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Note: Dr. Davidson, a colleague and friend of Dr. Iversen, shares her reflections on the Women’s Movement, especially at the State University of New York at Oneonta.


E. T. A. Davidson (2000)

1. Prelude

I want to say something about who I am, as I think that in a history of feminism, we have to try to understand how and why some women become feminists, while others do not.

In a way, I have always been a feminist, though I did not know this for a long time. I came from a loving family. My mother was a happy homemaker. At the same time, my father was proud of her when she did something unusual, earned money, stood on her own two feet. My father respected and loved his children. Dostoevsky says that the best gift a child can have is a happy childhood. I agree. I was brought up to use my intelligence and to be independent. 

After graduating from college in 1944 at the age of twenty, I volunteered for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). This took some guts–at least for me. But I was extremely patriotic and sickened by the terrible war. Both my brothers were pilots, one in the Army, one in the Navy. When I joined, one of my brothers had been shot down and was in a German prison camp, the other flying in Africa and Europe. This brother put pressure on me to get out of the Army and go home to take care of my mother because my father had just died. My mother was getting along fine. She had a job, and my sister was with her. I think my brother, a Navy career man was horrified by women in the military. Making the decision to stay in the army gave me anguish. Despite my brother’s pressure, I stayed in. Military women at that time had to take insults now and then when they were out in civilian life, but I was too pleased with myself and too confident to let it worry me. I learned that no matter what you do, someone is going to come along and try to bring you down.

In the WAC I worked first in Military Intelligence (Japanese Economic Warfare) and then, after the war with Japan ended, in The Adjutant General’s Office. Since that time, I have come to realize that volunteering was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. I learned a great deal in the Army, and I received two commendation medals for my work. Most important, I was with women who were handling very difficult assignments and doing them well. I too was doing my–difficult–assignments well. The longer I live, the more I can see how being in the WAC benefitted me. There were no deficits. I am proud of my service.

After the Army, I went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and got my Ph.D. in English. Soon I was teaching there. Many many people asked me what I was doing it for. Why wasn’t I married? I rather worried about that, too. In so many ways I was a very normal woman and a creature of the culture. But I loved learning. I loved literature. I loved teaching. I wanted a career. I was a great reader, and I identified with the successful men in novels. I thought I could be successful, too. I was sailing through everything. Right after I got my Ph.D. when I was looking for a job teaching literature, however, the interviewers of the first, and only two, jobs I applied for, began their interview saying: “We aren’t hiring women this year.” I was offered a number of jobs as Dean of Women. I was taken aback, but not surprised. I had understood all along that “men are superior to women.” But heck! I had my Ph.D.! Both jobs I applied for were offered to me, so I dismissed those experiences. The word “discrimination” was not in my vocabulary at that time. Yet, the experience haunted me.

Despite my achievements thus far, I never thought I was a “feminist.” I had been taught by my history teachers and history books that feminists were queer old biddies, many of them spinsters and completely unattractive, and I did not want to be identified as one. (The history books may have changed, but I wonder if this same kind of teaching is going on.) I took my voting rights seriously, but I took the sufragettes for granted. Alas, I had no appreciation for them whatsoever.

I always expected, and wanted, to marry and have children. Yet, though the men I knew in graduate school were very intelligent, I did not fall for them. One of them, a Harvard MBA and owner of an advertising agency in Baltimore would have been an ideal mate. Though I liked this man very much and loved talking to him, what he was offering me was the “Country Club” life, and this had absolutely no appeal to me. Another very close friend in graduate school, someone I truly loved, was also “not for me.” Perhaps I was afraid of marriage, afraid of sex. I don’t know.

Later, when my husband–a colleague in the English Department of Ohio University, where we were the time–proposed to me over and over again and when I finally caved, I told him with certainty: “I will never give up my career.” He kept his peace and never asked me to do that. My career, as it turned out, was beneficial to the family that we subsequently had.

One of my college friends went on to get her Ph.D. in English at Cornell, the same year I did. She and I were both in Myskania, a leadership society of nine in our class at SUNY Albany, and we had kept up with each other through the years. In 1996 we all met in Wisconsin, and she told me this story: when her future husband, who like my husband was also getting a Ph.D., came to her with a ring, he said, “I will give you this ring only on one condition, that you do not continue with your career.” She took the ring. In so many ways we were alike, but she chose marriage, while I was willing to sacrifice marriage in order to have a career. I was very certain about this.

My life after marriage turned out to be most unusual.

As a mother of 5 children, I taught a total of 49 years, including a few sabbaticals, twelve years teaching in foreign countries including one year teaching in China, and two years as an adjunct in my college after I retired.  In two of my years abroad, I had my children with me but not my husband–without whatever help and assistance he would have given me. Some women would have feared winging it alone. But, for reasons I cannot explain, the challenge did not worry me. Beginning in 1962 until the present day I have lived separately from my husband–for professional reasons–except during sabbaticals, vacations, and many weekend, meaning that I had two households to manage and hundreds of 700-mile round trip commutes. Through all this shifting from place to place, I stuck to my career, with never a thought–so far as I can remember–of ever abandoning it or of finding it too much for me. I always knew I could do everything I wanted to do. I do remember learning, after the women’s movement of the 70’s got started, that I didn’t have to be a Supermom. This knowledge did not cut down the work, of course, but it brought me relief. I was always happy. I loved my children (still do) and I loved my students. Everything seemed so right for me.

I knew instinctively that in my career I had to be ”better” than men. I also knew that being a mother made me “suspect” among men, made me inferior in their eyes, though at the same time it was testimony that I was not the “spinster” type. I did not ask for special favors or any accommodation I needed I was a mother. I knew that would lower my value. When I became pregnant, I did not ask for permission to have a baby, nor did I expect time off. In those days there was no such thing as maternity leave. If we had a substitute, we paid for it ourselves.

I worked very very hard (too hard) but never acknowledged that fact either to myself or to anyone else. Fortunately, I was also strong and healthy, and I had wonderful healthy cooperative children.

Since I was very successful, under the circumstances, I felt no sympathy for women who didn’t “make it.” I relied on my youth and attractiveness.  At parties, I am now ashamed to say that couldn’t bear being left to talk with the wives. It wasn’t so much that I disdained them, but that I did not want to be in a class of women. Of course, this is all testimony of how my society had warped me.

When the women’s movement got started, I had a bit of contempt for the whiners and complainers who had chosen the homemakers’ way of life and now claimed they were prisoners. My attitude was: you made your own bed, now lie in it. Yet when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, I understood immediately that this is what I had been fighting, unconsciously, all my life. Still, it took me an immense amount of study of feminist materials before I began to understand the oppression of women–even of strong women like me. The women’s movement taught me that while some women are tough, others are fragile. We have to help, not criticize, each other.

I am relating this because I understand why many “successful” women today are so busy trying to climb the ladder themselves and living their own lives that they do not see the need to help other women.

2. The Women’s Movement at Oneonta

I remember when we started our First Women’s Week at Oneonta (in about 1973, I believe), I worked on the committee and participated in all the programs. At one of those sessions I witnessed the first bout of rage that I had ever seen in a women. I was utterly astonished. But I had instant recognition of what it signified. In some subconscious way, I had known about rage all along. Even so, I remember blurting out, in a talk I was giving to the group, that I was not a feminist. Some women in the audience bristled at that. Of course, that statement came right out of my old history classes. I did not want anyone to think I was unattractive to men. I also thought that I did not have to be a feminist. I had shown my stuff and asked for no concessions. I had had five babies, without interrupting my career or asking for time off. Working mothers in those times, and especially pregnant teachers, were scarce. I thought that the best thing I could do for women was to be a pioneer. If I could do my job well, I could best help them by being a good model for other women to follow.

Though that is true, I apologize to all feminists–and to all women–for my ignorance.

I watched my colleagues struggling to found a Women’s Studies Program. These were and are strong, intelligent, reasonable, successful, loving women, not a bad apple in the lot. They were fun to be with. They led normal lives. Not all of them had had the luck to acquire their Ph.D.s before coming to teach at the university. So they had this burden as well, to acquire their career credentials. A number of them were struggling, as I was, to balance both career and family. Some were single mothers or had lived for a period of time as single mothers. Some were unattached, but as women just getting their degrees, they were not welcomed at the university with open arms, and a number of them were kept insecure, on an untenured adjunct track, for years. In those years, it was mainly women, I believe, who were treated this way, although eventually, men would have the same problem, too.

These were truly great women, who worked hard to build the Women’s Studies Program from scratch, who persisted through all kinds of difficulties and discouragements, who surmounted the obstacles put in their way, who had to work twice as hard as any of their colleagues both to keep up with their own field and to acquire the new knowledge that the women’s movement, themselves included, was producing, and whose extra work in the women’s studies program went 99.5% unappreciated by their colleagues. I emphasize new knowledge because in most academic disciplines, the novice must only master the already-collected information and be tested on it. In the women’s movement, however, the knowledge had to be discovered, all of society had to be researched, the data had to be collected and then analyzed. Think of Tycho Brahe making his lifelong observations of the stars and Kepler analyzing the data and learning the three laws of planetary motion from a book. This is very different from memorizing existing knowledge.

I admired them then, and admire them even more now, and as I look back, I am truly amazed at what they learned, achieved, and taught.

I had too much to do, with my traveling and commuting and mothering, to take an active part in the founding of women’s studies. But I was a sympathetic onlooker, and attended many of their events and meetings. Through their kindness, they kept me informed. When they formed a study group to read the French feminists, for example, they asked me to attend. It was a delightful and enlightening experience. The French feminists had not yet entered my field, and  I had never heard of them before that. But, sd I learned, they were also important to me, as a literary critic.

Eventually I was invited to be on the Women’s Studies Committee, and I accepted. Now that my children were older, I had a bit more liberty, and I had really begun to learn. My eyes had been opened through the consciousness-raising of my friends and of women all over the country. I was turning into a feminist myself.

I try to figure out why I was such a late-comer. What had prevented me from pledging my full allegiance to the women’s movement was my luck, my having gotten my Ph.D. before becoming entangled with family life, my physical strength and health, my intelligence, my strength. I always had to earn my own living from the time I was 20, but I was never poor. I was not a member of a minority. I was heterosexual. Men liked me. I was protestant. I was white. I had had a wonderful family growing up. In other words, I ”fitted in.” –I had more power than most women. I liked to attribute my success to my brains and my hard work. Even though I was aware that I had advantages that many people, not only women, didn’t have, I felt superior on that account. But without realizing it, I was nevertheless a member of an oppressed group.

Photo courtesy of NOW on Flickr

Photo courtesy of NOW on Flickr

What converted me into a radical feminist was the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment and also the dawning realization of the brutality of men to women all over the world and through all time. I had believed I was ”equal” to anyone on earth. In the Army, I had sworn allegiance to the Constitution. Now I had to admit that my rights were never secured. The discussions by men of ERA that I heard on TV shocked me! They voted against ERA for basically one reason only: they wanted to keep power to themselves. And the news about “battered women” woke me up from my deep sleep. No one had ever battered me, and the real news never got out. It was all a dark secret. Once I learned the truth, I was a different woman. I realized that ERA had failed because women like me had not taken the ball and run with it.

3. My Role in the Women’s Movement at Oneonta

Though reluctant, when I was asked to teach the Women’s Studies course, I did so for 3 or 4 years. Although a strong member of this movement by now, I nevertheless still had everything to learn. And very lucky I am to have dipped so deeply into this material and to have been able to discuss it with students for such a long period of time. Studying that information has been one of the great experiences of my life.

Though I never taught Women’s Literature, I gradually, almost imperceptibly, began to revise my own courses. The readers I used in Composition courses now contained all kinds of essays about women and provided challenging topics for the students to read and write about. I had long taught selections from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own . I knew that book by heart but only gradually came to realize Woolf’s genius in understanding these problems long before my time and writing about them in this book and in Three Guineas. In American literature, I now used Henry James’ The Bostonians as a window on the 19th Century abolition and feminist movements. This is a great work–satirical to be sure and probably ambiguous to many readers, but to me starkly feminist in the way that Basil Ramson taunts the feminist orator Verena Tarrant throughout, at the end physically abducting her from the women’s movement, and preventing her from ever talking to women again, in effect silencing her. Henceforth, he would allow her to talk only to him. And I began to see in all literature this silencing of women. Using what I learned from Judith Fetterley’s The Resisting Reader I began to interpret the short stories like The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane and Babylon Revisited by F. Scott Fitzgerald very differently from the way I had formerly. In the Blue Hotel, the women were confined to the kitchen, while the men quarreled violently and fought each other irrationally in a snowstorm, one of them in his frenzy killing the outsider among them in a bar. In Babylon Revisited, I no longer sympathized with the hero’s grievance against his sister-in-law but backed her up (against the author’s intention) for not allowing her niece to return to her alcoholic father, who had caused his wife’s death through his behavior. Fitzgerald had convinced us that the sister-in-law was a”bitch.” But now I could see who the “villain” of the story really was. And so on.

Having read all my life and having taught literature for many years by this time, I began to see so clearly now that only women writers wrote about women in the way we really were–and then only a few of them, the others looking at life through the eyes of male publishers or readers, whom they wanted to please. I don’t have time to discuss here the male writers’ stereotypes of women: saint, dutiful wife, and whore. I found these stereotypes everywhere. I will only say that  with very few exceptions, no book by a male ever had woman like me in it. I do, however, now find myself in literature by women. I still read and admire literature by men, but I am not “at home” there. They are a great source of information about what men want women to be. In my teaching, I did not eliminate male writers in my courses, but I now gave a fair hearing to women, and I taught the male writers differently.

Teaching Women’s Studies was my toughest assignment–because women’s studies is about women in every walk of life, past and present; it is about their societies, their families, their daughters and mothers and sisters, and also their sons and fathers and brothers and husbands. Everything I had ever learned in life had to be looked at anew and reassessed. As I taught and discussed and as my own thoughts occurred to me, I realized how blind I had been, how I had accepted “his” story and neglected “her” story (despite my ”successes”) completely. I had been a willing victim, a willing slave, a willing inferior, a willing martyr.

In addition to educating myself through a great amount of reading and research, I attended 10-15 stimulating conferences on feminism and women’s studies, several in Washington and in Towson, Maryland, one on Women and Representation at Brown University in Providence, and three big Radcliffe Conferences in 1989-90, about the past, present, and future of the women’s movement. Attached to this essay is my talk “Feminism, What Is It?” which I gave to my students and to various other audiences about this time. It is a partial and imperfect statement, but it testifies to what I had thus far learned about women.

I also worked on three SUNY-wide committees which taught me about women: the Library Committee, a Committee on Undergraduate Education, and a Committee on Multicultural and Women’s Studies, and in connection with the last committee, gave a talk to assembled SUNY deans on the needs of women both at the present and the future, which I will also attach.

I also took Feminist Theory under Suzanne Henke at SUNY Binghamton, as well as three courses on Literary Theory and Theory of History with Helen Elam at SUNY Albany. Elam did not specialize in feminism, but everything that she taught about recent trends in theory fed into my knowledge of feminism, and were important to my development.

Also extremely important to my understanding of the Women’s Movement were the annual meetings of the professional societies that I belong to, notably the Society for Biblical Literature and Modern Language Association, at which many feminist papers were given and many women’s caucuses held. These were exciting times.

The greatest modern literary theory (among many that I subscribe to) is feminist theory–because it taught me how literature constantly enforced the power and desires of men and completely ignored the plight and desires of women.

In the early nineties, I was made Director of the Irish Winter Session, which that year was sponsoring two courses, one in Irish Literature, and one on Irish Women.  I had previously been director of two year-long international education programs, the SUNY Program in Würzburg, Germany, and the SUNY Program in Israel.

The Irish program had been going many years and existed on a strong foundation of knowledge and experience. The Irish Women Studies course had been well developed, thanks to Dr. Kathleen O’Mara (an important person in our feminist circle), a few years before I did it. I went over to Ireland for two weeks in September and brought the course up-to-date, seeking out new lecturers in Irish literature and making contact with all the women Kathleen O’Mara had discovered before, and in January I returned to Ireland with the students, along with a male colleague who managed the literature course. The program on women went unbelievably well. I never learned so much in my life. We traveled all around the country and heard two excellent lecturers every day as we did so. I still have my notes, and believe it worthwhile to put these with the Women’s Studies Archive being collected in Milne library. What we accomplished could not have been fully appreciated by the students, who had had no experience whatsoever either in study-abroad programs or, most of the students, in Women’s Studies. But I can testify that it was 100% excellent and very exciting.

Finally, the Women’s Committee asked me to help them out further by taking on for three and a half years, the directorship of the Women’s Studies Program, and ultimately the Chairmanship of the Department, when we became a department. They had begun to feel burned out–and no wonder. I obliged. The hardest, most exasperating, and most frustrating work had been done by my predecessors, but I was able to hold the fort for them. It was a privilege.

I had two big tasks: one was to convert the Program into a Department, which happened under my term but was fully prepared for by the Women’s Studies Committee. The other was to read the job applications for all the departments, one of which was to share a new faculty member with us as well as with the department to which she was applying. I spent many weeks going over this material, consulting with others, and making recommendations. We were supposed to be hiring, but at the end, we hired no one. There was one reason: we could not persuade another department to look kindly upon the candidate we favored. It became all too clear to me that some of the department chairmen (I am not talking about chairwomen) were absolutely opposed to hiring anyone who would be even faintly associated with ours. Some were even quite outspoken about it. It was dismaying to me, but I was not really surprised. I knew the battle had not been won.

I had one bad experience during my first three years. One of the history teachers was using Ken Russell’s The Devils, a movie about witchcraft in which women were visibly and horribly tortured. A student complained to me about this. She did not want to see this film, but the professor would not excuse her from the class. She was outraged by what she considered a celebration of the abuse of women, and she felt that the professor showed the film just to make the women in the class squirm. I can’t bear violence myself and never watch violent films or horror films. Thus I did not want to see this film myself, but I did research on it–many reviewers called it “pornographic”–and I talked with others in the Women’s Studies Program about the predicament. We decided we should confront the teacher. I wrote him a letter which I considered reasonable and not inflammatory. I had hoped simply to inform him of something he might not have known. But he was furious. I guess he thought I was interfering with his prerogatives as a teacher. He went into a rage, and refused thereafter ever to speak to me. This kind of treatment by a colleague was utterly incomprehensible to me, though my readings in psychology and women’s studies gave me some ideas about what it signified. –He continued showing the movie.

It was a minor incident in some ways but just another manifestation of how far the women’s movement had yet to go.

4. The Present

Last fall a local candidate for a local political office approached me at my home with her brochure. I said to her: “You would not be here today giving me this pamphlet if it had not been for the women’s movement.”  “I know it,” she said.

Women are now leaders in every profession and academic discipline and run many state and national departments. We have a number of female university presidents and female CEOs in this country now, many mayors, and several governors, and a few female senators. But all is not well.

Hillary Clinton, who is a candidate for as New York State Senator seems to me to be one of the nicest and most brilliant women I have ever seen in public life, yet she is continually bashed by the public. One reads misogyny in every column of the newspaper. Usually, when asked what they have against her, people will answer, “She is too ambitious.” Of course, no one says that about Rudy Giuliani or Rick Lazio. I wonder why.

5. Conclusion

The women’s movement from the beginning was connected with movements for liberating other oppressed groups, for all minorities, but in particular, for the Blacks and the Gays. Women in the women’s movement do not all think alike, of course, but for two things–first, most of us, once we realized our own oppression, we understood the oppression of others, and second, we saw clearly that every oppressed group is at least half women.

We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the women in our college who founded and developed our Department of Women’s Studies–especially Joan Iversen, Kathleen O’Mara, Charlotte Walker, Leslie Diehl, and Marilyn Helterline, and all many others who helped for briefer periods of time. We owe an enormous debt as well as to all these founders of the Second Women’s Movement and those throughout the country and throughout the world who through the past 40 years have studied women’s lives and worked on their behalf.  Let us not ignore the fact that men have worked for us, too. Thank you to all.

Our children have much better lives and opportunities as a consequence.

A tremendous amount of work has yet to be done, for everywhere, women are still in chains. Only the lucky few are free.

Young women still have to be taught. We cannot allow them to remain ignorant. But now that the Second Women’s Movement is apparently over, who will assume leadership for the Third? We must always be vigilant.

Dr. Davidson published this article in Phoebe in 2000.

Photo courtesy of NOW photos on Flickr

Want to share your own reflection or memory of Joan Iversen? You can do so on this page.