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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 >>

Mary Turner Lane chosen as the first director of women's studies at UNC

Because it was unclear how becoming director of women's studies would affect a professor's career, limitations were placed on who could apply: the applicant needed to be tenured, experienced, established within his or her department, and yet at the same time able to carry only half of a usual teaching load within the department. After this, O'Connor lists the specific qualities that made Lane a strong leader in this position.

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.

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How many people were considered? How many people applied for this? Was there a widespread interest? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: For the directorship?
For the directorship, yes, initially, the first search. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Some of the criteria, or the main criterion was that it be a tenured person because we didn't want the role of Director of Women's Studies to jeopardize someone's career. As I say, there was still a tremendous amount of intertia in the University, and it would be possible for somebody to find themselves in a difficult situation.
So that limited your pool right there. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: I, myself, was not tenured, and Jackie Hall wasn't tenured, and a lot of people who had been active in it from the very beginning. Joan Scott was not interested in the directorship, though she did serve as the director of the Advisory Board, which in the first few years, because, I think, of her strength, her own personal commitment to it, played a greater role than it does today. As she describes it here [in Appendix D of the April 18, 1975 Committee Report], as a matter of fact, the director was going to be appointed from among the members of the board, and in keeping, essentially, with a very feminist ideal of shared leadership, of stepping down after five years. It went against the entire spirit of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where our appointments all are made from above.
Committees recommend, the Chancellor appoints. MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Right, so everything comes down, and Joan Scott was relatively new here at the University, and her picture of it would be that there would be a board of very active and committed teachers and scholars in Women's Studies who would meet regularly and do the major work and as an added responsibility as part of their commitment, would agree to serve for several years in organizing the program. But there's no way to budget that, apparently. There's no way to deal with it in our system, so what we wound up with was a gerrymandered system of trying to superimpose the University's system on what we hoped would be a brand new world. Mary Turner agreed to serve in this capacity. I really do not remember any other active candidate, and our only worry was that Mary Turner would not want to do it. She was established in her field, and that could have been a problem, but she agreed to do it. I think that took a tremendous amount of courage. She also, at her own expense, went to a program the summer before she began as Director of Women's Studies, a Women's Leadership Program, and I think that was another thing that I admired very much, that she really saw the directorship of Women's Studies as something that she was being retooled for.
She suggested to me--this was when we first began talking, and I have not brought this up before--the implication was that one of the reasons the administration accepted her as the Director of Women's Studies Program was because she was Southern, and she was safe. They did not see her as some firebrand Yankee coming in here and advocating radical change. They felt that if they must have a Women's Studies Program, she'd be safe. Do you think there's any merit in that? MARGARET ANNE O'CONNOR: Yes, I think that, as I say, this is a conservative institution. That's three times now that I've pointed out UNCCH's conservatism. Indeed, Mary Turner had all of the credentials that would add up to Southern womanhood. As a young widow, she had reared her daughter after going back and getting her Master's and Ph.D degrees locally and taught here for several years while she was finishing her Ph.D at Duke. She worked as Katherine Carmichael's assistant for several years in addition to her work in the School of Education in the early 50's. They knew her very well, but as I say, the early 70's were making all of us open our eyes, and I think that by 1975, they knew a very different Mary Turner Lane. I don't know if she mentioned this to you, but she got into a pay dispute at the School of Education, pointing out that her salary was incredibly behind the salary of comparably qualified male members of the faculty, and this had gone through several levels of the University. She had a dispute with the School of Education that, I think, had become quite acrimonious, and I think that was one of the reasons we were lucky enough to get her to come to Women's Studies. It was outside the School of Education. It was a big problem for, then, Sam Williamson, who is our Dean, because he had a faculty member--it was like hiring somebody from a different campus if it's from a different college within the University. But I think she had made herself just obnoxious enough that the School of Education thought, "Well, she won't be around half the time. Whew! We'll never get rid of her otherwise." I think that Mary Turner is underestimating her strength. She is the epitome of the Southern woman, and I say that with a great deal of respect. She can slice right through the garbage and get right down to issues with a very big smile on her face. I saw Katherine Carmichael, from Birmingham, Alabama, do the same thing quite often, and I think it's an acquired quality, perhaps, that they might get from older women that they have known. I think the administration knew Mary Turner; I think they knew what they were getting, but they preferred the known quantity to the firebrands that they might bring in from someplace else.