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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 >>

Jane Sherron De Hart Mathews takes over women's studies

After Lane retired, O'Connor was on the board that called Jane Sherron De Hart Mathews as her replacement. O'Connor expresses her disappointment with the selection process and De Hart's appointment.

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:
Why did Mary Turner Lane leave the position of Director of Women's Studies? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: I think that there was a lot of feeling then that we now could get a Director of Women's Studies who was trained in Women's Studies who had a national reputation in Women's Studies, and that this was a good time to do that. As I say, when the program began, it was Joan Scott and Mary Turner, and we knew we had someone who had a strong teaching commitment to the area as well as a good administrator of the program. When Joan left, that really did leave a void, so
PAMELA DEAN:
That would leave at least one year that Mary Turner supervised at least, but she didn't actually teach the course. It was the TA's that handled the bulk of it. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Right. That's virtually all that is done now as far as I can tell. The original syllabus is still used. It's sort of like a cafeteria approach in one sense. There are lots of speakers, and the director invites people in. Joan Scott did that herself. That's how she was able to teach Women's Studies 50 on top of her regular course load. Part of the new job description was going to be that someone would actually teach that class and any other courses that we wanted to develop. We had not developed any other courses in Women's Studies because, as I say, it wasn't a direction that Mary Turner felt confident in going in herself, and so there was no question about her willingness to pass the responsibilities to someone else. It was a five year position, and I think that she felt, as she certainly should have, that she had done a good job and was ready to pass it on to someone else. The Dean gave us the money to look for a person at virtually any level that we could find the person. He wanted someone tenured, again, to avoid problems that we might have in considering this person for tenure.
PAMELA DEAN:
And that was Williamson? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Sam Williamson, right, said, "O.K. I'm going to put together a committee that will look for a new director." I think he was interested, now, in seeing this turn into a nationally recognized program. I was on that committee too, and that committee eventually made the job offer to Jane Mathews, now Jane Dehart-Mathews, and she, as matter of fact, was one of the people who was quoted in this original report. She had put together the Women's Studies Program at Greensboro, and again, a committee of faculty and students, this time graduate and undergraduate students, served as a search committee with Beverly Long in charge of that committee. We were told we could organize the search in any way we wanted to, and we decided that we would go for a half-time position in a department and the other half in Women's Studies. We wanted someone with a real teaching commitment. We wanted someone, preferably at the full professor level if we could get her, and the way we decided to handle that was that we would put out a general call for applications addressed to Beverly Long as chair of the committee. She would group them by discipline into departments that they would probably have a home in as well as Women's Studies, and then send them to that department where a committee appointed by the chair of each of those departments involved would look over the applications and give their ideas, sort of a straw vote, on "Yes, this person would be an acceptable full professor. This person would probably be offered an Assistant Professorship or an Associate Professorship." Then, we would just look at those people who had a viable chance to be accepted into departments. I think that we ultimately decided that was not the way we should have done it because all of that inertia was not gone. In my own department, and I will speak very frankly, my chairman, who was not opposed to the idea of a woman in English directing Women's Studies. This was going to be an added half-time position so he wanted our department to find a candidate. So winning this extra position should have been something that the departments wanted to work for, but in our case, Joe Flora, our chair, decided that he would appoint a committee that would have on it representatives of the most conservative elements of our department, so there was only one woman on the committee. The husband of the woman who is in charge of the "Anti-ERA for North Carolina" was also on the committee.
PAMELA DEAN:
People who had no interest in having someone interested in Women's Studies join? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Right. But I shouldn't just refer him by a label. He's a very fair man. I'm talking about Richard Rust. He is Mormon, and his wife Patricia was in charge of the "North Carolina Anti-ERA," and I think at every turn, he has to fight down his own personal reaction to the woman's issue, and I found him incredibly fair in most cases. But in this case, and I'm sure he put in the time because it was required, but again, his heart was not in it--far from it. There were other members of the committee whose honesty and fairness I have a lot more doubts about than Dick Rust who were there as well. The vast majority of applications were in History and English. The History Department gave us a list of nine people that they would accept at the full level and a couple at the Associate level, I believe. The English Department came up with only four people that they would possibly accept. One at the full professor level, but she had already asked that her name be withdrawn, but they were embarrassed, so they gave us her name anyway because that meant that there were no people at the full professor level that they were interested in having as a gift. Now this is my department, and I talked to Anne Hall, who was the woman on that departmental committee. Weldon Thornton chaired it. Townsend Luddington was on it, and Mark Reed as well. At any rate, I asked Anne, "How did this happen? How did someone as talented as Annette Kolodny, for instance, get zapped?" She wasn't even accepted as a non-tenured faculty member. I can't believe this. She would have been a shoe-in. There would have no question about it." And Anne said, "Well, I have never seen anybody work as hard as Mark Reed did to punch holes in her book, which was published by the UNC Press--The Lay of the Land. He had gone through, and he made a two hour presentation, line for line. What he disagreed with was the whole idea of a connection between psychology and literature. He couldn't accept her methodology, and Anne Hall said it was just so apparent that he would never, never have voted to permit her in the department, under any circumstances, even as a gift. This was the level of discussion, so it was inevitable that our new Director of Women's Studies was probably going to be one of the historians on that list. There were nine possibilities, and there were a couple of people in Speech and a couple from the outside, but the people with the real reputations were in history, and we wound up not even going with them. Again, sort of doing everything by committee, we really just, it was a major disappointment. Beverly Long and I now get together and lean back and think such things as "You know what we really should have done was…" We were told by the Dean that any way we wanted to do it, we were to give him three names of people who were acceptable as Director of Women's Studies. Once we gave him the list of three, he would make the decision. He wanted these in alphabetical order; he didn't want us to decide which, and that's what we did. Unfortunately, I guess we didn't believe him. You might be interested, as a matter of fact, in looking at a student newspaper that came out right after. You might have seen it. Is it in the archives?
PAMELA DEAN:
They have it in microfilm. I've got it. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: That's interesting because one of the student members of the board gave an interview in the Daily Tar Heel that protested the final choice of director. She accused other committee members of unfairness. You see, we gave the Dean our short list of three people, one of whom was totally unacceptable after they came, just absolutely unacceptable. Then, the other two were possibilities, and the committee very clearly favored a candidate in Speech, the twelve of us, very clearly. Maybe there was one person who favored Jane Mathews, but, you see, we had turned in our list of three finalists before we'd even met them and talked to them. We just sort of thought, of course, the Dean would say, "Hey, I've thought it over, and I want you to take that one person off the list and put on a better name now."
PAMELA DEAN:
Why was the process that way? Why did you give him the names before you'd… MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Because he only offered enough money to bring three or four people to campus, and Jane Mathews, at the time, was in Finland. Ninety-nine percent of the time, she was in Greensboro, but this particular semester, she and her husband were sharing a Fulbright Chair or something like that in Finland, and that just ate up all of the money. I think it's really unfair to think, though, that her appointment was a shoe-in, that John Kasson, for instance, who was the history member of the department, was biased in favor of Jane Mathews because she was married to John Kasson's colleague, Donald Mathews.
PAMELA DEAN:
That's one of the charges that was made in this case. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Right, and I think that Emily really messed up. The unmentioned source was Emily Seelbinder. I could shoot her most of the time. I have told her this, by the way. We have discussed this often.
PAMELA DEAN:
She was a TA for Women's Studies 50 for quite a while. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: For quite a while, and she really had the feeling that she was it, she was Women's Studies, and she just shot down the best candidate that we had in the English Department, Wendy Martin because Wendy had been asked to teach that course one of those years between Joan Scott's absence and the hiring of Jane Mathews. Wendy who, in her early forties, had just had her first baby in December, started teaching this course in January, and she was there to keep things going, not to change, not to do anything, and Emily Seelbinder was not impressed. I pointed out to Emily that, frankly, Wendy Martin had a lot of things on her mind, including a one month old baby. At any rate, you can say, "Well, O.K. That wasn't very smart of Wendy Martin." But still, at any rate, that's just one small thing, but I think Emily got really carried away. Without consulting anyone else on the committee, she gave this interview that accused, essentially, I think she even used his name, John Kasson, of this set up deal. That's not incredible. John did his job, and he did it very well. His job was to come up with people from the History Department and get the best people we possibly could. He did it much better than anybody else, and Jane Mathews could well have been his personal favorite. That's true, of the group that was there, but I'll tell you. Sam Williamson has never gotten along with Don Mathews, and I think that if Sam felt he had to appoint Jane, it would have been just against his [Laughter] , against the spirit. It's really true. He and Don Mathews have sort of been opponents in the History Department for years, and he probably just thought, "Well, I'm just going to put all of my personal feelings behind me and look at these three people and try and find the best person." So the Women's Studies Committee that I was on, we all wrote him separate letters, and I'm sure all of them said, "Let's open this up some more." He thought, "We've got all of this money invested in it. Are we going to do this or not? We brought this woman in from Finland, and nobody said that she'd be a disaster. Let's do it."
PAMELA DEAN:
She'd already been running Women's Studies in Greensboro. She'd done a credible job there. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Yes, she had begun the program. We found out more after the appointment. I've discovered that this is [Laughter] often the case, that people are franker after a decision is made about their colleagues and their capacities than they are earlier. We did hear before the appointment that because this was a commuting situation, she and her husband, Don, lived here in Chapel Hill, that she wasn't in Greensboro very much, and she was kind of distant from her students. That was something that the committee took into consideration, and we assumed that that was sort of thing that would change after she arrived. Do you have another question?
PAMELA DEAN:
Certainly. You left the board shortly, a year or so after Jane took over? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Yes. I agreed to serve one year after Jane Mathews began as Director of Women's Studies. As I say, I was away for a year, and then, the next year, I was on the search committee that offered her the job. So 1981-82, I believe, was my last year on the Women's Studies Board. That was after. I had been on it, except for that one year's absence, since its inception, and I was the only one. So I offered lots of continuity. I was very willing to do that, and I met some very new people in Women's Studies. That was the year I first met Judith Bennett. I think she is absolutely superb, and Rachel Rosenberg in Sociology, also someone with a real commitment and a great knowledge of Women's Studies. Also, Dot Howze-Brown. She has been married for years but has only recently started using her husband's last name, in Public Health. That was the year Dot Howze-Brown was on the board, and she did a wonderful job. She virtually put the internship program together herself. It came up at an early meeting. It was something that Jane had mentioned in her interviews with us that she was interested in seeing, and Dot said that she wasn't sure if she was going to be able to make it to meetings very regularly since she was over on the other side of campus and that she had different demands on her time, but that if it would be all right, she would like to take over that responsibility and that would be her contribution to Women's Studies that year. So she is the one who sent out letters all over the country, to all faculty to get the names and coordinated things, and got a list of places that were willing to take interns, and Dot did an incredible job that first year of just setting that whole thing up. I have tremendous respect for her. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B] MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: I must say, though, I was very happy to get off the Women's Studies Board at the end of that year. I really felt that it was time for a change. We had a new director. I had, I hope, helped with the continuity, but there's also this feeling that I had my own expectations about what Women's Studies should be, and I felt it was really good for Jane Mathews to have a chance to work with a new group of people.