Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Margaret Anne O'Connor, July 1, 1987. Interview L-0031. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Committee that proposed the women's studies department

The committee that ultimately proposed starting a women's studies curriculum was composed of a variety of faculty members, not all of whom supported the creation of the new field when the committee formed. O'Connor remembers some of the more rancorous discussions and how they ultimately reached consensus.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Margaret Anne O'Connor, July 1, 1987. Interview L-0031. 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

PAMELA DEAN:
Let's go on and talk some more about the actual committees that were involved when you got Women's Studies going. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Great, it's kind of nice just looking down at this report. I see some names, and I just wanted to remind people of these folks. The twelve faculty members are the people who stand in my mind, I guess, for the ad hoc Committee on Women's Studies that made its final report on April 18, 1975. I remember that well because we joked about the Longfellow kinds of connections. We made our report, and it was accepted unanimously, much to the surprise and shock and perhaps even the chagrin of many members of the faculty. I look and the first name that I see, our chairman was Richard Simpson from sociology, who was also chairing the Soc. Department. So it was an overload, without a doubt, for him to be put in charge of this committee to look into the possibility of maybe, perhaps, possibly putting together a Women's Studies Program if utterly, absolutely necessary. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: So Dick Simpson was the chair. I would say that on this committee I felt very much an assistant professor. Jackie Hall, I believe, was also an assistant professor, and it's my impression--and Anne Woodward, from music, might have been an assistant professor at that time. Our committee report, the final report, doesn't list what our rank was, but I think it would be sort of important for people to be aware of that Mary Turner Lane and Dell Johansen in economics and Catherine Maley were associate professors and tenured. Tenure does mean something. I have to commend the way that Dick Simpson ran the committee, because I think that he tried to encourage the young turks as Jackie Hall and Anne Woodward and myself would like to have thought of ourselves as being. And we were very encouraged to speak. Maynard Adams was a Kenan professor, and so was Duncan MacRay, and there were several full professors on that committee who were male, and there were no women who were full professors in this group. The women were far more likely to be interested in the topic [of creating a Women's Studies Program] in general. The only man on the committee going into it who was enthusiastic was Peter Filene, who at that point, was an associate professor, I think. His research was already moving in the direction of gender issues, and he taught a course in Women in American History and was very successful in the History Department. But I remember some wonderful times. We talked about what this could possibly be, what kind of classes, what would you talk about in the Women's Studies course. I remember Maynard Adams, one day, I'll pick on Maynard because he's a Kenan professor, and because there's very little that my mosquito prick could inflict on such a strong arm. I think I'll think of it that way. I remember him talking about the fact that if we had a Women's Studies course, it might increase the amount of anomie. I hate to admit it, but that was the first time that I'd really heard this term, which Sociology and Psychology Departments have been batting around, apparently, for years. He talked about male anomie, this sense of being left out, isolated, and I just sat there and looked at the other powerless women in this group and thought this is insane! This is ridiculous! (Laughter) We were just increasing male anomie, and some women might want to major in this. Now what does a major in Women's Studies do? How can we have an undergraduate major in Women's Studies? It's incredible. There would be nothing that they could do, and how many would that involve? Can we really put all of this together for such a small number of students, and I said, "Professor Adams, do you have any idea how many undergraduate majors your department, the Philosophy Department, has?" And he said, "No, I'll check." I have to give him credit because the next meeting, he came in and said, "I have an announcement to make. The undergraduate Philosophy Department has nine majors." We all laughed because we thought, "Well, the thought of a major university not having a Philosophy Department is pretty ridiculous." And he laughed too, and so we said, "Right. O.K. We won't judge the relative merits of the departments on the number of undergraduate majors that they're likely to attract."
PAMELA DEAN:
By '81-82, there were seven Women's Studies majors. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Oh, I see.
PAMELA DEAN:
So it was not long before Women's Studies majors moved up to philosophy. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Moved right up there to philosophy.
PAMELA DEAN:
Now if we asked how many majors there are in Business Administration, we'd get a slightly different answer. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: That's true, but…
PAMELA DEAN:
You cannot judge the merits of an academic discipline on the number of its undergraduate majors. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Right, and I look down at this list of members of the ad hoc committee, and I see Bob Mann in the Department of Mathematics. His complaint was that there was simply no course that a woman could offer in mathematics that had anything to do with Women's Studies, and frankly, I couldn't think of one either. Sometimes, the levels of our discussions would just sort of get down to, "Well, you could count the number of women at the University, or you could count this and that and divide something." As it turned out, I believe that mathematics has had some lecturers who are coming in and talking about, have lectured in the last fifteen years or so on the fear of mathematics and the way, perhaps, that this might be gender-oriented, in a way that in the mid 70's Bob Mann was not aware, that none of us were really that conscious of. I look down, and I see a lot of names. I felt that this was one of the most important committees I had been on at the University, and I'm sure that at the beginning, certainly, the full professors and many of the men on the committee certainly did not have the commitment, and it was a lot of time. They thought it was sort of a fad; it probably was more work for them to be on this committee than it was for me. It was really a labor of love for me, and I have to say that at the end of this group, we took a vote, and the vote to put together a program was unanimous, and I have great respect for the senior members of this committee who took the time and energy to equal the time of those who were real devotees. I think it worked out to be a very good committee.