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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interviewee: Irene Thompson
Interviewer: Robyn Benkendorf
Date: September 17, 2003
B: This is Robyn Benkendorf and I'm here today with Irene Thompson, who was
actually the first director of the Women's Studies Program at the University of
Florida. She's been gracious enough to grant us an interview, so thank you very
much Ms. Thompson.
T: Well, I'm glad to be here. You stop me if I'm doing something unwarranted, but I
think maybe a little bit of my personal background would be important.
B: Exactly, we'd like to know about where you were born and educated and that
kind of thing.
T: I was born in New York City in 1919. I went to Adelphi College when it was 500
young ladies in a very conservative community on Long Island, and I got my
master's degree at New York University. I was married at the age of twenty-one
into a catastrophic marriage that lasted thirteen years, but my husband was
overseas for three of those. Then, [I] divorced him and went back to school to get
my master's degree. The regulations for teaching in New York City in those days
were really quite difficult. You had to have a master's degree. You took a
physical and oral and a classroom test, and the classroom test was supposed to
be in an academic high school. I took it in a Brooklyn high school for automotive
arts, all male. You could bring nothing with you but the New York Times. I was
given two poets to teach. I had an hour to prepare. The only thing I could bring
was the New York Times, and I was given an hour to prepare in a room next door
to the band practice room, and they were practicing. At the end of an hour I was
taken to a room where on the door it said "teacher examination going on." In the
back [were] the principal, the chair of the English department, and the chair of the
speech department. These, all male, knew I was being tested. I was three and a
half inches taller than I am now and I was slender, and they all whistled and I
thanked them for the compliment. Now, there was a formula. You introduced for
ten minutes, you taught for twenty minutes, and you summarized for ten minutes.
As I said, we couldn't bring anything with us. Well, one poem was about the
ancient Greeks and their artists, so I talked to these people about how important
they were to posterity because they worked with their hands, and they loved it.
The other one was about death, and I then talked about when the future
becomes the present and when the present becomes the past, and it worked. So
I got through that, though I could have rejected to have been sent to a school like
that. I had a physical and I passed that, [and] then [I had] an oral [exam]. They
were doing whatever they could to limit the number of people who passed. From
the moment you walked into the room you were being tested. One of the words
that I learned they preferred the pronunciation of [was] ray-bay-eez, not rabies. I
got through that. Now, the written examination was two days, and the first part
was short answer. If you didn't get through the short answer, you never got to the
essay grade. I got through that. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and working
on my master's degree two nights a week and Saturday mornings. I went to
Erasmus Hall, the oldest public high school in the United States, to see if I could
get a job maybe in the fall. Well, they needed somebody then, because there
was one class where the teacher had had to have surgery and they had ten
substitutes in ten school days. So they called the board of education and that
was how I found out I had passed. The first couple of weeks I went to bed as
soon as I got home, and that worked and I enjoyed it.
At that point I was divorced and my daughter was going into Ethical Culture. She
was very bright. On a blind date I met my husband who taught history at the
University of Florida. His name was Arthur W. Thompson. He and my cousin's
husband had both gone to Columbia to get their doctorates. Matthew got his in
economics and my husband [got his] in history. He was on the verge of getting
his divorce and I had just gotten mine. I was not very enthusiastic about meeting
him, and I'm sure he was not very enthusiastic, [but] we hit it off immediately. He
had a month and a half before his decree was final, so he said he would call me
after the decree was final. I promptly forgot about it and then he called and we
started dating in February, and we were married in June. I wondered about how
my daughter would take to him because she had never met a man with a
mustache before and she didn't think she liked it. So he took her one Saturday
afternoon to see a picture about Daniel Boone [explored the U.S. in the 1700s] or
some such person. She came back and said, mommy, he's so smart, he told me
things about Daniel Boone that weren't even in the movie. From that point on
they hit it off. Anyway, we were married and we came here. We came to
Gainesville in 1955. In the meantime we had applied for me as a TA at the
University of Florida, but there was a regulation in there that I could not get a
fellowship as the wife of a faculty member above the rank of assistant professor.
I could be a teaching assistant, but for no more than two years. Dumb me, in
those days I thought that was eminently fair, I did that. I was working on my
doctorate, but there was a very, very strong anti-nepotism policy here going back
to the depression. I don't know if you're aware of it, but a husband and wife could
not be getting their checks from the same source. My husband [was awarded a
Fulbright Scholarship], and all three of us went to Japan for about a year and I
taught at an institution there, as my husband did .
B: When was this that you were in Japan?
T: We went to Japan in 1958-1959, when Japan was poor, poor, poor. It was a
fabulous year. My daughter went to the American school, learned Japanese. She
had her tenth birthday there. I had taken all my course work toward the
doctorate, passed my foreign language exams, had my dissertation topic
approved, and I said, the hell with it. I couldn't get a job on campus as a custodial
worker because my husband teaches. This is the only thing in my life that I've
ever started that I didn't finish. So I taught at GHS [Gainesville High School] for
four years. I taught accelerated and average twelfth grade English. The kids
there were fabulous, they were wonderful. Then in the summer of 1961, we went
back to Japan. My husband was a U.S. State Department specialist and we
[both] lectured from Hokkaido to Fukuoka and in between. I did some lecturing,
because the Japanese loved Faulkner because they didn't understand him. They
loved Poe because of some of his sense of mystery. There were a number of
public debates. So we came back and that was when I decided not to continue
with my doctoral studies. My husband, during the course of our time in Japan,
paid mea culpa visits to the hospitals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki twelve years
after the bomb, [and] he got leukemia. He'd never been sick a day in his life, and
he died in the summer of 1965. At which point, Wayne Reitz, who was president
[1955-1967] of the University of Florida; Bob Mautz, who was chancellor of the
state system; [and] the dean and the chair of English came to see me about
teaching at the University of Florida. I explained that I had signed another year's
contract with Gainesville High School and I said at that time, I am not a scholar, I
will not publish, and I'm not going to finish my doctorate. [They said], we want
you. You taught half our kids either here as a TA or at Gainesville High School,
we want you. Anyway, the following year I did come. [At first,] every time I'd hear
somebody say Professor Thompson I [would] look for my husband. Then I said to
myself, why am I qualified as a widow but not as a wife? My husband was
history. I was English. Then I realized all the [unfairness of the] anti-nepotism,
and I started agitating for women.
B: So this is when you first became involved in women's studies?
T: I really became involved, and I started agitating to have a committee on the
status of women. Steve O'Connell was president [1963-1973] of the university,
and he thought I was nice but I didn't know what I was talking about. But there
were any number of petitions, so he asked me whether he could form an ad hoc
committee on the status of women and he would give me the names for
approval. He gave me the names and I said no. He said, why not? I said, [there
are] too many administrators, no blacks, no students, it's not representative. So
he then let me do it. Marna Brady had been the first dean of girls. We had a dean
of men and a dean of girls at the University of Florida. She was a former marine
who I don't think knew what feminism was. [She was] very able, and this was her
last year. We did a lot of work and she really came through. She learned a lot.
B: What year was this?
T: I think it was 1968 or 1969, I'm not quite sure. At the end of our year, this was an
ad hoc committee, she was retiring and we presented our proposal [for a
permanent committee] to Steve O'Connell. He realized [women were] beginning
to move and he said, okay, will you be chair of the first permanent committee? I
said, no, the chair should be elected. [He asked me to] suggest people to be on
the committee? So that was the beginning of it. There were very few women on
the faculty, and I think only one female was a full professor. Anyway, we made
presentations. Men [who] had been officers in the military had to give a certain
number of months every few years to retain their reserve officerships. They came
back and were right back where they left off. First of all, a lot of faculty wives
were qualified. They were hired on a year to year contract, [with] none of the
benefits accruing, no possibility of tenure, notified at the last minute, [and they
had a] very low salary. I resented that and I fought about that, [I] and brought up
the fact that I was at the university because I thought they were being
paternalistic because they thought so much about my husband. They denied it,
but that was in part, true. So we made a number of suggestions at the end of the
year of that committee and all of them went through. In the old days if a woman
became pregnant, and very few were tenured, if she became pregnant and she
began to show, she had to leave. She was doing what the university wanted.
They wanted every woman to have 2.3 children, [but] when she delivered the
child her job was not waiting for her.
B: Did she receive any compensation afterward?
T: [She received] nothing, and the years that she had accrued toward tenure, forget
it. So that stopped. There were a number of such things that stopped. Then I was
drafted into something in academic affairs where I was called [an] academic
equity officer, if you can think of a more off-putting title. I was to do a comparative
study of male and female faculty. What I did then was a really interesting
comparative study where men were getting all the grants, men were teaching two
to three days a week, women were teaching five days a week, and they were
teaching courses in English composition so that they had a lot of work outside of
that. It was understood that most women, if they weren't married, should have
been married so that there was another source of income. There was a
wonderful article printed in the old Ms. magazine by a woman who said what I
need is a good wife, because when I get home I still have to cook and clean and
take care of the kids. At any rate, this was a kind of fascinating thing. We had
what we called a parallel construction, where each woman received notice that
she was to select a person in her department or in her college that she felt had
the same graduate degrees, the same number of years of teaching, and so forth,
and we checked on their salaries [Salary Equity]. It was outrageous, and
everybody thought it was outrageous that women should think that they could
begin to equate with men.
B: Can you remember what the specific disparities were in incomes?
T: Oh yeah, women did not get the grants offered by the university because they
weren't publishing as much because they had home problems as well. I don't
know if this can be taped but I will say it anyway because I tend to be outspoken.
[Women] were given shit courses. Women in English were given all composition
courses, so that took a lot of time. Having 2.3 children didn't begin to equate with
one publication. So at the end of that year, and we had an appeal process and
everything else, we were given $150,000 by Tallahassee to achieve some
equality in women's salaries. If women didn't like what they were getting, there
was an appeal process. I didn't ask for more. I think I got $50 for the year. Then,
after the year was up, men went right ahead and got way ahead of women and
women stayed where they were. So this was really an awful situation. In the
meantime, I was going to the Modern Language Association meetings and all the
papers being given were on male writers. There was an occasional Christine
Rossetti [Victorian poet] because she was respectable and that sort of thing.
Some of the women couldn't stand those sessions, and we'd meet either in the
bar or in the coffee shop and started exchanging ideas about women's studies,
sharing successes and failures. At that point the predominant idea was that
women couldn't get along with women, which was far from true.
T: So we started sharing successes and failures. In 1971, I applied to my
department to teach a course that would not be part of the regular schedule. [It
would be] at night, because I thought more credit courses should be taught at
night since a lot of people were changing their careers and they needed to go to
school at night. It never did develop. I wanted to teach a course on images of
women from [Ovid] through Norman Mailer [American twentieth century writer]. If
you think I knew what I was talking about, you're out of your mind. It met one
night a week, and the first night we met, 370 [people] showed up, equally divided
between male and female. So I said, there's no way I can handle this. Without
being too conspicuous, because I asked women as well, but I was trying to find
out from the men why they were taking the course. [Their answers included] my
chick is taking it, it's going to be a rap session, [and] I'm going to be the devil's
advocate. So then I distributed a few of the course syllabi. The following week
seventy-two showed up, equally divided, and that remained. It was a fascinating
B: Do you think that some of the women showed up, also, just out of curiosity.
T: I think after they saw the syllabus they thought this might be an academic course
[and] it would be interesting. We had some interesting experiences. Again,
women in various institutions were sharing their successes and failures and
sharing their syllabi and that sort of thing. Of course, my department thought I
was out of mind, and the administration certainly thought I was out of my mind,
[but they placed me]. Well, there was a perfectly wonderful woman in the
administration in the College of, then, Arts and Sciences called Ruth McQuown.
[She] was a scholar, a feminist, and she had total academic solidity and she
knew what I was trying to do. So in 1975 I applied to the college for a
probationary program where it would be the equivalent of a minor in women's
studies. I had enough women on campus who would offer courses in
anthropology and all the other areas.
B: Was this application a group effort?
T: I was applying and indicating that so and so and so and so would be willing to do
it, and they put me on three years probation to see how it worked. In the
meantime, I contacted every female faculty member. At that point I wanted only
female faculty. There was one graduate student in philosophy who really ticked
me off, because she didn't understand what the heck this was all about. [She
thought] this was garbage. So I wrote back and said, you're welcome to your
garbage. When I was an undergraduate, I was a philosophy major who couldn't
get a job teaching philosophy so I majored in English as well, good luck to you.
So at the end of two years, we had had seven people who applied for a
certificate in women's studies, including one male.
B: Just as an aside, what was the reaction of the women who you contacted to help
you in the program?
T: Some were very positive. Some were afraid if they asked their chairs for
permission, if they were untenured, they'd lose their chances of tenure. But some
were courageous and some included aspects of feminism in the courses they
were already giving without the chairs knowing it. There were a number of guest
lecturers. I taught one course on images of women where I'd have a sociologist
come in and give a guest lecture, a historian [come in], [and people from] all the
areas. It went well. Because we had already had seven who applied for the
certificate, Ruth McQuown, bless her heart, said let's bring this up to the college
senate that consisted of all faculty members within the college. [She
recommended we do that] at the end of two years rather than three.
B: So this was in 1977?
T: Yeah, that was in 1977, because we were put on probation in 1975. I said, Ruth,
please, you do the presentation because I'll lose my cool. We knew two
questions that were going to be asked. Ruth did the presentation [and] the place
was packed. There were two questions, and sure enough [one was], Dr.
McQuown, why don't we have men's studies? She said, that is such a stupid
question I'm not even going to bother answering it. She could get away with it,
[but] I couldn't. The second question was, is it academically solid? This was
asked by the chair of a science department, [but] I don't remember which one.
She said, you of all people know my commitment to academic solidity. At any
rate, we got 100 percent approval. Ruth and I were going to go out for dinner,
instead of which we went over to her house and got bombed and I spent the
night on the floor of her house. Anyway, that was great success. Now, we had a
good committee that worked on this, and I think I ought to mention their names.
T: [Our committee consisted of] Maxine [L.] Margolis in sociology; Madelyn [M.]
Lockhart, who was then in economics, she was later dean of the graduate
school; Ruth McQuown, who I've already mentioned; Jackie Resnik, who was in
psychology but she also worked with students, I think she still does; and myself.
It was really wonderful committee. I then got a room in what was then called
GPA (General Purpose Building), but it's now Turlington Hall, a small room
without a window. I was given a budget of $1,200 a year, which took care of the
salary of a work study student who couldn't type, all of the xeroxing paper, and
everything. I didn't get a cent, and I taught a full load. So this was the beginning
of it. I wanted desperately to get out of being chair. I did publish two books and
some literary criticism. I don't know if you want the titles of the books, but [they
were] through the Modern Language Association because it'd be more
respectable. One was called Stepping off the Pedestal: Academic Women in the
South. It was a compendium of women and what their problems were as
teaching in the South, because you could either be a lady or a woman, you
couldn't be both. The other one was Re-entry of Women in Academia. That is
[about] women who did all the things they were supposed to, got married, had
2.3 children, and then tried to get a job with a doctorate. [It dealt with] what's
going to happen if your husband moves and all that sort of thing, so there was
difficulty. Then, I [published] literary criticism for the Georgia Review, much to my
surprise. So that was the beginning of it, and I never got much more than $1,200
dollars [for my part in Women's Studies]. As I say, [I had] a work study student
who couldn't type and one who used the telephone to call her boyfriend in
Germany. We caught her at it and I was almost penalized for that.
Then in 1973, that was when I was asked to be in Academic Affairs and do this
equity study I've already talked about. That was incredible. At the end of the year
I resigned. I had done a three page job description that Dr. [Harold] Hanson and
Dr. [Robert] Bryan had to sign. Hanson said, don't you trust me? I said, no. He
signed it and didn't live up to half of it. After I resigned, I was offered "a bonafide
deanship not dealing with women." I said, I will not be the woman without a
doctorate as a dean because there will be criticism of it. There were men without
doctorates who were in the administration, but I was not going to be the woman,
so I didn't. I went back to my department, had a fight for tenure, and got it, which
was also incredible. So that's really how women's studies got started, and as the
years went on more and more women would come as guest lecturers or were
doing courses in their department. I knew I was going to retire in 1985, so the
first woman she was in sociology I think, agreed to be chair of women's studies.
[What is her name?] She was not tenured, so I said, [you can be the chair of
women's studies] on condition that I speak with your chair. I talked to him and
said this is not to affect her eligibility for tenure. At this point she's quite a big shot
in the university, so she did all right. That was taken over, and gradually more
and more money was given to it. Of course now, as you probably know, a woman
somewhere down south gave a certain amount of money, [I believe $1 million,]
and the state had to match the funds and they're finally going to have [a women's
studies building]. It's the old gymnasium for women, and they're redoing that,
which as far as I'm concerned is a great, great, great thing. So this, from the very
beginning, was difficult. I fought everybody. Before I came to the university
everybody knew me as a graduate student and as a faculty wife, and, even
though I was a Yankee, I was a lady. But then I came and I started fighting.
B: Then, you were a woman.
T: I was a woman. One of the most supportive people I ever met was Wayne Reitz,
who was president of the university. He told me when my husband died that it
was the first time the flag was at half mast for a faculty member, because my
husband died at [age] forty-four, so there were some good people. Steve
O'Connell used to call me Ms. Irene, and a lot of the women were amused by
that and would tease me. I said, there's nothing to laugh about, this is his
background. At least he remembered my name, which he didn't remember for
many others. We got along well. I resigned from that position in Academic Affairs
about the time he did from the presidency. He sent me a dozen long stemmed
yellow roses and thanked me. [He was] this very Southern gentlemen, but he
didn't understand what the heck women were complaining about. When I said to
him that FSU [Florida State University] was ahead of us, that the flagship
university's flag was at half mast, he said, the hell they are. I said, you find out.
That was interesting. Now, I don't know what other information I can give you
except that I have remained in touch with women's studies. I am still called the
founding mother, and I said that sounds far to lactic. I didn't like that title, but
that's amusing. The Chalmers are giving a cocktail party for me on Friday [and]
Angel will be here. About two years before I left Gainesville, I left in 2001 so I
think somewhere near the end of the 1990s, I had sent Julian [M.] Pleasants
[director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program] an email suggesting that
this might be of some interest. He never responded. I sent another one. He never
responded. I said, the hell with it. Now Sam Proctor [founder and director
emeritus of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program] has since said to me, he
may not even have seen it. So I said fine, I don't hold a grudge. But have I given
you a picture?
B: You definitely have. I also have some more questions. You were talking about
that whole committee and the important people who were very influential in
founding it, so how did you become the director? Were you just the most
T: Well, I started it and I selected the other people on the committee because I felt
that they would be supportive. So, I was sort of automatically chair. [Actually, no
one else wanted it]. Though all five of us worked hard at it, it was I who had to
argue with the people in the college.
B: You were the figurehead per se.
T: I was the bitch, I was the first campus bitch. Now I prefer that to the founding
mother. That was how that happened, and it was interesting. For example, when
I was in Academic Affairs as academic equity officer I'd wake up every morning
with a nervous stomach and find that I had written notes on my pad while I was
asleep and I didn't even remember it. So it was a very nerve-wracking thing to do
because I don't like fighting with people. I became slick in my responses and I
kept saying, women's studies is an inclusive study, not an exclusive study, which
is what we have now. So when I did literary criticism I dealt with the female
characters as well as the male characters, which very few other people were
doing. I had an interesting battle with the man who won the Pulitzer Prize in
journalism. [Horrance G. "Buddy" Davis] He writes editorials for the Gainesville
B: He used to be a professor here as well?
T: Oh yeah, he may still be. When he heard I had gotten a very modest grant from
the graduate school to do some research on women's studies at other
institutions, he wrote a blistering editorial on how stupid that was. I wrote a
blistering letter, so we had back and forth on that. Then we met at the
homecoming smoker and dinner. Manning [J.] Dauer, who was head of political
science, deliberately took me to Buddy Davis' table. Buddy said, oh, I've been
wanting to meet you. I said, well you know me pretty well through my letters, and
he said, you know me pretty well through my editorials. I said, yes. The editorials
were [comprised of phrases such as] what are little girls made of, and that sort of
thing. They were so demeaning, it was just awful. So I have copies of all of those.
Whoever might be interested in this, when I was retiring the woman who was in
charge of the archives at the University of Florida, whose name I cannot
remember, she's no longer here, [she] came and said she wanted all this stuff for
the archives. She xeroxed everything, so some of my course syllabi [and] some
of my other stuff should be in the archives. I've never checked to find out, but
from what I understand they're all in the archives.
B: You spoke a lot about how the program started, but were there any specific goals
you had aside from more equity between women and men? How effectively were
you able to achieve them with the program?
T: Well I think that, as I said, it was an inclusive program. When we'd go to the
Modern Language Association meetings in the early days, all of the papers were
on male writers, as I mentioned, and there was very little on what was going on
with female writers. I did a study of all the women who had won Pulitzer prizes
whose stuff was out of print, but not the men. Now early on, before it became
fashionable, I used to go to secondhand bookstores and go to the attics and find
hardback books written by women that were out of print and I bought them.
When I left [Gainesville], the book buyer from Jacksonville said, and there were
certain books he couldn't touch because they were going to the university, I have
never seen such a complete collection of women writers. They were fascinating,
but they were ignored. Hemingway was never out of print, but a lot of the women
were. Then there was the Feminist Press, which started at one of the state
universities in New York [City University (CUNY)] out on Long Island. They were
discovering women writers. They were doing archaeological research and that's
how Zora Neale Hurston [black female author in the twentieth century] came to
be, because she was buried in the pauper's grave. They would publish it at no
cost in the hope that a larger publishing house would take it to make money, but
they discovered women writers. So there were a lot of these other things going
on. Again, the most important thing was that it be inclusive, that it be more than
throwing a pittance to women to shut them up. I think that all kinds of things have
been happening and I'm delighted with the way it is now. It's wonderful to have a
full professor who is chair, [one] who is recognized as a scholar. Even though
she has a traditional area of study, it's still women's studies. There have been
some wonderful people here. I just sit back and I beam because I think it's
B: Looking back, do you think there's anything you should have or could have done
T: I couldn't have [done anything differently]. I was fighting all the time, and
remember I was fighting with people who had known me socially and just couldn't
believe that I had become so aggressive. It really hit me when I came here, why?
Now one of the things that I think is important, and a way of getting rid of the
anti-nepotism policy, was under President Johnson [thirty-sixth president of the
United States], who did more for civil rights than any other president as far as I'm
concerned. It was through some of his legislation and some of us pushing that
anti-nepotism was made illegal. Now that did go back to the depression era, but I
just thought that was fabulous that we had that and that the university had to
accede because they were being inspected by the government. Now I would give
them stuff on what I was doing, especially that year in Academic Affairs. They
never kept copies. Then, about three years later the government was coming to
see what we were doing and one of the women came pleading to me could she
have xerox copies of all of this stuff that they had thrown out, which was
fascinating. Now I've been told by some people I've seen since I've come back
that my name is mentioned often in very positive terms. People like Bob Bryan,
who was academic vice-president and acting president, told people like Sam
Proctor, oh she is wonderful, we couldn't have done it without her. We had a
grudging respect for each other, that much I will say. I've achieved a level of
respectability which I didn't have when I was fighting. But we do have
respectable, academically qualified people in charge now. It's been an
interesting experience, and I think I came of this in a perfectly legitimate way. My
mother passed the New York State Bar in 1917 before women could vote, and
my daughter is into a lot of this as well. Any other questions that you can think
B: Yes, there are other things actually.
T: I talk too much.
B: Oh no you don't, you've been fantastic. Do you think the type of student who's
interested in women's studies has changed over the years?
T: First of all, we've gotten more men interested, which I think is wonderful. But
feminism has gone through a number of phases, and in the South it was a little
different than other parts of the country. For example, one year, as my last
hurrah, I had gotten a guest speaker to come to the University of Florida. Her
name was Karen DeCrow, and she was one of the first presidents of the national
NOW [National Organization for Women] group. She is my lawyer now in
Syracuse. I went to Bob Bryan and I said this is my last hurrah, I want her to get
a decent amount of money. He gave an amount which I couldn't believe and she
came. She gave a talk in the ballroom and it was filled. President [Robert]
Marston [President, University of Florida 1974-1984] was there with his wife. He
couldn't have cared less, his wife was a delight, and they sat in the first row.
Karen gave a wonderful talk and there was wine and cheese waiting in the
corner. It was going on and on and on, and finally [there was]one question in the
back. This sweet little female voice said, now Ms. DeCrow, what about those of
us who don't want a career and we're waiting for a knight in shining armor? I
said, Karen, let me answer this. I said, I have a poster in my office which reads,
she who waits for her knight in shining armor should remember she'll have to
clean up after his horse. Marston fell off his chair he laughed so hard. He said,
that was collusion. I said, I wish I had been smart enough to think of it, but that
ended it. It was wonderful. So there was a grudging acceptance of what I was
doing, but not completely.
B: Even from those who didn't necessarily agree?
T: I mean the administrators for the most part [were begrudging], but the majority of
the women were very supportive even though some of them were scared to
death to do anything about it because they wouldn't get tenure. It was not
B: How would you characterize the public's perception of women's studies? Do you
think their perception is accurate?
T: Then or now?
B: Then and now.
T: Well, then, I think they thought it was just part of women's lib. One of the things I
had to be very careful about when I started [was that] I could not work with some
of the organizations in town, because that would take away from the academic
solidity. There were a lot of feminist groups that I belonged to, but I could not
openly recognize them. Now you can. That ticked me off, because I wanted to
work with them. Another thing that was interesting was that a lot of people
perceived NOW (National Organization of Women) as being a lesbian
organization. Betty Friedan [author of Feminine Mystique and cofounder of NOW]
was far from a lesbian. As a matter of fact, early on she was anti-lesbian. I would
have some of my students, young women, come to my office crying, you're not a
lesbian are you? I said, I'm not going to do a Richard Nixon saying I'm not a
crook, it's really nobody's business. I had been married twice, but that was none
of their business. I think there's less, now, of the assumption that feminism
means lesbianism, because there were disagreements between some feminists
and lesbians just as there were disagreements between whites and blacks. On
the one hand, blacks wanted to be integrated. On the other hand, they wanted to
retain their self-hood, so they didn't want to mix. They were going through this
and the same thing was happening in women's studies. There was also a sort of
competition on campus between black studies and women's studies. Black
studies got much more money than we did at the beginning. That was to show
the administration's approval of getting more blacks in.
[End side Al]
B: How has your race as a white woman affected your involvement in women's
T: Most of the blacks on campus [knew that I was supportive of their program],
because I had a few in my classes as well and I was friendly with the people who
were running the black studies. I was not only supportive, I was pushing for them.
I personally did not see this as a difficult thing, but there were outsiders who, it
seemed to me, [were] deliberately trying to start a brouhaha between the two. I
found that very disturbing and there was nothing I could do about it. I remember
the first black student that I had. I was teaching a course on medieval literature
and we were dealing with courtly love. This was the only black student in that
class, it was an upper division course, and he was very quiet. They had to write a
paper on some aspect of courtly love, and he wrote a paper that was brilliant. He
never opened his mouth in class, so before class I called him up and I said, this
is an extraordinary paper, would you read it to the class? He said, no, but you
may as long as you don't mention my name. I did and everybody insisted on
knowing who it was, and he finally nodded. Now he came from Jacksonville [and]
he had gone to an integrated high school. His father was a teacher [and] his
mother was a doctor. He was dating and there was no place he and his date
could go other than sit on the steps of the Reitz Union. That was so sad. He
didn't keep in touch with me, though he talked to me a lot during the year that he
was in class. I never saw myself in competition. I was very much for it, so that
when we started the committee on the status of women I said, there had to be
blacks on this committee, even though there were very few blacks at the
university. Now my husband, way back before he was even tenured, was one of
the founding members of the NAACP in Gainesville. They couldn't get any blacks
to join, [because] they were scared to death. My husband, and I can't remember
the woman who was a librarian, and one other started it. He was untenured, and
that was dangerous. Gainesville has grown so. I've enjoyed seeing it, and then
coming back it's interesting. Now when my husband came here right after WWII,
I think the university had 12,000 students. When I was a TA in 1955-1956, we
had a lot of returning veterans in some of the freshman courses. Of course the
government was paying for it, but they were there because they wanted to be
there and they were fascinating, fabulous students. They were there because
they wanted to be there, not because their parents told them they had to get
college degrees. So that was fascinating. It's been a fascinating time.
B: It definitely sounds like it from what you've been telling me.
T: I don't know if you have any other questions.
B: Yeah, actually I do. We were talking a little bit about diversity before, but early
women's studies focused primarily on middle class white women. Am I correct in
T: Yes, good point.
B: So how did diversity fit into the picture?
T: It was overtly, since it was academic, white middle class. But then we were
getting more people on scholarship and we began gradually dealing with the
people in town. Black women in town were very active, and Jean Chalmers, my
hostess here, was responsible for a tremendous amount in working with blacks.
So gradually there was this understanding that it was not a competition, that we
were all part of the same fabric. Now the extent to which all of the blacks agreed I
don't know, but my personal feeling was that it was good. Now at one point when
there was talk about women being drafted, the first time they talked about it, or
women in the service, [the Alligator came to me for my opinion]. The Alligator
always came to me and always misquoted me. They said, how do you feel about
women in the service? I said, if women want privileges they need the
responsibilities, and they should have it. That was fascinating because there was
something in there, I can't remember what the headline was in the Alligator, but it
was awful. Oh, and then they said, how do you deal with blacks? It had to do with
women's studies as well as the draft, and I said, now this is off the record, but
women shoot their mouths off [and] blacks shoot guns. I was being cute, [but]
that was the headline in the Alligator. Then I found out that some blacks wanted
to come and egg my house, but they were told by blacks in positions of authority,
she's for us, don't you touch her. That could have been really dangerous, and
here I was working so hard to get the same privileges for blacks at the very
beginning when they had nothing here. That was interesting.
B: Wow. This I thought could be an interesting thing. Can men do women's studies?
T: Now, yes, I think so, but I think they have to be screened. I know I shouldn't say
that, but I once let a man do a lecture in my course and he was such a bastard.
He talked about how unacademic it was and how this that and the other. [He
said] that if you look in terms of psychology the leaders are always male and that
sort of thing. I couldn't believe it. It was an interdisciplinary class [and] he was a
guest lecturer. There was one women who was a bisexual, so sometimes she'd
come dressed as a male and sometimes as a female, and she was black. So she
had all these things against her and she almost attacked him personally. But I
think he was teasing. He hadn't expected to get that reaction. He was prominent
on campus, he read poetry on the public radio, and boy that changed his mind
completely. That was fascinating because I was almost partial to him. I think that
by and large, if you have a position on campus you know more or less the
general feelings of a lot of faculty. If you don't know, then you do some
background information before. But at the beginning I thought no men, because
the men were saying no women, but not anymore. I always say, I never wanted
to walk ahead of men, I wanted to walk along side of them. I have never been
anti-male. I was married twice. It was not a question of hating men, though there
evidently were some women who did. I think they gave the wrong impression of
what was going on. But at the beginning I had to make sure it was academically
solid. I couldn't deal with people in town even though I personally was a member
of many of their organizations. That drove me crazy, because I couldn't be active
in them. The question always was, is it academically solid? Is it academically
solid? Damn it, it is. I think I remember going to see Steve O'Connell. FSU was a
younger institution. I don't know if I mentioned this. I said [to Steve O'Connell],
FSU is doing more on women's studies than we are. I did mention that. He was
just appalled, but he thought all women were ladies and he always treated them
B: Can you tell me a little bit about what you think the practical applications of
women's studies are?
T: Well, I did much more about that in the beginning. I think if you go into social
work you have a greater understanding of women's needs, whether you're a
male or a female. If you go into law, you have a greater understanding. I think
this [applies] in every single discipline. Now not too long ago at the University of
Florida if a woman walked into the law school library or [banged] on the table, if
you were not a law school secretary and you were a law school student, they
B: How recently was this?
T: Oh. I would think this was still going on in the early 1970s. Now, as I understand
it, in many law schools there are more female students than male. Also, I
remember fighting the people at the medical school here because women who
applied to the medical school were subjected to very different questions. [They
thought that] if the woman was attractive she'd get married and never practice
medicine. Why should we waste the space for her? If she was unattractive who
would go to her? So women were definitely screened in a variety of ways that
were very degrading. I contacted the medical schools, about forty institutions in
the United States, and without them admitting it [I found out that] no medical
school had accepted more than 10 percent female. I was able to find that out
even though they didn't admit it. Now of course it's very different.
B: It definitely is. Is women's studies a main stream discipline today?
T: Well, you see my hope had been at one time that women's studies would be so
successful that it would die quietly. In other words, all courses would be dealing
with both males and females in an equitable way. I'm not sure if that'll ever
happen, but I think it's more than it used to be. I don't know now, but I know that
when I was still here there were over 400 institutions that had women's studies in
the United States, and that some of them were offering bachelor's degrees,
which we now offer, and some of them were offering doctorates. Where I am
now, at a rather conservative retirement community, I'm known to speak very
outspoken and very liberal. I think I shock some of them from time to time, which
doesn't bother me one damn bit. But I don't know if that answers your question.
I'm not sure, I don't know.
B: What do you think is the link between women's studies and feminism? Are they
one and the same? Are they intertwined?
T: That's interesting. When I went to China in the early 1980s, after much protocol,
you know all kinds of letters and stuff, I met with the women of the All China
Women's Federation. They had been to the United States and I had met them at
a conference. They asked questions. First of all, why did we isolate our old
people into special communities? Of course the Asian people have great respect
for the wisdom of the aged. They has a number of questions, but what is the
relationship between women's studies and the status of women? I did my best to
describe it, that it was an attempt to enlighten non-believers as to what the
qualifications were of women. We didn't have to prove the qualifications of men.
First of all they'd always been in charge, so they blew their own horns. Many of
them felt that women should walk behind men. Many men were concerned about
being involved with women who earned more than they did. That was a
tremendous ego deflator for men, which it shouldn't be. It just works out that way.
I think the individual couples have to work that sort of thing out. I'm not answering
your question, but that is the best I can do.
B: That's okay because that's good enough. You've done research on and you've
taught classes about the depiction of women in literature. Is there a certain way
they were portrayed before and after the Civil Rights movement, and, if so, how
has it changed?
T: Well, I think there have always been a few male writers who have depicted
women as being self contained and not dependent in their lives upon their
relationship with men. I think that men generally, even begrudgingly, have come
to accept women as equals, never superiors, which is not our intention anyway. I
think that in literature, more and more male writers are depicting women more
realistically rather than whatever [the women] have achieved or acquired that
was dependent upon their status with men. I think there's been a definite
improvement. Well, [consider] people like Hemingway, who was a great writer,
but his female characters are just nothing. Nobody ever dealt with that, and some
of us in women's studies began dealing with that. This does in no way demean
Hemingway as a writer, but it certainly doesn't compliment him in any way as far
as his dealing with women. They were always minor characters who have some
kind of mental or physical illness because of a failed relationship with a man. I
think there have been changes there, I do, I'm hopeful. I find, unfortunately, that
as I get older I'm not doing the research I had thought I'd do as a retiree. I've
gotten to the point, because I haven't been too well, where sometimes I say,
okay, I'm going to stay in bed this morning, I've earned the right. I had this awful
sense of guilt, but I'm beginning to accept it. I think that may be one of the plus
parts of aging, that you can do that. I used to be clinically clean in my house and
my daughter went crazy. I now tell her that I'm as much of a slob as she is. I
don't make my bed everyday and she thinks it's funny because she's gotten
fussier as I've gotten less fussy. I think when you get older [that happens],
especially if you're in a retirement community and you're with so many older
people. I have played bridge with a woman over 100 who couldn't see and
couldn't hear, and her mind was as clear as a bell. I just think that's fabulous, but
a lot of other people were intolerant. I just thought it was wonderful that she could
B: That's great. So what sorts of things are you involved in? You were mentioning
T: Yeah, I'm not doing any really. I am working on what I hope will be a monograph
on what it was like to go to a retirement community. I hated it at the beginning.
My daughter thought she was my mother for awhile. She was scared to death
that I was going to pack up and move back to Gainesville and get an apartment
because my house was sold. And everybody smiled, and I don't always smile.
I'm very outspoken and you can read my face, which has always been not an
asset. But I've developed a level of tolerance that blows my mind, because I was
never tolerant. I tended to be, when my mind was really working, an intellectual
snob. I no longer am because I don't feel my mind is working the way it should. I
don't know if that answers your questions.
B: No, it does, it does. Were there any specific feminine writers, thinkers, or theories
that influenced you in your endeavors?
T: Well, I think I was interested in women writers like Jean Rhys, who was British,
who dealt with the relationship between men and women. I became acquainted
with her because one of the critics in the New York Times book review said she
is quite simply the best living English writer. I had never heard of her, so I started
doing research. She was a woman whose family had left England and she was
sent back to be educated. She was quite beautiful and she ended up marrying a
Dutch poet [Jean Lenglet], who was also a crook and all sorts of things, and she
wrote about a lot of that. I was fascinated by her treatment of women and fighting
the fact that women were treated as playthings. She felt that she was more than
a plaything, because she was evidently quite beautiful. The summer before I was
going to England to meet her she died. According to the write ups, as she was
being taken to the hospital, she said, let me put my makeup on. She was in her
eighties. I said, bless her heart. I thought that was quite remarkable. I think each
writer has to be dealt with individually. As I said, there were so many women
writers who had won Pulitzer prizes whose books were out of print and who are
now coming back. One of my own special writers was Dorothy Parker because
she had a vitriolic sense of humor. She was part of a group called the Algonquin
Circle, and they were an incredible group of people. I remember one story. She
and Alexander Wolcott [twentieth century author and critic] were always fighting.
He was very heavy. I don't know if you ever read or saw the movie, The Man who
came to Dinner. This was during WWII, he went to England and the people there
were running out of stamps and he was staying with them and eating them out of
house and home. He was heavy, had a vitriolic sense of humor, they all did, and
he and Dorothy Parker had this battling up all the time. She came in the
Algonquin one day where they were having lunch and he said to her, well, you
almost look like a man. She said, Alex, so do you. It was that kind of thing, so I
love that kind of bitchy stuff. But she wrote good poetry and she wrote good short
stories. I don't know that I've got a favorite. I used to read a lot. My memory ain't
what it used to be. I don't know what else I didn't tell you.
B: Well, you've definitely been very helpful and we've covered a lot of information. Is
there anything else that we haven't discussed that you think is important?
T: I can't think of anything. I made a few notes because my memory ain't what it
used to be, but you said I could get a copy of that and I would appreciate it.
B: Definitely. Well, thank you very much for your time.
T: Oh well, thank you. I've enjoyed it. [My one hope is that one day, I have no idea
when, Women's Studies will no longer be necessary.]