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.



The Academic Circle of Life

On this second day of my final semester, I met with two more classes. In the morning I teach a survey of American women’s history. Over the years I’ve taught it in different ways, assigned different books. I wanted to make sure to assign my very favorites this semester so I returned to one newer favorite and one very old one.

Students will start the semester learning about the real Pocahontas in Camilla Townsend’s excellent Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma.

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It’s a great way to introduce students to how historians work. And Pocahontas’s story is always fascinating.

Now for the first example of the academic circle of life. Near the end of the semester, students in the class will read a book I was first introduced to as a graduate student:

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I have a much older edition of this compelling memoir by the civil rights activist Anne Moody. The pages barely hold in the binding, I’ve read it so many times. Moody’s story of mid-twentieth century racism hasn’t lost a bit of its power. Students always find it enthralling.

The second example of the academic circle of life is that the upper-level course I’m teaching in the afternoon is on women’s rights and feminism in the United States.  Near the end of the semester I’ll have one final opportunity to talk about my dissertation research on women’s liberation. That’s what earned me my Ph.D., which led to my teaching job.

But before we get to that point in the course, the students will read two very fine books:

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Painter’s biography of Truth is a model of analytical storytelling. And she makes it look so easy.

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I’m a huge Lepore fan, and this book is one of my favorites. Lepore has a nifty writing style and a knack for making interesting historical connections. Here, she shows how the creation of Women Woman was rooted in early twentieth-century feminism.

Now all the introductory elements of the semester are finished. Now we get into the stuff of the semester.


The Last First Day

I had my last ever first day of the semester today. Since “spring” semester here in the upper Midwest really is a euphemism, especially for the first four months, I dressed for the weather:

last first

The boots came in handy. It was raining buckets when I left the house this morning; rain changed over to snow by the time I came home. Several inches of snow will be on the ground by tomorrow morning. I may need even bigger boots.

Today I met with my U.S. history survey students. Survey classes have made up the bulk of my teaching duties throughout my career. It’s been pretty standard for me to teach the first half of the U.S. survey in the fall and the second half in the spring. That’s how it worked out this academic year, too.

I started the class the way I always do, with a song. (I don’t sing. I use YouTube.) I chose Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” I pointed out the lyrics, “…don’t criticize
What you can’t understand….” to underscore the need for a knowledge of the past to make sense of the present.

On Wednesday we’ll dive right into the past, looking into what happened in this country when Reconstruction ended. The students look like a bright group. It should be a good semester.

I’ll meet with my other classes tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m fine tuning syllabi and assignment guidelines. There’s always so much to do, even in a final semester.


The Final Semester

At the end of the fall semester, I showed this photo in my American women’s history survey to start a discussion about how women’s roles in the work place have changed over time:

Peggy Olson

Many of you probably recognize the character of Peggy Olson from the AMC show Mad Men. (A bit more about Peggy is in this blog post.) She started off the series like this, so you just know a whole lot happened over a few short years:

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I don’t have any photos that document my first day as a tenure-track assistant professor of history. And no one will take a picture on my last day in the classroom, which will happen sometime this May.

I’m pretty sure I know the last song I’ll play for my students. Here are a couple of hints:

Well we got no class
And we got no principals
And we got no innocence
We can’t even think of a word that rhymes
School’s out for summer
School’s out forever

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It hasn’t been a big secret, but I haven’t talked publicly about it much. I decided to retire.

This comes several years earlier than I had planned because of changes taking place at the university where I have worked ever since I earned my Ph.D. I always thought that when I did retire, a bright, energetic scholar would take my place. The torch would be passed.

torch passed

But my retirement won’t open up a job for someone else. At best, it will temporarily delay the non-retention of one of my junior colleagues as the department is downsized. On the campus where I teach, administrators have decided that a history major is not a priority. Increasingly scarce resources will be allocated to programs bearing that distinction.

Think about it. Considering what’s been happening in this country and throughout the world, history as a field of study on a college campus is not considered important.

There are good things about retirement.  For the first time in more than six years, I’ll cohabitate full time with my spouse. I’ll have all the time I want to write. I can take piano lessons again.

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In the meantime, I’ve set that top photo of Peggy Olson as my computer wallpaper. It will provide daily inspiration for all the possibilities to come in retirement.