Friday, May 3, 2013

In Memoriam: Star of Davida Interviews Mariam Chamberlain

On April 2, 2013, pioneer feminist Mariam Chamberlain died. In September of 2011, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Chamberlain, who was an integral part of establishing women's studies departments in American colleges and funded early research about women's status in the workplace. I am pleased that I can honor her memory by publishing my interview with her.

When and where were you born?
Chelsea, Massachusetts, on April 24, 1918. I grew up there and lived there until I went to grad school in 1941.

You live in New York now. When did you move here?
I lived in New Haven until 1952, and by 1954 I was in New York. I lived in Washington, DC in 1941 to work in the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), which was a precursor of the OSS, which was a precursor of the CIA. I worked in research and analysis. I followed my professor there. The COI was just formed by Bill Donovan, who had a brain trust with eight professors and economists and political scientists and sociologists. This was all before war began in America.

Why did you pursue your BA in economics?
It was a new subject to me, something I had never learned in high school, so it interested me. Also because my father liked public policy, so I wanted to impress him.

Do you feel your childhood or background impacted your views on women’s rights?
Economics was a new field, applying what we learned in grad school. We had to analyze data. There was no gender issue around the work. There were women working there, but they were secretaries, there were few women in higher levels. They did estimates on population needs per capita and the like. Mostly men held leadership positions. It reflected the discrimination that was commonplace at the time. The full professors were all men, and the CIA brain trust was all men (economists, geographers, political scientists, etc.).

I felt a tug towards women’s issues later, in 1971 or 70. By then I was in New York, and on Fifth Avenue there was a women’s march. I saw this parade. A woman watching from the sidewalk had an “equality in marriage” button, so I asked her what it meant and she explained, but I didn’t really get it.

A year later I was working at the Ford Foundation. In 1971, there was a conference at Ford bringing together women I had met, and it was held in the president’s conference room. Among the attendees were Cynthia Epstein, Bunny Sandler, people from WEAL, total there was about 15 people. The VP of Ford wanted to know what the meeting was, so he stayed, and so did the president. They got into women’s issues, so at proposals I never had any opposition.

I got into it because they made a case of discrimination in education and I was in education. Florence Howe had overseas contacts and we, in 1980, went to a conference in Copenhagen. I got Flo to come and bring consultants, and Flo put together a women’s studies program. Afterward she wanted to continue contact and they wanted to help with starting an organization.

Was economics was a popular field for women in the 1930s?
It was uncommon. A few were there, but it was uncommon. It was an important subject, coming to face at that point. There were new theories coming in from England, like Keynes, and we got them at Harvard - I did my PhD work at Radcliffe - before publication. It grew as a field, although not as big as political science or anthropology or psychology. There was a lot of management education, which at the time was mostly managers telling students about the best practices around. We felt there should be better ones. Some colleges developed these new ideas on introducing psychology and math, and we sponsored seminars on those subjects. This was all when I was at Ford. From 1956-1961 I was in economic development and from 1966-1982 I was in educational policy. The second was considered women’s work.

Did any other Radcliffe graduates go into economics or other professions?
There was a period when continuing education was popular, and the idea was to be not only a housewife. For undergrads, a quarter of those who were in economics assumed women would work at least part time. My classmates did have careers, there were three or four outstanding women.

How many women were in the Harvard PhD program with you?
At Harvard after the war, there was a big influx of students, so there was about 100 men and ten women. I don’t know if they finished or not. Some women stayed on track though, even if not at Harvard with me.

Why did you get your PhD?
I had already started it in college and continued it in Washington because I had professors down there, and back at New Haven. I taught at Albertus Magnus College while completing my PhD. I had no objective for a PhD, really. I graduated college in 1940 and got money that way. I took a 25 hour course a week while I did graduate work, and took a job as a research associate at a policy seminar. The head was a woman, and my job was set up for a person doing PhD work. I just stepped into it, it was different than nowadays where everything is so timetabled.

What was your professional goal?
I wanted to be an economist.

Did your family support you being so atypical?
I think so. My mother was neutral, but my father was always proud to have me doing what I was doing. My family’s savings went to law school for my older brother. My father really wanted a lawyer in the family and my brother did it. He majored in Latin and did perfectly but went with law. My younger brother was the same as me, and got no monetary help. I worked my way through and it wasn’t easy for me, but not as much as for younger brother.

What did you do when you worked for the US government as an economist during WWII?
Analysis. We had data sent in by other OSS divisions and they had ratings, A1 was a usually reliable source and info is consistent on that area, C3 was clueless, you figure it out. We took data and put it together in a coherent picture. I came up with estimates for German airstrikes to see if they were possible. We got data from the New York Times if planes got shot down, and the Russians published serial numbers. I put together a logical picture of production, training, losses, etc. Estimating enemy air strength was my job.

Were there a lot of women hired at the time?
A couple. We were treated like the men though.

Were you fired when the soldiers came home?
I stopped working when my husband was demobilized. There were fellowships available for demobilized veterans, so they went to servicepeople who had done grad work but had no job. My husband, through my contacts, found work at Yale, so I left Washington for Yale. We moved to New Haven and he did his fellowship and I did grad work.

When you worked at the Economic Growth Center of Yale, were there many other women there, students and professors?
Yes, the research secretary.

During this time, I taught at Connecticut College as a fill-in. From 1960-1966, my boss was the chair at Ford too. He took a leave from Ford for three years, and he offered me a job so I took it.

While you worked there, The Feminine Mystique was published and NOW was created. Did you have any role in the feminist movement at this point?
At Ford, I was still working on education, as pressures came in from junior staff responding to movement. By 1971 there was pressure on us to do something. Our division had no involvement, that conference started stuff. I was willing to fund anything that came my way.

What were some early grants you gave?
Mainly fellowships for women’s research. Money went to supporting women in educational administration, ACE (the American Council on Education Women’s Network) came in too, I was involved in that. HERS (the Wellesley Institute for Women in Higher Education) too. That was an interesting project. There was a group of women educational administrators, one was a president at a college and the other was the assistant provost at Yale. The women wanted a reference service for women, so we gave them that. It’s still around. We set up a center for women’s research, which began with the Stanford proposal, then at the Washington Institute for Family Studies. We supported both, still today. Minority women were another project we supported. There was a group of sociologists who wanted a grant for research on black women, we gave a grant and helped start a research center at Memphis. This was towards the end of my tenure, they got the proposal in before I left.

What were some organizations that you gave money to?
When Ford got a new president, I didn’t like him or his new administration. He was advised by a friend, so he proceeded to cut out all people over 50, all senior people, without telling the Board and got in trouble. So I left Ford, but I had several colleagues at the Russell Sage Foundation, and they invited me to do a year-long project on women (which was funded by Ford) and set up a task force with 19 people, all of whom were specialists in different aspects of higher education. We put our findings into a book. I included chapters on the use of women’s studies departments, minority education, women in educational administration, all aspects of women in higher education. The 19 women took responsibility for different chapters, and the group made comments. It was a joint project. We sent it to the Sage publishing office and it was accepted and edited into Women in Academe, and came out in 1988.

Was that while you were with NCRW?
I started NCRW while I was at Sage. It was Marjorie Lightman’s idea, at IRH. She joined the Council as treasurer, not director because she already was one but she got into arguments and got voted off.

You were appointed as the founding president of NCRW. Did you attend the gathering Marjorie Lightman convened?
Yes, it was Marjorie’s idea to form a coalition of all those centers. I made a grant for a conference at Siemens about women. I thought it was over, but they agreed to join as a coalition. There was no money for it, but Carnegie agreed to a small support staff, Ford gave some more money, and Sage gave us a space. At first we were on a shoestring, housed at Sage because I was working there. It was a lavish shoestring, but we didn’t have much of a budget. Some early organizations were the Feminist Press, Interart, HERS, ACE, the Wellesley Centers, Stanford Center, Memphis, Jonathan Cole at Columbia, Duke, and the Urban Institute.

Were you surprised that you were chosen to be the president?
Marjorie didn’t want to be it. I guess I was at the center. I had a relationship with these organizations, so they knew and liked me, I had a good relationship with Ford too.

What do these books talk about? What did you do during your term?
I did stuff with international women, and participated in exchange fellowships with India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I also focused on minority women. Ford asked if we could do a US women studies fellowship with him. It was really a coalition then, all the meetings were with senior members, members showed up and worked collaboratively. Whenever they wanted women’s contacts they came to us, NCRW was the nerve system. We got more member centers too, tried to keep some alive.

You wrote the books Women in Academe: Progress and Prospects, and Women of Color and the Multicultural Curriculum: Transforming the College Classroom.
Women of color came around later, women of color were there (beverly etc) so it just sorta happened.

Do you have any words of wisdom?
Part of success is being rational, intellectual, and more in theory realm. We have to work for diplomatic change from within rather than barging from outside. I couldn’t persuade anyone, just open eyes of people, teach the curious.

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