Telling It Like It Was

A First-Ever Conference Brings Out Experiences of Women on Campus From Earlier Days

by Patricia McBroom

The first "history of women" conference in the University of California's 127 years of existence was held April 28-29, and the stories told were not ones to be found in any official history book.

In opening the conference, Irene Tinker, professor of city and regional planning," expressed a theme that would be repeated many times throughout the two-day meeting in ways both funny and profound. "If women don't write their own history, it doesn't get written," she said.

Among the "unofficial" history to emerge was a tale involving Laura Nader, prominent anthropologist on campus, who climbed through the window at the (men's) Faculty Club to get to a meeting in the early 60's because as a woman, she was forbidden to walk through the club's Great Hall, the usual access route to the meeting rooms.

"I wasn't the only one. Many of us did that," said Nader.

In the same era, the campus's first female law professor, Barbara Amstrong, now deceased, strode through the hall beneath the great stuffed animal heads. When she was intercepted, she said, "Just try and stop me," and she kept right on going.

When psychologist Susan Ervin-Tripp--internationally known as the founder of socio-linguistics--signed a civil rights complaint against the university in 1972, she was scolded by the administration. Undaunted, Ervin-Tripp replied, "In the middle ages, peasants treated badly by the nobles complained to the king."

Nader, Armstrong and Ervin-Tripp were among 98 women honored at the conference for their outstanding contributions to the university throughout its 125 years as a co-educational institution.

The 98 were nominated by academic and administrative units across campus and their names, including faculty, staff and community residents, spanned the century.

At a ceremony capping the conference, sponsored by the Center for Studies in Higher Education, some 30 of the honored women walked in procession to the strains of "Here's to the women. Without all the women, now where would we be, working and caring throughout history."

It was a triumphal moment for many of the women who weathered the civil rights struggle of the past three decades and brought the university from a low of 2.9 percent female tenured faculty in 1971 to its present 18 percent.

But the stories told at the conference showed the impact of women's history transcends gender.

For example, home economics was a refuge for research concerning the needs of women, children and the family for nearly half a century, according to Maresi Nerad, director of graduate research here.

The department was launched in 1905 to "contain the burgeoning population" of women students, who threatened to push out the men in liberal arts fields, said Nerad. In 1900, 46 percent of students were female.

Despite the department's low status compared to other units on campus, Nerad found that women faculty did groundbreaking work on vitamin deficiencies, hormonal effects, cholesterol metabolism and applications to human needs.

Chair for 36 years, chemical nutritionist Agnes Fay Morgan was the first to detect the role of a B vitamin in adrenal function and the pigmentation of skin and hair.

According to another paper, anthropologist Lila Morris O'Neale did outstanding work on native American and pre-Columbian textiles, under the title of professor of household art.

But the department was also a female ghetto that marginalized the women faculty and their work, said Nerad. Applied research lacked the prestige of purely basic work.

One year, for example, the university allotted $600 for home economics and $13,000 for the all-male chemistry department.

Another pioneer whose work was marginalized was the university's first female full professor, Jessica Peixotto, appointed in economics in 1919. She was a social economist working on how capitalism affected society.

Following Peixotto's tenure on campus, social economics was absorbed into the field of social work. No more women were appointed in economics for 50 years--and no more social economists.

The differing perspective of female academics surfaced often at the event. As Professor Emerita Doris Calloway, former Berkeley provost, wrote, "Men explore problems; women study needs."


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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