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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 >>

Reflection on the male facutly who resisted feminism in the academy

When asked about opposition to feminist faculty initiatives, O'Connor responds with a great deal of empathy, reflecting on how the male faculty must have felt besieged, attacked, and put upon. She also remembers how, as a female faculty member, she gained a certain degree of freedom that other junior faculty did not enjoy.

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

Were there sources of opposition to the idea in general that surfaced at all in those early discussions? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Yes. Very, very clearly, but today, after sixteen years of being here, I really feel that the major opposition was one of inertia. I've described this as a conservative institution. I think that some of my colleagues might take umbrage at that. After all, this is a campus that in the 30's was a leader for the South in liberal attitudes and ideas, but really I don't think those values had changed very much since the 1930's. And this campus was open to black students before it was open to women students. In some ways, there was some question about women that really struck at the heart of the institution. You would have to check, but my impression of my first few years here was that a large number of the University administrators, in particular, and the administrators of specific departments were UNC-Chapel Hill graduates. They had a sense of this institution as male. It was a part of their memory as well as their present and their futures. I really felt that they believed that a change in standards, a change in values, would be a lowering and that, inevitably, there was a fear of anything that might disrupt the status quo. It was a time, too, that major universities, including UNC, had just recently gotten through major upheavals and changes in civil rights and the anti-war movement of the late '60's. And they were just beginning to lick their wounds. The last thing that they really wanted to do was to be told that their whole way of looking at one another, as well as the world, was warped. I think that issue so often touched the idea of fairness. You can make some suggestions in the abstract, but this was very concrete. Here were men who, in many cases, were very happily married, the husbands and the fathers and the sons of women. And they felt an implicit criticism of not only their academic and their public role but of their whole personal way of responding to women, which, of course, now sixteen years later, we can see is absolutely true. It really was, and it has…
They knew a threat when they saw one. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: They knew a threat when they saw it. I felt, for myself, a kind of freedom that a lot of my male colleagues did not feel in their first five years here, and a kind of a resentment. I've had a chance to talk to them about that since then. When I was first brought into the faculty, it was when the English faculty definitely were trying to cover their asses, really, because they had let the single tenure-track woman go the year before, and they really had to try and look better. There were some people who were trying to make some sincere changes. They were expecting to get criticism from people like me and from Connie Eble, who was the assistant professor hired the year I was hired as an instructor. We really had the kind of freedom to stand up in front of our colleagues to chastise them and shake our fingers at them and say, "Why aren't you doing this?" in a way that any assistant professor or instructor might want to change the world. And a lot of my male colleagues did not have the freedom I had. I mean, they couldn't walk out and be angry at me for saying what they expected me to say. So there was a kind of freedom at the same time that the some of early women…
That's very interesting and not what I'd expect at all. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: When I was considered for tenure, I had a very strong vote. And I think a lot of that came from a sense that even colleagues that were reticent about accepting the sorts of changes that I was very anxious to see put in, couldn't begrudge my attempt. I could be very specific and talk about our Chancellor, who was very anxious to avoid the kind of upheavals of the late '60's.
Who was Chancellor? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: N. Farabee Taylor. As gentlemanly as he was, my visual memories of Chancellor Taylor are going to be seeing him chain smoking in front of the Faculty Council. I bet he must have smoked three or four packs of cigarettes a day. He fell very much under fire, and when I heard of his subsequent heart attack, and happily his recovery, and now he's in the law school, it occurred to me that a lot of the pressures that were being put on him as an administrator of those years were very visible at just those sorts of meetings between the faculty and the Chancellor. But at the same time that I can now empathize with him, at the time I just thought, "I don't know who he's looking after, but he's not looking after the women at this campus." I felt very, very embattled, and I'm sure that, from his point of view, that was a very warped perspective, mine. On a different level, I felt that Jim Gaskin, who went from the chair of the English Department to Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences the year after I came, was very anxious to get as many qualified women on the faculty as he possibly could and encouraged all sorts of departments. And that's where I saw amazing gains. I felt that he approached it with good will, with compassion, and tried to make the very best of a difficult situation.
So you wouldn't make any blanket statements that men were the enemy in this situation? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Men were in charge, and the people in charge were the enemy. What can I say? There were no women. I'll be happy to share the blame, but you'd have to go back and revise your statement. And I think it's absolutely true that many of the men woke up and looked around themselves and saw a lot of people just like them who agreed with them one hundred percent. There really weren't many ways that new faces, male or female, could break into that system. I still feel that very few women, VERY few women, have broken into that ring.