Trailblazing teacher and role-model: an interview with a woman scientist who went before

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgIt's Women's History Month, and the Diversity in Science Carnival has asked us to profile women scientists. I spend a lot of time thing about the things that affect the lives of today's young women scientists, but I also know that we are preceded by some incredibly strong and brave women who faced much tougher working conditions than we. And some of those trail-blazing women in science were young not that long ago. So I'm taking this post to talk with one of those amazing women and see what has changed and what hasn't.

Over the course of two hours, I had a wonderful conversation with this woman scientist, who earned her PhD in 1974. Her research focused on ecology, and after a two-year stint at a private liberal arts college, she spent the rest of her career at an undergraduate only public institution. She taught 36 classes in 32 years, averaging 6-8 different courses per year. She never had any help from teaching assistants, so she did all of her own grading, lab prep, and lab teaching. And she also raised two kids, most of the time as a single parent. My interviewee would like to remain anonymous, so for the purposes of this post we'll call her "Dendro." Most of the time, I simply call her Mom.

I knew that Dendro was the first (and for a long time only) woman in the biology department, so I focused our conversation mainly on her pre-tenure years at the public university. (Quotes in the text below are based on my hurried note-taking and may not be literal transcriptions of our conversation. I wish I'd had a tape recorder on hand.)

SW: "What was it like when you interviewed there in 1976?"
Dendro: "Three women faculty members took me to breakfast before the start of the interview and told me not to come because the biology department was terrible toward women. They told me that the chair of the department had stood up in a faculty senate meeting and said 'over my dead body were they going to have a woman in the department.' They also told me that were complaints of sexual harassment of students in the department."

SW: "Wow. Why'd you take the job?"
Dendro: "So I knew it was a terrible college...but the job opportunity was a perfect description for me and a unique ecological and geographic setting. [Your father] and I had made a list of possible places to live, college towns where I could get a job. Near the top of both of our lists was Arcata, but I'd taken him to see [redacted] and he liked it too. I also had several grants in the region, I didn't want to stay where I was, and I was looking for a good town to raise a family."

"You've got to realize that when I was in college and high school, 1/10th of the chemistry, physics, and math students were girls. In junior high, the girls had to get into the 96th percentile on a test to get into the advanced math class. The boys only had to get into the 80th percentile. I didn't get into the advanced math class, because I didn't cheat on the test. So then I taught myself most of the topics... In 9th grade, on career day, they wouldn't let me go to the sessions about engineer, scientist, physician, forester, or architect. But I went anyway."

"My [graduate] department was a graduate-only department...Sixty faculty, only one of which was a woman (a lecturer). Some of [the faculty] had wives with PhDs but they weren't faculty."

"In my first class, my first day of graduate school, there were 2 women in the class of 20. A tall man walks in: 'I'm Steve. I just got out of the Army. I want to date. Are either of you married?' My classmate was engaged, so Steve asked to lunch after class. We dated for about a year."

SW: "So when you arrived at [public college], what was it like?"
Dendro: "My office was in the education building, because the chair told me that I'd be more comfortable there where there were other women. They [the biology department] were tight on space, but they could have made space. I was in the ed. building for 3 years. While I was on maternity leave, my [nice] dean moved me to my office with the rest of the biology department."

"In the first three years, I also never had a lecture scheduled on the biology floor. I taught general and human biology in the liberal arts building and the ed. building. For 12 years, the chair assigned me 8 am classes, 5 days a week, despite my objections and when almost no one else taught them."

"They had a faculty wives' club and they would send me printed invitations to view antique lace at 2 pm on Tuesday. Every month I would write back and say that I was a faculty member [not a wife] and that I had to teach class then. But the invites kept coming. It happened to all the women faculty."

"By the time I was there four years, 1/4 of the biology majors were people I'd recruited from my general biology class. They were almost all girls."

"Over the years, my office was mobbed by girl students in trouble. They just wanted to talk to a woman and I was a role model. In the mid-80s we started getting a lot of non-traditional students - a lot of them women with children. It was hard to advise them, because what do you tell a mother with two preschools who is struggling with algebra and who thinks she's going to be a physicist."

"Before I was pregnant with you, there were some non-traditional students trying to get a daycare center on campus. I jumped in with both feet and it took 11 years [to get the daycare]. So it started the year before your brother went to kindergarten."

Minnow: "What are you doing, Mommy?"
SW: "I'm talking with SciGram."
Minnow: "OK"

Dendro: "I started a faculty committee on women's affairs and then made one for the state university system. I also started a pay equity committee. Women were not given bargaining capability and were promoted more slowly. I was on the EEO committee and later the academic affairs committee and I chaired it. I was one of 3 female members of the faculty senate. I got propositioned by [an administrator] who was new on campus..."

SW: "Was this when you were single?"

Dendro: "No. It was between you and [your brother]. Haven't you been propositioned by a colleague?"

"The good thing was being a role model, bringing you to class when daycare wasn't available or you weren't feeling well. Do you remember playing behind the lab bench and the little desk I had for you in [my lab]? Journalism and English students were coming in and interviewing me. Mothers with children were inspired. Having a woman lecturing had to make the girls more comfortable that they could major in science."

...[incredible academic politics that I am not allowed to disclose]...

"Part of the reason I didn't fit was that I was doing research. I had a 35K grant from the EPA. I had 7 undergraduate research students. And that was really a bad thing. They took [a major requirement class right up Dendro's alley] away from me because I had experiments and [requirement] wasn't supposed to have experiments. But the next semester, the [requirement] II professor said that this was the best prepared group of students ever. I didn't get the class back for 10 years."

"After you were born, I was really trapped."

"It wasn't just me being female. It was also a generation change in teaching biology, going from memorizing anatomy to doing experiments and writing lab reports."


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SW - this is a fantastic post. Thanks for interviewing Dendro.


This is awesome and this sort of post is the reason that you're one of my favorite bloggers.

It is easy to forget how much things have changed for the better.

Dendro sounds a lot like my master's advisor, who recently retired. I am grateful everyday for those women who were willing to knock a hole in the wall that the rest of us could climb through.

By hydropsyche (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink

Wow - thank you for sharing this amazing interview! Although there is still a long way to go, it's clear that things have changed immensely in the last 30 years. Great post, and kudos (and thanks!) to Dendro for sticking with it all.

This is a great post! She is one impressive lady. Makes me think we should really take advantage of the opportunities women have now, because she helped make sure those opportunities would be there.

Thanks for posting! My mother was a microbiologist but never got to/through grad school. Can you expand on what Dendro means by the comment "After you were born, I was really trapped"?

By neurowoman (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink

Thanks for the compliments; I'll pass them along to Dendro. As for neurowoman's question - I think she meant in her ability to move to a different institution, to do extended field research, etc.

I had a women's history class that required us, for our final paper, to interview the oldest female member of our family about their lives. It was fascinating. Both of my grandmothers went to college for two years - and never used their degrees outside the home.

My mom (as a student) took me to class, too, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

However, it would be verboten today. I tried to take Bop once, and I was asked to leave.

Courtney - That sounds like a wonderful assignment. I am sad to hear that you were asked to leave class. I've allowed toddlers in my class, and I've brought my own child to class. Hopefully you'll run into more enlightened profs in the future.

This post is the perfect anecdote to a post I saw recently on a different blog, complaining that the older generation of women haven't done enough and are part of the problem. I won't mention any names.... Yes, we've still got a lot of work to do, but my god. The discrimination that our mothers faced is almost inconceivable.

My mom had very similar experiences to yours, including being asked to join the wives club in her department where a favorite topic for discussion was how much starch to put in hubby's shirts. My mother shocked them all by announcing that dad took his shirts to a laundromat and she had no idea how much starch he preferred. And, by the way, these clubs still exist! I was invited recently to a meeting of a womens group on my campus -- I went, figuring it would be female faculty, but they were all wives of [real] faculty. It was rather awkward.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink

I had no idea. Seriously. No. Idea. I gasped through all of it.

This is such an important story. Thank you for telling it.

Dendro, my hat is off to you for battling what seem to subsequent generations to be overwhelming deckstacking and willful opposition for so long to make The Academy a better place to work. For all of us.

And of course, thanks for your fantastic work in raising the kickass scientist, parent and blogger we know as ScienceWoman.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 26 Mar 2009 #permalink

You have one amazing mother. What a great real life role model to have, a what a gift she's given to a whole future generation of female biologists. Inspiring. Thank you.