instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Florence in Words

Building Women’s Knowledge Institutions: in Honor of Mariam K. Chamberlain

Mariam Chamberlain
The following is a speech I gave at The Sackler Center at the Brooklyn Museum on October 12, 2014.

Mariam Chamberlain was my dear friend, mentor, grant-giver, and colleague for forty years. We first met in April 1971, when she called a meeting mainly of academic scholar-feminists in order to map a program of giving by the Ford Foundation. She was interested in me because I mentioned that I had a list of new college courses on women that faculty had begun to teach. Faculty called them female studies or women’s studies or feminist studies. Clearly, this was the way that social or political movements begin--without organization or leadership, and with only individual, isolated outposts, which, because of an intrepid undergraduate at Goucher College named Carol Ahlum, I had on a list. Faculty had written to me because a journal called College English had published my course syllabus and my essay about the composition course focused on women writers I had been teaching since the mid-sixties. I didn’t think about women’s studies. I was trying to improve my students’ writing. At the time of Mariam’s meeting at Ford, in 1971, I had information about two women’s studies programs and 610 courses at 210 institutions.

When we met a few weeks later, Mariam said she wanted more information, and she proposed that I survey all the colleges in the country and that the Feminist Press publish the results. She offered the Feminist Press its first Ford grant, about $10,000, and in this way Mariam began to support women’s studies. In 1974, the Feminist Press published a 300-page volume called Who’s Who and Where in Women’s Studies, listing 2,984 faculty, teaching 4,658 different courses at 885 different institutions. I should mention that this study was done through the U.S. Postal Service, and, in my office, the editors, who were Old Westbury students, used note cards to assemble the information. (There were no computers at the Feminist Press until 1987.) This volume also listed 112 Women’s Studies Programs, some of them offering majors or minors. The spurt in growth between 1971 and 1974 can only be described as phenomenal. Mariam used that information as a guide for her funding program that ranged through the 1970s until 1982, when she left the Ford Foundation. By then, she had funded more than 30 Centers for Research on Women, most of which had begun as a Women’s Studies Program and continued a teaching component.

Why did this matter? Why does it still matter today? In the 1960s, I had begun to teach a writing course at a women’s college focused on women because of a mind-bending experience in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. I was not a feminist. I was interested in solving a puzzle. Why was it that poorly-educated young Black high school girls could write amazing poetry, while Goucher students could write only perfectly correct and absolutely boring essays. For a couple of years I searched for the subject that might excite these privileged white students, and when I hit on it, it seemed obvious. I asked them to talk and then write about how they and their brothers were treated in their families. And I assigned books by women to stir their imaginations further.

But clearly, that was not enough, since I was also teaching literature courses with nary a woman writer in them. By 1969, students who had been in my writing class could not understand why my 18th century syllabus contained the name of not one woman writer, and they asked me whether someone had typed this for me and had made an error. No, I responded, I typed my own syllabus. I have to admit, I continued, I don’t know any 18th century women writers. They were as shocked as I was embarrassed.

At about the same time, I was also conducting a huge study of 5,000 English and foreign language departments for the Modern Language Association, where I chaired a Commission on the Status of Women. The results were not what I had expected, and I had to interpret them. Fields and men were 20 percent. As doctoral graduate students, the figures were neatly reversed: men were 80 percent and women 20 percent. How could that be? We also knew that women’s grades were far higher than men’s. And we could not blame the disparity on discrimination, since women did not even apply for places in doctoral programs.

I’m sure you can imagine the effect of at least a hundred years of such practice. All or more than ninety percent of the faculty in the most prestigious colleges and universities were male. And even on elite women’s college campuses, most faculty were male. What was the problem? How could I analyze these results?

At first I was simply shocked, and then, when I put this information together with my own experience, two facts stood out: First, I had read no women writers, and if not for the president of my college, who had singled me out and helped me directly to enter graduate school, I would have become a high school English teacher. I had no other ambition and no reason to have another ambition. Second the curriculum in literature studies was certainly ninety percent male. How could female college students grasp the idea that they might become professors of literature, much less writers of literature? Clearly, they had no models at universities, nor in the literature they were reading. How could they imagine themselves as writers? Or professors?

The Feminist Press was founded in 1970, almost a year before that meeting at the Ford Foundation, and for the purpose of correcting ignorance about women not only as writers but as important to historical memory. We had begun with the idea of publishing brief biographies of women and children’s books. But only a few months later, after a world-famous writer, Tillie Olsen, sent me a brilliant, “lost” novella written by a woman, the emphasis of our work shifted markedly. I remember saying out loud, if Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis had been lost for 110 years, there must be other works lost as well. And of course I was correct, as the 44-year history of the Feminist Press makes clear. I am convinced, further, that there is much still to be found of the voices of women not only in the U.S. but around the world.

Mariam knew this story and we had for most of the 1970s worked together on issues of importance to women’s studies in the U.S. But unlike many of us, Mariam’s vision, in part shaped by management studies, which, as an economist, she had worked on through the 1960s, had also been honed to think internationally. In early 1980, about a decade after we had met, Mariam called one day to say she wanted me to go with her to look at women’s studies in three European countries, England, France, and Italy. She had made several small women’s studies grants to institutions in each country, and she wanted to see what had happened and what else might be done. She also knew that there was to be a UNESCO meeting on Women’s Studies in April of that year, and though I didn’t know it then, she planned to name me as the U.S. representative. Finally, she also had plans for the United Nations meeting in the summer of that year. As part of her funding program for women’s studies, she would give the Feminist Press $5,000 to organize a presence at that Copenhagen conference, and she would also use her influence so that the UN itself would give the Feminist Press another $5,000 for the same purpose.

Mariam was an unusual program officer, in that, at least with this project, she was ready to enjoy being in part also a participant, seeing the project close up. We were certainly partners as we traveled to Oxford, then London, Paris, and Rome, to interview those who had Ford grants and others who would like to have them. Mariam was not shy about stating her interests. She knew how to move movements forward—conferences were an important instrument, as were “centers” for networking and information-gathering. And while she was somewhat disappointed that those in Britain and Paris were indifferent to her stated interests, she saw the Italians as moving intrepidly on their own to construct networks and conferences, and rewarded them accordingly. Within a year the Feminist Press had published a book about the kinds of women’s studies the Italians were creating in combination with trade unions to enhance work and study opportunities for women.

Perhaps most interesting was that at the United Nations conference in Copenhagen, Mariam felt free enough to behave sometimes as a staff member might, taking her turn at the coffee machine in the meeting rooms we occupied for the two weeks of the conference, and then, switching gears to pick up the dinner bill at planning meetings, and finally, to host an end-of-conference party for the several hundred participants who had been speakers or audience at our thirty-five sessions.

One of Mariam’s last grants to the Feminist Press came out of these UN conferences. For the first five years following the meeting in Copenhagen, we were to be the partner-organizer with the Center for Policy Studies in New Delhi, India, of a Women’s Studies International Network. We were to use the several hundred thousand dollars to visit and offer collegial services to various kinds of women’s studies programs around the world. And we were to hold focused international conferences in the U.S. Mariam’s dream was big-time and never to be realized, since she was cut off when her job disappeared, but she had talked about it with me often. Though she was not a reader of fiction, which was, ultimately, my interest, and the strength of the Feminist Press publishing program under me, she grasped the power of publishing as an arm of the knowledge-gathering purpose of the women’s research centers she had been publishing for a decade. She was certainly visionary in many respects, but few people know how far her vision extended, and that she certainly understood the power of publishing for women. Had she continued at Ford, I have no doubt that she would have begun to fund publishing especially focused on women’s economic equality.

Mariam died a year and a half ago. She left $100,000 to the Feminist Press, which we have turned into the Chamberlain Revolving Capital Campaign, aiming to add $200,000 so as to provide the director of the Press with a mechanism for managing a business that has never had its own capital. As an economist, Mariam was especially keen, all through the years she served on our Board of Directors, that we begin a capital campaign. She knew that we needed to control debt by having some capital. And of course, once again she has helped us. If you are interested in contributing, please write to me.  Read More 
Be the first to comment