Select Page
... documenting the history of the University of Delaware

Beneath Thy Guiding Hand: A History of Women at the University of Delaware – Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Unfinished Business

In the 1983-84 academic year, the University of Delaware marked the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of its charter from the state as a collegiate institution with a series of ceremonies, conferences, and symposia. One conference, sponsored by the Office of Women’s Affairs, was entitled "Women’s Education: Evolution, Revolution, and Beyond." The theme of the daylong conference was that the revolution in women’s place in campus life, which had begun some fifteen years earlier, was as yet incomplete. The keynote speaker, Elizabeth Minnich, a prominent feminist scholar, told an audience of sixty-five students, faculty, and administrators that the collegiate curriculum must be enriched by including the contributions of the "excluded voices" of women and minorities.1 Another principal speaker, Florence Howe of the State University of New York, cautioned the audience that the University of Delaware, like other American universities, still had much to do to ensure women’s equality. To prove her point, she noted that only twelve percent of the University of Delaware’s current women students were majoring in fields not traditional for women.

Those calls for further accomplishment came at a time when the University had already adopted structures, procedures, and policies aimed at assisting women and rectifying inequities. Affirmative action was the law of the land. The Commission on the Status of Women, at the outset of its second decade in 1978, had added an administrative arm called the Office of Women’s Affairs, managed by Mae Carter. The office assisted women with job-related problems and created and coordinated a wide variety of support services. The Office of Women’s Affairs was perhaps best-known to students and faculty as the sponsor of the Women of Promise and Women of Excellence dinners, held annually to honor and encourage outstanding women undergraduates and graduate students, respectively. The Women’s Studies Interdisciplinary Program, having earned a permanent place among the University’s academic programs, was reaching over 1,000 students a year with a wide variety of courses and was available to undergraduates as a minor academic field. The program had also begun-and opened to the campus community-a weekly, lunchtime lecture series on topics of interest to women.

The existence of those institutional structures, each led by zealous and capable people, was not enough to maintain a momentum of positive change. The faculty was disheartened to see that the women undergraduates of the 1980s expected that the gains made by women during the 1960s and 1970s would necessarily continue into the future without further effort on their part. Meanwhile, the statistical data published annually by the Commission on the Status of Women suggested that the much-touted progress of the recent past was more apparent than real. In the fall of 1984, for example, when women outnumbered men among the University’s undergraduate body by fifty-seven percent to forty-three percent, women constituted only twenty-three percent of the faculty-a ratio that, in spite of affirmative action, had remained stubbornly consistent for a decade.2 In fact, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track women in the faculty had actually decreased from twenty-two-and-a-half to twenty percent of the total faculty between 1975 and 1982. Nor had great breakthroughs occurred in the University’s administrative ranks, where only sixteen percent were women.

The disparities were even more extreme regarding black students and faculty. Black women faculty accounted for an astonishingly low percent of the University total.3 In 1983, women outnumbered men among black students at the University 339 to 278; but whereas there were thirty-five black male faculty, there were only eleven black women in a University faculty of more than 700 persons. Opportunities for black students to find role models in the faculty were few, but for black women, the problem was especially acute.4 The first black woman to become a full-time member of the faculty was Hilda Davis, who joined the Department of English in 1965 as a non-tenure-track instructor and taught the University’s first course on African-American writers. More recently, Gloria Hull, who taught in the English department from 1979 to 1988, Carole Marks, a sociologist in the Black American Studies Program, Patricia DeLeon, a biologist, and Barbara Williams, an astronomer, have been among the University’s most prominent black scholars.

The intractability of social change demonstrated by those statistics showed that the quest for women’s equality had barely begun. The formal victories that had led to the creation of structures such as the Commission on the Status of Women and the Women’s Studies Interdisciplinary Program had come rather easily, but using those structures to change conditions for women and attitudes about women’s place in the University was proving more difficult and tedious. The scope of the problem was so broad that it could not easily be contained in any one theory or any one set of actions. Securing justice for women was a goal that depended on a myriad of subjective perceptions, personal objectives, and feelings of self-worth that transcended statements of University policy. Men and women students continued to be distributed in traditionally skewed fashion among the University’s ten colleges. Statistics consistently showed that, although women came to the University with higher S.A.T. scores than men, men were more likely to elect majors in subject areas that would earn them greater respect and money than those chosen by women.

Analyzing the statistical data on sex and career choice in the 1980s is analogous to deciding if a glass is half empty or half full. In the College of Engineering, for example, whose graduates consistently rated at the top of the starting salary scale for all University of Delaware programs, women were slowly making inroads. As recently as 1967, no women graduated from that college; ten years later, the graduating class included nine women; and by 1982, fifty of the college’s 305 graduates were women. Optimists who favored women’s entry into better-paying professions could point to a steady, healthy gain. On the other hand, the great majority of men and women students continued to follow traditional professional paths. In 1982, the overwhelming majority of engineering majors were still men, while ninety-eight percent of the graduates in the College of Human Resources (successor to Home Economics) were women, as were ninety-five percent of those who majored in elementary education. The most significant area of change during the 1970s was in the College of Business and Economics, where the number of women graduates rose dramatically from five in 1967 to 228 by 1982, when women represented forty-five percent of those graduating with majors in business administration or accounting.5

Statistics revealed that forces were at work reshaping some disciplines to make them more gender-neutral and depriving others of their former lock on large numbers of women students. The most noteworthy example of the latter phenomenon was in the College of Education. Although women remained the overwhelming majority of elementary education majors, the total number of people preparing for careers in that field declined markedly during the 1970s. In part, this shift represented students’ reaction to the declining demand for elementary school teachers, but another significant factor was the expansion of opportunities for women in other fields, such as business administration, which offered more prestige, higher pay, and greater chances for advancement.

The most complex reaction to the shifts in women’s career options occurred in the field of home economics. From the earliest days of the Women’s College, the faculty in home economics had conceived of their field primarily as pre-professional training. Even in the face of evidence that the overwhelming majority of home economics majors used their education in the home rather than in the work place, Amy Rextrew and Irma Ayers, whose consecutive terms as heads of home economics ran from 1929 to 1972, justified their field on the grounds that it trained students for jobs in industry and teaching. But, they had to acknowledge that many students majored in home economics as a prelude to homemaking.

In the early 1920s, the home economists had established a "Home Management House" near Robinson Hall, where groups of senior majors put to the test their training in food preparation, sewing, and other home-related skills. For the first several decades of its existence, it was highly popular with students. The opportunity to move from the residence hall into a homelike setting marked a significant step toward the responsibility of managing one’s own home. But, by the 1970s, as the profiles of home economics majors changed, the Home Management House experience had lost its glamour. The newer students were planning careers outside the home. Some were already married women who had more than enough practice maintaining their own homes while they attended college. They did not appreciate a requirement that forced them to leave their families to spend several weeks living with a group of fellow students much younger and less experienced than they were. As these negative reactions mounted, the college decided to abandon the requirement, and the house was converted to other purposes.

Home economics was changing in other respects as well. During the years of Dean Irma Ayers’ administration between 1948 and 1972, the college abandoned its cramped quarters in Robinson Hall for the spaciousness of the new Alison Hall (1954), which offered much-improved equipment and research facilities. The college began a modest graduate program in the 1950s and enrolled its first full-time graduate student in 1962. Programs in child development and in marriage and the family were added to the curriculum. During those years, the men who ran the University were content to remain fundamentally ignorant of what went on in this college, viewing it as an inexpensive, but necessary, enterprise that posed no threats and made few demands.6 Dean Ayers insisted that her faculty project a conservative, well-groomed image, designed to keep top administrators content.7

By 1972, when Dean Ayers retired, the concept of home economics was undergoing dramatic change across the country. The food and textile industries had become high-tech enterprises and commercial care of small children and the elderly were subjects of increasing national concern. As the fields embraced by home economics began attracting more research support, men moved into them. In 1976, the college hired its first male dean, Alexander Doberenz, a nutritionist. Dean Doberenz was soon to discover that at Delaware, as elsewhere, the home economists were arguing among themselves about renaming their college. He moved quickly to resolve this divisive issue, and, in 1978, the unit was renamed the College of Human Resources-a title with no female or home-centered connotations. Soon, other men were hired to fill important roles in the college, one as its first named professor, others as department chairpersons. Women faculty watched those changes with ambiguous feelings. They applauded the greater freedom to dress and act as they chose, but they were dismayed that the drive to add men to the college deprived women of positions of authority.

The College of Nursing was less affected by change in the 1970s. Nursing had originally been established at Delaware in 1955 as a major within the College of Arts and Science. By 1966, when it became a separate unit of the University, 210 students were enrolled in the program. In June 1972, as it moved into new quarters in Madeline 0. McDowell Hall, named in honor of the program’s founder, its students numbered 435. But, as medical schools revoked the quotas that had previously restricted women’s entrance and as other professional opportunities, both inside and outside the health-care professions, became available to women, fewer undergraduate students chose to major in nursing. Enrollment reached a peak of 883 in 1982 but declined to 374 by 1990, before beginning a modest upward climb. As it responded to the threat posed by low enrollment, graduate programs were instituted to attract practicing nurses, courses were offered in southern Delaware, and an aggressive recruitment campaign was undertaken, especially targeting older students. Edith Anderson, who became dean of nursing in 1976, concentrated on maintaining enrollments and raising the faculty’s academic credentials to bring the college into conformity with other campus units.8 As in the case of home economics, the predominance of women in the College of Nursing was seen as a serious liability in matters of funding, salary levels, and respect within the University. That reality forced deans of both Nursing and Human Resources to adopt various strategies designed to win equal support for their units in University decisions concerning money, space, and enrollment. Professionally oriented colleges that traditionally attract a preponderance of men have not faced such an uphill struggle.

The College of Education has faced many of the same struggles for students and recognition as Home Economics/Human Resources and Nursing. Education is similar to them in that its primary, historic role has been to prepare students-mostly women-for service-oriented, poorly paid careers. In the days before many women with children contemplated careers that kept them at work year-round, teaching offered an attractive choice of profession. As with nursing, national trends in women’s careers have changed the milieu in which the College of Education must compete. The downturn in the birth rate during the 1960s also had a negative impact on enrollments in the College of Education.

In the 1970s, the College of Education was restructured to emphasize research and graduate study as well as the preparation of teachers. This restructuring was intended, in part, to shake off the college’s female-oriented image, but it was the student body in education, not the faculty, that was preponderantly female. In the mid-1970s, only sixteen percent of the faculty in education were female. The College of Education has been an anomaly with respect to sex: It has had the faculty male-female profile of a college of arts and science coupled with a student profile that more closely resembled a college of home economics. The College of Education was the first at the University to hire a female named professor, Sylvia Farnham-Diggory, a specialist in reading disabilities who came to the University of Delaware in 1976; but leadership positions in the college have remained in the hands of men.

While those professionally oriented colleges with high female enrollments were adjusting their programs in response to women’s changing career goals, the College of Arts and Science emerged as the primary unit for teaching about women. By the mid-1980s, its Women’s Studies Interdisciplinary Program earned a unique place among the college’s offerings. In 1986-87, a typical year in that decade, the program offered fifty-four courses to 1,400 students, who represented ten percent of the entire undergraduate student body. This was accomplished in spite of the fact that no faculty were assigned exclusively to the program. Part-time faculty were hired to teach the introductory courses, while others from a wide variety of departments, both men and women, taught the more advanced courses, usually cross-listed so that students could choose to take those courses for credit in women’s studies or in English, philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, or whatever discipline the teacher represented. The fact that faculty could neither hold a primary appointment in women’s studies nor be granted tenure in the field proved to be more a strength than a weakness because it spread responsibility for the program across many academic departments.

The goal of women’s studies was not to become a new discipline but to encourage the expansion of existing disciplines to include women’s perspectives and to encourage research related to women. The program has brought together faculty interested in women’s issues at its weekly research luncheons, and its seminars introduce several leading scholars to the Delaware campus each year. Women’s studies also has developed a visiting scholars program through which departments can add a distinguished woman scholar from another university for a full year. Among the outstanding women who have participated in this program have been Elaine Showalter, a leading literary critic; Jessie Bernard, doyenne of sociology; and Darlene Clark-Hine, a pioneer in the field of black women’s history.

During the 1980s, the emphasis in women’s studies moved from creating special courses about women in various disciplines to the concept of an "inclusive curriculum" that includes material by and about women in all relevant courses. Toward that end, Margaret Andersen, a sociologist, and Sandra Harding, a philosopher, both of whom served terms as director of women’s studies, led a month-long faculty development seminar in January 1984 for eight social science faculty, seven of whom were men. The seminar focused on strategies for revising introductory-level courses to cut across gender lines. This concept, called mainstreaming, has taken on greater meaning as the University has sought ways to address students’ lack of knowledge about people different from themselves. In 1988, in response to a recommendation from a committee charged to study undergraduate education, the University adopted a requirement that all undergraduate students take at least one multicultural course dealing with issues of race and gender. By the late 1980s, the number of faculty who regularly taught about women and racial issues was sufficiently large that the multicultural requirement was implemented with surprising ease.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the University made a concerted effort to hire women into more responsible positions in non-traditional fields. In 1973, Helen Gouldner came to the University from Washington University in St. Louis to become chairperson of the Department of Sociology. She was the first woman appointed as chairperson of a department in the College of Arts and Science since Harriet Baily headed the Department of Art in the 1940s. A year later, Professor Gouldner was named dean of the College of Arts and Science-the University’s largest and most diverse college, encompassing roughly half of the institution’s faculty and students. She occupied this important post for seventeen years and was succeeded by another woman, Mary P. Richards, a scholar in Old English. In 1985, Carolyn Thoroughgood, a University of Delaware alumna who taught nutrition in the College of Human Resources and later in the College of Marine Studies, was chosen dean of the College of Marine Studies.

Another non-traditional area in which University women have shown significant progress has been athletics. Although excluded from intercollegiate competition previously, University of Delaware women’s athletic teams moved swiftly into top contention among NCAA Division I schools during the 1970s. In 1978, the women’s field hockey team took second place nationally among the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) teams. Three years later, the women’s lacrosse team began a winning streak that culminated in its becoming the only team of either sex in the University’s history to win an NCAA Division I championship. In 1992-93, the women’s volleyball team was the North Atlantic Conference champion. The University of Delaware women’s athletic program won the East Coast Conference Commissioners Cup for all-around excellence seven of the nine years that the University participated in that conference.

Though there is active progress by the University toward the achievement of gender equity and Title IX compliance, an NCAA survey reported in the spring of 1992 that sixty-four percent of University of Delaware athletes are men, yet they receive over eighty percent of the available funds.9 While this disparity is partly due to the unusually high cost of outfitting the football team, before the Bob Carpenter Sports/Convocation Center opened in 1992, the locker rooms for women athletes were more crowded and generally less satisfactory than those for the men.10

The University athletics program provides an excellent benchmark for assessing the position of women throughout the University in the early 1990s. On the one hand, spectacular gains have been made toward achieving sexual equity; on the other hand, there is still room for improvement. The concept of gender equality itself is subject to different interpretations, depending on whether it is perceived as an equality of opportunity or an equality of result. The fact that women are not the same as men was used for centuries to justify severe limitations on what they said or did. It is one thing to open the doors of learning to women and to offer them the opportunity to model their lives and careers on those of men. It is another to stretch well-established educational systems and ways of thinking to include women on their own terms. The resolution of the complex issues that arise from these considerations remains the unfinished business of the women’s movement not only in universities but throughout society.

During the 1980s, the University of Delaware responded to several key recommendations from the Commission on the Status of Women. In response to a federal mandate, the University adopted a strongly-worded policy on sexual harassment, and President Trabant demonstrated his commitment to its goals by firing a vice president who failed to live up to its principles. After years of complaints from University personnel regarding lack of day care, arrangements were made whereby the Newark Girls Inc. Child Care Center would accept employees’ pre-school children into its program. Better lighting was installed along pathways and in campus parking lots to improve nighttime safety, and police call boxes were installed in conspicuous locations throughout the campus. These initiatives did not solve completely the problem of child care for University students and employees, nor did the brighter lights eliminate the threat of rape, but the commissions persistence did succeed in encouraging the campus community to address issues that affect women most seriously.

In 1990, women constituted nearly fifty-six percent of the University’s undergraduate students, forty-seven percent of its graduate students, and thirty-three percent of its full-time and part-time faculty. The increasing number of women who are studying for the Ph.D. degree at the University promises that the pool from which faculty will be drawn in the future is approaching parity between the sexes. During the 1980s the proportion of tenured women faculty increased from fourteen to nearly nineteen percent of the total. In 1991, the University Faculty Senate adopted a parental leave policy that offers faculty parents the latitude necessary to meet a promotion schedule that was originally designed for married men and single women. Yet in 1992, only eleven percent of the University’s full professors were women, a percentage that is still below the median for comparable American institutions of higher education.11

The number of women occupying senior administrative positions has continued to grow. In 1980, Susan Brynteson became the director of libraries and successfully coordinated planning for an addition to the Morris Library that has more than doubled its size. In 1989, Maxine R. Colm, an experienced personnel administrator from the New Jersey state system of colleges and universities, was named vice president for employee relations. In 1994, Susan J. Foster was promoted to the new post of vice president for information technologies. Barbara L. Kreppel and Judith Y. Gibson both serve as assistant vice presidents.

Women’s achievements have not always been so readily welcomed. The research findings of feminist scholars continue to provide seeds for debate in some academic disciplines, nor has the perception that a quota system is at work in the selection of women administrators and faculty disappeared. Although women’s share of policy-making positions has increased, their voices are still largely absent at the highest level.

Florence Geis, professor of psychology, said unconscious perceptions are a major cause of ongoing discrimination. Professor Geis performed a host of psychological tests that demonstrate that both sexes have been conditioned by their experiences to give greater credit to males than females, even when both sexes perform equally.12 The findings of her studies and those by other scholars have been collected in a pamphlet called Seeing and Evaluating People. The Office of Women’s Affairs has distributed over 2,000 copies, both within the University of Delaware and beyond,13 but it is difficult to gauge its impact because, as Professor Geis found, perceptual biases are unconscious.

Dramatic disparities continue to define career choices for both sexes in the 1990s. At the University of Delaware, women remain the overwhelming majority of students in the colleges of Education, Nursing, and Human Resources, whereas men constitute nearly four-fifths of undergraduates in the College of Engineering. The continuation of strong professional stereotypes based on sex has several explanations. Beginning with puberty, girls are less likely than boys to excel in mathematics, a fact that appears to be linked to nurture rather than to nature. While women tend to shun mathematics and come to college unprepared to pursue scientifically-based disciplines, studies also show that women prefer jobs that involve working with people over those that focus on abstract ideas and purely intellectual work, even when the latter offer higher pay. This theory would explain why women have gravitated to business careers but not to engineering, in spite of the fact that both of these fields require preparation in mathematics.14

Women’s increasing presence in the College of Engineering is of recent origin. The tiny handful of women who ignored social prohibitions to study engineering in the 1960s found their college experience and their entry into the job market fraught with discouragement and difficulties. By the 1970s, socially imposed barriers had begun to recede, but as late as 1975, the college remained ninety-six percent male. By the 1980s, the climate for women had become less chilly. Engineering has, however, remained an unusual career choice for women, not only because fewer women acquire the necessary preparation, but because there are very few women role models. Most women who go into the field receive encouragement from a male engineer in their families, but when they get to college, they see few women. For example, in the fall of 1990, the College of Engineering at Delaware employed only three, a mere four percent of its total faculty, the lowest percentage of women faculty among the University’s ten colleges. In 1992, however, the college took an important step toward improving conditions for women students with the inauguration of the Women in Engineering (WE) Industrial Mentors Program, the impetus for which came from several women engineers employed by local corporations. By bringing women engineering majors and practicing women engineers together, the program seeks to overcome the effects of sexual imbalance in the current faculty.

Compared to many women in the years before the women’s movement, most of today’s students seem neither afraid to appear intelligent nor unable to approach their college studies with the same drive toward career goals that characterize male students. Having achieved so much, women might easily become complacent in the expectation that the movement toward equality will continue under its own momentum, but the history of women at the University of Delaware suggests otherwise. Twice before, in the period from 1872 to 1885 and in the years from 1914 to 1945, women appeared to have established a firm place in the University only to have it either swept away or seriously eroded. One senior faculty member who has participated in the revival of women’s place at the University remarked during an interview for this book, "Equality is something you fight for every day."15 Universities may take the lead in making society change, but they also reflect society. And, as this history of one university has shown, it is only through the efforts of inspired, persistent, capable individuals that universities move closer to the still-elusive ideal.