By Hannah Hayes
Photo courtesy of University Archival Photographic Files

While it might have been simpler to craft a triumphalist narrative, we really looked at how women have fared over time, and that varies”
—Katherine Turk
UChicago Doctoral Student in History

As she immersed herself in the oral histories of women who came before her, Deborah Megdal, AB’08, couldn’t help but see her experience as a woman at the University of Chicago in a new light.

On one hand, the University was the progressive place that accepted women as students from the day it opened its doors in 1892. On the other hand, it was the place where nepotism policies through the middle of the 20th century prevented some women from pursuing careers at the University if they were married to a tenure-track professor.

“The image I recall the most is of one woman talking about how each morning, nine out of 10 housewives sweeping their row house steps in Hyde Park have PhDs,“ says Megdal, who will attend Yale Law School in the fall. “I remember thinking as I listened that I’m lucky that I would never have to do that today.”

Then she thought about where she fit in that narrative: “I think back to the people who got me involved in gender studies, who changed the trajectory of my life—the kind of attention and support I had—those women had none of that.”

Megdal transcribed many of those interviews for a project by the Center for Gender Studies, begun in 2004. Excerpts from the 71 oral histories she and her fellow undergraduates plumbed now provide the soundtrack for a University Library exhibition, “On Equal Terms”: Educating Women at the University of Chicago, which will be on display through July 14 in the Special Collections Research Center. Research for the exhibition also spawned an undergraduate course on the history of women and a companion exhibition at the Center for Gender Studies.

“The title sums up so many moments when the University administration, really in good faith, thought they were providing what was best for women,” says Monica Mercado, who is a co-curator of the Library exhibition along with fellow doctoral History student Katherine Turk. “Reality often conflicted with that ideal.”

Through photographs, archival material, and audio recordings, “On Equal Terms” illustrates the everyday students, faculty, staff, and even faculty wives at the University.

“It’s a very uneven story where the University was out ahead in certain aspects of co-education and behind in others,” says Deborah Nelson, Director of the Center for Gender Studies. “It’s really an evolving story of higher education that’s still going on right now around the hiring and promotion of women faculty and the Work-Life initiatives coming out of the Provost’s office.”

Struggle for ‘Equal Terms’

In 2007, Turk and Mercado were hired to create the exhibition, and they delved into 68 different Library archives, from the papers of individuals to administration records to University publications like Cap and Gown.

“We found a lot of surprising things,” says Turk. “While it might have been simpler to craft a triumphalist narrative, we really looked at how women have fared over time, and that varies.”

When the University incorporated as a co-educational campus in 1892, its charter vowed to “provide, impart and furnish opportunities … to persons of both sexes on equal terms.” It was a bold statement for any institution to make in an era when the “biological destiny” of women as wives and mothers was the accepted norm.

In a society wary of co-education, women struggled against the limitations aimed at “protecting” them. For more than a century, women have struggled to remain true to its promise of “equal terms.”

The exhibition highlights pioneers and important dates in women’s history at the University, including:

  • Marion Talbot, the Dean of Women, who from 1895–1925, was everything from dorm mother and mentor to faculty member and administrator
  • The opening of Ida Noyes Hall in June 1916, specifically to fulfill the social needs of women
  • The appointment of Hanna Holborn Gray as the first woman President in 1978
  • The start of the contemporary women’s movement and the establishment of JANE, an organization that University women and women in Hyde Park led, which provided some 11,000 safe abortions prior to Roe v. Wade
  • The response to the Neugarten Report in 1970, which called for the hiring and retention of more women faculty

Giving A Voice to Women

The oral histories tapped alumnae dating from 1935 to tell their stories, and the result was candid accounts of life on campus both academically and socially. Mercado and Turk also taught an undergraduate class on the history of women in the Fall of 2008 based on their research.

Undergraduate students in the class used archival materials to build a companion exhibit, The Life of the Female Mind: Gender and Education at the University of Chicago, which will run April 1 through June 13 in the Center for Gender Studies.

Nelson points out that while the University did not establish a centralized Gender Studies program until 1996, both exhibitions demonstrate what happens when gender studies is institutionalized.

“There was a lot more attention to gender in the curriculum because it got worked into all different departments and became very much a part of University life.”

And while Women’s History Month may provide an appropriate backdrop for the exhibit, Nelson calls it a history rather than the history.

“We’re hoping it’s a foundation to start from.”

Originally published on March 16, 2009.