINSTON:
Yes, who were normally not in my field. After all, there were not too many of us and I was the only one who was living in Green Hall during that period.
ANNETTE SMITH:
Did you talk much about women's roles, women's rights at these? Were women as a conscious group much of a topic of conversation?
ELLEN WINSTON:
Not as I remember it. But you see, these women weren't having any real problems. (laughter) You have to remember that. They were in school in a period when there really weren't as many problems for women as have developed since then. And these were all graduate students, they were women who had good jobs or would be getting good jobs. They didn't have to worry about some of the things that disturb women today. Although, even today, I think that when women have the proper qualifications, they are not having so much trouble. My concern is with the women who want the opportunities but haven't been willing to put themselves through the mill of experience and academic training. There is quite a difference.