Women Studies Founder Explains Her Passion for Women’s History

I’ve long held an interest in women’s history, but that interest became a passion when I took a class with Dr. Mary Rothschild when I was in the Women’s Studies Program at Arizona State University. I took an oral history class with Mary that changed my life. Suddenly history wasn’t just boring memorization of names and dates – it was collecting living women’s stories to preserve our history. Ever since that class, I’ve let that passion continue to sizzle. In fact, it’s a big motivation for our Feminist Conversations column, as well as our effort to celebrate Women’s History Month every year here on the blog.

For those who don’t know my shero, Mary Logan Rothschild is a Professor Emerita from Arizona State University in Women and Gender Studies. She was an early leader in the Women’s Studies movement nationally and is the only person in the country who has been a Women’s Studies Program Chair or Director on her 30th, 40th and 50th birthdays. Her specialty is American Women’s History and her great love is the history of American feminism. She has been very involved in women’s oral history, the movement to include women in public history and, especially in the early decades of her career, the gender equity movement in education. I hope you enjoy reading Mary’s story as much as I have enjoyed her mentorship over the years.

1. When did you know that you wanted to be a historian?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a historian until very late in my undergraduate career, although I was a History major. For graduate school, I was accepted into the School of Social Work at the University of Washington and I wanted to work with inner city children, but I had a kind of “conversion” experience in my final year and decided I had to at least get a Master’s in History, so I applied to the History Department. Miraculously, I was offered a four-year fellowship (though I had missed the deadline to apply for financial aid) to do a PhD, so I immediately went into the PhD program.

2. What motivated you to start pursuing women’s history?
I had finished my PhD exams and had gathered material for my dissertation, which was an extension of my MA thesis, but I was very discouraged, because there were no jobs and I was bored with US political history. I wrote my letter of resignation from the department and thought I would go to law school when a friend called me and said she had a book for me to read and I shouldn’t drop out of graduate school. “There’s a place for you in History,” she said. She gave me Eleanor Flexner’s book, Century of Struggle and it flat out changed my life! I read it through as fast as I could and entered into a plane of fury that I knew nothing of women’s history and lives in the past. I was beyond angry at my professors, but I was also furious with myself, because I had never asked any of them (and they were all male), “by the way, what was half the human race doing?” at any given time. The energy I had from that fury was incredible! I certainly wasn’t easy to live with, but I just raced through material trying to find out about women.

At the same time, I got seriously involved in the Women’s Liberation movement, which I hadn’t thought relevant to my life before, and I was especially involved in the campaign in Washington state to pass a referendum to legalize abortion, which we did three years before Roe, the only state to enact abortion reform by popular vote. Then I was off and running, given classes to teach and Women’s Studies took over my life.

3. How was the Women’s Studies Program started at ASU? And what role did you play?
A group of women professors wanted to start a program in Women’s Studies at ASU and they formed a small group in the Spring of 1975 to look into what might be involved. They invited me out to lunch the first week I was at ASU, because I had been very active in starting Women Studies at the University of Washington as a graduate student and had been the Acting Director of Women Studies there and then the Coordinator of Women’s Studies at the University of Puget Sound, my first academic position after I received my PhD in 1974. They also knew I had been hired as the first person at ASU to do a Women’s Studies subject, American Women’s History, and we worked together to involve more people and talk to the Dean and Provost about starting a Women’s Studies Program.

We formed an ad hoc committee and worked with the administration to offer an Introduction to Women’s Studies class and then to organize a Women’s Studies Program. It was volunteer work for all of us, but we were excited to see ASU begin a Women’s Studies Program. When we finally got permission to develop the Program, I was asked to be the first Director, but the administration would not fund the position, so I refused. I said I would continue working on the Women’s Studies Committee, but I was never again going to run a Women’s Studies Program as a “volunteer” as a matter of principle. I believed then, and still believe, that the administration would never have asked a man to be a program director with no pay. Professor Thelma Shinn from the English Department was the first Director and she served without line funding. I was the second Director and the position had a funded line. During my career at ASU, I directed the Program on four separate occasions and saw it grow from a “Certificate Program,” to a degree program, to a program with funded tenured lines, to a PhD program, at which point I retired. It was a thrill to be part of that development and growth and I am proud of the University and the Program for all it has accomplished.

4. Do you think that Women’s Studies is still necessary?
Yes. On occasion in the past, I thought that, in a theoretical sense, if women should ever win full equality with men in the world, it might be possible that Women’s Studies would no longer be necessary. I don’t believe that now, but, more importantly, we now know that studying women and studying gender and how gender systems work is going to need to be done probably forever and certainly long into the forseeable future.

5. Now that you’re retired from teaching, are you still engaged in different forms of activism?
I am in different ways, I guess. I am very involved in my Unitarian Universalist congregation and I find myself preaching at least once or twice a year–and the sermons are very feminist and political, but also spiritual. I’m working on one now that I will give in August called, “As If I’m Not a Values Voter?” which is going to examine the current war on women and women’s sexuality and how as religious liberals we are compelled to fight oppression, as a religious principle. I can be much more personal and political when I preach than when I taught. I am also organizing some Adult Religious Education classes that are very Women’s Studies oriented. Further, I am doing more political party work than I did when I was a professor, because I have more time. Additionally, I am involved in the Arizona Women’s History Trail, which is a great project and lots of fun. I really like still being involved in local women’s history.

6. What advice do you have for women in terms of discovering and preserving women’s history?
Work on local projects like the Arizona Women’s History Trail. Demand women’s history be taught in schools. Work with state and local historical societies and start your own women’s oral history project. There are endless ways to be involved and perhaps one of the most important is to lobby the legislature and the Congress to support history projects.

About Serena:
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.

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