I Opted for Casual

In terms of marking milestones, I taught my last ever class today, finishing up a survey of American women’s history.

It was a nice, sunny spring morning, so I opted for casual attire.

last day

This was how I started the semester back in January, my last first-day-of-the-semester outfit.

last first

Today didn’t seem much different than the 20+ ends of the spring semester I’ve experienced over my career.

But on the inside, I think I looked more like this today:

Peggy Olson

And the soundtrack in my head has been on a steady loop of


Finals start on Monday.



On Being Named a Distinguished Professor

Last night I received a major award. No, it wasn’t this one:

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The College of Letters and Science at the university where I have worked my entire academic career gave me its annual Distinguished Professor award. I was especially honored because I’d been nominated by my Department of History and International Studies.

It was also kind of bittersweet since this is my last semester as a professor. I opted for a retirement incentive because of the way the university administration has proposed to deal with a big budget deficit. The intention is to slash 13 majors, most in the humanities and social sciences, and lay off faculty due to program discontinuance. The History major is one of those 13. I knew I could not work at that kind of university.

When I found out I would be expected to make remarks at the ceremony when I received my award, I knew I couldn’t go away without saying something.

So I delivered some brief remarks, which went like this:

I thanked the interim dean and the staff of the College who have been doing their best to help everyone through this difficult time. I thanked my department chair for the same thing, without mentioning that I don’t know how he ever manages to keep his temper in all those meetings he has to sit through. And I thanked my husband who knows the ins and outs of academia, from both the teaching and the administrative sides. Plus he’s always made life on the home front very easy while I’ve spent so much time teaching, researching, writing, and doing committee work.

I acknowledged that I was honored to be part of such an accomplished group of scholars who have received this Distinguished Professor award, including three of my fellow department members who were colleagues for most of the years I’ve been in the department. I pointed out that all of us are women, so yay us!

Then I said it was time for a brief history lesson. I took everyone back fifty-some years ago to the New Frontier and the Great Society, when there was a push for federal funding for the arts and the humanities to keep them on par with the sciences.

Speaking before a Senate committee, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Glenn Seaborg, said: “We cannot afford to drift physically, morally, or esthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly perhaps toward an abyss. Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly. But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer.”

Surely, a strong statement about the importance of the humanities.

In September 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that created the National Endowment for the Humanities, he affirmed the need to value the humanities on an equal basis with the sciences, pointing out, “We in America have not always been kind to the artists and the scholars who are the creators and the keepers of our vision. Somehow, the scientists always seem to get the penthouse, while the arts and the humanities get the basement.”

Of course, the humanities have never belonged in the basement. So in conclusion, I paraphrased that famous line from the 1980s classic movie “Dirty Dancing,” and said, “No one ever puts Baby in the basement.”

nobody puts baby in the corner dirty dancing animated GIF

I’m now heading into the last two weeks of my teaching career.


Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, just before closing time, a fire started in the upper floors of the Asch building at 23-29 Washington Place in Manhattan.

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The Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s non-union shop employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women from Italy and Eastern Europe.

trianglehbo.JPG HBO photo

They worked long hours under unpleasant conditions for minimal wages making shirtwaists, a popular clothing item of the New Woman of the early twentieth century.

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The fire, caused by a carelessly tossed match or cigarette, spread quickly through the various combustible materials on site. Many workers had no easy avenue of escape. Windows didn’t open properly, doors were locked, fire escapes didn’t function. In less than twenty minutes, 146 people died; all but 17 were women.

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The best online resource about the Triangle Fire is the one maintained by the ILR School at Cornell University. It provides an informative historical overview and contains numerous primary sources, including photographs, oral histories, and a transcript of the criminal trial of the factory’s owners.

There are several good nonfiction books about the fire, including:

And there is one fine work of historical fiction about the fire:

In fact, Weber’s book is on my list of all-time favorite novels. It’s the very model of historical fiction for the way in which it evokes time and place while delivering memorable characters.

So pick up any one of these books to learn more about the fire. I recommend starting with Weber’s.



Women’s History Month 2018

This year’s theme is wonderful, both timely and historical:

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One of the 2018 honorees is a woman I admire very much, the lawyer/activist Pauli Murray. Here’s what the National Women’s History Project website has to say about her:

Pauli Murray was a civil rights and women’s rights activist decades ahead of her time. Facing lifelong discrimination based on her race and sex, she persisted and become an accomplished attorney, author, activist, academic, and spiritual leader.

Pauli Murray was extremely bright as a child, she finished first in her class at Howard Law School where she was the only female student. Despite her academic prowess, she was denied admission to UNC graduate school in 1938 due to her race and denied a fellowship to Harvard Law in 1944 due to her sex. She went on to be the first African-American awarded a law doctorate from Yale (1965) and later became the first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest (1977).

Murray was a critical figure in both the civil rights and women’s rights movements. In 1940, fifteen years before Rosa Parks, Murray was arrested for sitting in the whites only section of a Virginia bus. She coined the term “Jane Crow” referring to the intersecting discrimination faced by African American women and was highly critical of sexism within the civil rights movement. JFK appointed her to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (1961) and she was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Many of Murray’s legal theories were decades ahead of their time and she is considered a pioneer of women’s employment rights. Her papers while a Howard law student arguing against segregation were used over a decade later in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case (1955). Similarly, in the early 60s she argued that the 14th amendment forbade sex discrimination, a full ten years before the U.S. Supreme Court came to the same finding in Reed v. Reed (1971).

Pauli Murray died in 1985. The Episcopal Church honored her as one of its Holy Women in 2012. In 2016 Yale University announced it would name a residential college after Murray, and that same year her family home in Durham, NC was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

To learn more about Pauli Murray, I recommend:



Sifting Through, Weeding Out, and Tossing

With retirement imminent, I have a campus office to clean out and a house to put up for sale. That means getting rid of lots of stuff. That means finally throwing away notes, photocopies, and assorted research materials I’ve accumulated over the course of teaching for twenty-five years and writing three books.

Image result for overstuffed file cabinet(STUFFology 101)

Three books in twenty-five years. Looking back, that doesn’t seem like a lot. Then I remind myself that I wrote those books while I taught a 4-4 load, with about 155 students per semester and no teaching assistants. Plus I had committee work. And a family.

From my study at home, I sifted through stacks of papers that had been sitting on various books shelves, chairs, and even on my desk. I threw away (well, actually recycled) several grocery bags full of stuff. I felt a little guilty at the thought that maybe another historian might find some of these items useful. But only a little guilty. Tracking down the research is half the fun of writing books. I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone else of that thrill by making it too easy.

In my campus office, I’ve mostly pitched course materials. Those have been easy to toss since they are all available electronically, should I ever need them again. All of the knowledge that went into crafting lectures and class discussions doesn’t need to exist in physical form anymore.

Today I went through an old file of correspondence (actual letters, some of it, and a few printed out emails) from the mid-1990s. That could have been labeled the Failure File. It’s where I collected my first rounds of rejections for a book and for several articles.

(not one of my rejections)

I didn’t spend too much time reading through the correspondence before consigning it to the recycling bin. But I did smile when I came across an email exchange I’d had with a very prominent “second wave” feminist who was crazy about what I thought would be my first book. She hadn’t read the actual manuscript; I’d only told her what it was about. She thought it was wonderful and important and was sure it would find a good publishing home. It didn’t. But I think her encouragement helped me move beyond that project and led me to write the three books that did get published.

It’s true that writers work through rejections. It’s never pleasant, only a fact of the writing life. But it’s balanced by the encouragement–unexpected and otherwise–that you get along the way.