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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 >>

O'Connor becomes interested in women's studies

Margaret O'Connor did not study women in literature during her graduate program. Instead, she became involved in women's studies when asked to teach a class on the subject by her departmental chair James R. Gaskin.

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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.

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Let's start again. I'm sorry to put you through this with who you are, where you came from, and how you got into Women's Studies at UNC? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Well, I finished my Ph.D in American Literature with a dissertation on Willa Cather at the University of California at Davis in the summer of 1981. Then three weeks later, I drove into Chapel Hill and virtually immediately began teaching as an instructor in the Department of English. My Chairman was James Gaskin, and at the end of that first semester, he asked me if I would teach a course for Hinton James dormitory, which had recently opened and which, like Carmichael dormitory, apparently was trying to integrate a living and learning situation in this new residence hall. The students had asked specifically for a course in Women in Literature. I'd done a dissertation on a woman writer. I certainly was not familiar with the kinds of questions, the kinds of issues, that come up either in a Women's Studies course or a Women in Literature course today. But nobody else had been trained in that area either, and so I thought, "Well, I might as well." It was really exciting. I had twenty-five students. We met in the evening, two nights a week, and I had my students keep notebooks. It was very personal, but then all of our teaching in the department in composition was also very oriented toward keeping journals and that sort of writing. So it was sort of an extension of the sorts of things we were doing in other classes. But I had perhaps twenty women and five men from Hinton James. There were two or three black students in the class, but predominantly a white class, as most of my classes still are, I suppose, at the University.
Most of the campus… MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Most of the campus still is. It was exciting. We did not only American literature, we did European literature, and I learned an awful lot. It was one of those courses where I feel I learned at least as much as the students by going through some of the literature in translation. Some of the material I knew well in my own field and put it together for myself.
A little different perspective than if you approached it… MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Certainly. A very different perspective because we were sort of looking at the way that women writers dealt with women characters, and the way that male writers, too, depicted them, and the opportunities and the options. We tried to separate the preconceptions that the authors had for their characters from the way that in reality, perhaps, a woman might respond in the various situations that the literature always found them in. It was exciting, and it was probably the major impetus that I had on an academic level for seeing more women's courses offered at the University.