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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Turner Lane, September 9 and 16, 1986; May 21, 1987; October 1 and 28, 1987. Interview L-0039. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Katherine Carmichael's adaptation to the changing position of women on campus

Lane explores the complex relationship Katherine Carmichael had with the administration and students at UNC. Lane explains that she thought she understood why Carmichael took some of the stands that she did, and Lane also describes the many ways that Carmichael helped women as they transitioned into equal footing at the school.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Turner Lane, September 9 and 16, 1986; May 21, 1987; October 1 and 28, 1987. Interview L-0039. 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:
You said earlier that you had talked to Katherine Carmichael quite a bit and worked with her on a number of cases. I do recall coming across a letter where you were one of the particular people that she was suggesting be on one of these committees. You were one of her primary choices.
MARY TURNER LANE:
Yes.
PAMELA DEAN:
Now, she, as you said, was very protective of women. I'm assuming, at the very least, that when she came on the job in 1946 that her views were to some degree justified. That it was necessary for there to be rules for women in order for it to be acceptable to the community. I mean, by the late sixties there was still resistance, in the broader community in the University and in the state as a whole, to loosening these rules. But for women to be accepted at the University and permitted to continue to come and for their presence to grow, it was necessary to have protective rules and limitations. But clearly she maintained those views past the point where it was acceptable to much of the rest of the University community. What can you tell me about her as a person, and how she was to work with?
MARY TURNER LANE:
I think if you look at the context in which she came, I think you can understand her perspective. I think you said the date at which she came was 1946. You have to remember then that women really were a very small group on this campus, and they were juniors and seniors, that's all. So that we're talking about a woman who had been reared, I think, in a very traditional way, as a southern lady. Coming to a campus as Dean of Women to work with, what really could have been no more than four or five hundred students, if that many.
PAMELA DEAN:
That's about it. In '49 there were 552, so just about that.
MARY TURNER LANE:
So I think that while she had a very traditional view of women—in wanting them to be ladies, to appear ladylike, to maintain themselves in ways that would do justice [laughter] both to their own names and the name of Carolina—at the same time she had a very modern view of helping women become all that they could be. Now, I think that you really had to know Katherine over a period of time and see her work with students one on one to see both sides of her. I think that the public facade was much more the traditional women, talking about the necessity to act in loco parentis, talking about the way in which young women should comport themselves. That was the public facade. But the private facade, the private image, that I saw in small groups, that I saw when she was working with an individual student, in the reports that she would make to me about what she was trying to do with this student or that student, I got a very strong sense of her determination to help this student be successful in academic work, to graduate, to think about careers, to think about work. So there really was that dichotomy in Katherine that made for a very interesting person, one that would sometimes be very easy to caricature. You had to know the private side in order to really be more tolerant and accepting of this public facade where she would say, "Woman is a fragile flower." That was so easy for students to laugh at. But I think she really felt that. She was tough. If you challenged her on that, in terms of what she was, then she was no fragile flower. But I'm not sure that anybody ever challenged her on that, and I'm not sure that she saw that.
PAMELA DEAN:
That's interesting.
MARY TURNER LANE:
But that's my feeling about her.
PAMELA DEAN:
But at the same time, she really was very supportive of women as intellectually capable, women as potentially professional.
MARY TURNER LANE:
Yes, no question, no question.
PAMELA DEAN:
These Carolina coeds were not just being trained to be good wives and mothers, but that they….
MARY TURNER LANE:
But that they had an intellectual capacity that they must develop.
PAMELA DEAN:
Can you give me any specific examples?
MARY TURNER LANE:
No, I really can't. But in retrospect, I'm wondering now, if this great protective cloak that she wanted to put over women when they were here as students, was to enable them to stay in college and graduate. Because the social rules were so strict that if you misbehaved, you'd be out, or you'd be on probation, or you would be in trouble. So I wonder if that was at the base of this. I don't know. You have to think of how strict the rules were.
PAMELA DEAN:
I've been told a story of her grabbing women on campus who were wearing shorts and hauling them back to the dorm and making them change. [laughter]
MARY TURNER LANE:
I think those may be apocryphal. I don't know.
PAMELA DEAN:
It sounds like that would be the sort of thing that she might do to—I mean there was a dress code in effect and she was….
MARY TURNER LANE:
Was there a written dress code, or was it unwritten?
PAMELA DEAN:
Well, in the handbook….
MARY TURNER LANE:
I think there was a written code, I think you're right, in the handbook.
PAMELA DEAN:
Well, in the handbook it says that skirts and dresses are prescribed, and shorts and slacks are proscribed.
MARY TURNER LANE:
That's right. That's right. Well, she might do that because not only were sexual mores changing in this time but how one dressed was changing dramatically. So I don't know whether she would do that, but she just might. [laughter] She would do it, I can see her doing it, but with some sense of levity rather than with a primness and a sternness because she could always draw on humor, and she could laugh at herself. She could. If she did that, she would say, "Now, my dear, you may think I am the most provincial person in the world but it's here in the dress code and we must talk about this." Yes, I think she could do that. And if it were in the code, you see, she did believe in following the rules and in helping students follow the rules. I can't think of particular incidents that I could describe to you. I know that I have talked with two or three students, or I did talk with two or three students at that time, who had been angry with her in public about the way she handled an issue but who had come out of private conversations with her saying, "Dean Carmichael did that just right," or "Now, I understand." So I don't know any more than….
PAMELA DEAN:
So she was a person who did better on one to one than in public?
MARY TURNER LANE:
I think so. That was my general impression. Some of the reasons that I know that she was anxious for women to be successful and to grow in their own wisdom was that, number one, she started the listing of courses about women. They established a very informal group called the Women's Forum. Oh, and that would have been in the early seventies, I guess. It was made up of some junior faculty who were teaching courses on women in poetry or women in history or something of that kind, two or three students who were active in AWS, who were in the Panhellenic Council or who were interested in womens' issues, and one or two other faculty. I know that I was not teaching a course on that but I was often invited to those meetings. So she did that. The second thing she did was to always see that a few women faculty got to meet [laughter] —I laugh as I describe this because this does tell you about the times—members, not of the State Legislature but of the Sir Walter Cabinet, who were wives of state legislators. Every year that they came to campus—they would be invited by the Chancellor, or the Chancellor's wife, or the University Women's Club—she would invite, or for several years, she invited me and one or two other faculty, to meet with a small group at dinner. So that they could ask questions about women students or issues pertaining to women. And I thought that was an interesting way to set up a dialogue about….
PAMELA DEAN:
Networking.
MARY TURNER LANE:
… yes, about women. It was a way for us to get to know them, and it was a way for them to learn more about what was going on on the campuses pertaining to women. So those two things, I think, illustrate the ways in which she tried to promote more dialogue on womens' issues. She had something that was called a Carolina Women's Council. I notice in my notes that I was an advisor to that on several issues. Then she would call me in on certain things and we would talk one to one. So she often sought other opinions and advice from other people. It was not easy to be a Dean of Women when the world was crumbling around you.