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Resnick on the Women's Oral History Project

(Associate Professor Margery Resnick is former head of the Foreign Languages and Literatures Section and former housemaster at McCormick Hall. She discussed her role in the developing opportunities for women at Yale and MIT in an interview with Naomi F. Chase, assistant director of the MIT News Office.)

NFC: How is your interest in Spnish related to your work in Women's Studies and the MIT Women's Oral History Project?

MR: Women's Studies started to be identified as a discrete academic field between 1970 and 1973. When I went to graduate school--I completed my PhD at Harvard in 1971--there was no such thing. A group of women faculty started talking about Women's Studies at Yale in 1971, where I had my first teaching job, and we came up with an introductory course that would transcend various disciplines. I taught it for the first time at Yale in 1974 with Katherine McKinnon.

NFC: McKinnon is well known for her ordinances against pornography.

MR: Yes. She was one of the keynote speakers at our Harvard/MIT conference on pornography about five years ago. At any rate, by 1976, Yale started to appoint faculty who had dual competency--a traditional field plus studies in gender. This develop-ment took place well after I finished graduate school. I was taught for the most part by Spanish Civil War exiles and those sympathetic to the Spanish Republic who did place literature in an historical and social context--they were very politically aware--but not about women or questions of gender. I wrote my thesis on Pedro Garfias, a leftist poet who had been exiled from Spain in 1939 because of his anti-Fascist politics.

NFC: What was it like for women at Yale then?

MR: In 1971 we were seven women in a faculty of 1,200 and women undergraduates had just been admitted to Yale. So although I was 26 years old, and had never thought about gender as a category that determines one's experience, I could not ignore it as a faculty member or ig-nore its centrality as an issue for wo-men undergraduates. We seven women faculty members found ourselves arguing for basic facilities to accommodate the women students: bathrooms, athletic programs, suitable housing.

I was the only woman in a group of approximately 200 faculty fellows in Jonathan Edwards College and it was impossible not to notice the impact of my presence at our weekly meetings. This coincided with the publication of a number of books that looked at women's roles seriously. I became aware of the absence of women authors in the curriculum and sensitive to the place of female lives in the works I was teaching.

But I am fascinated by Spanish history and culture, and I like speaking Spanish, so I continued to develop my research in that field. I just added women's studies to that core.

NFC: Back up a minute. How did you become interested in Spanish and Spain?

MR: When I graduated from Indiana University in 1965. I had been in an honors program in poetry where four of us studied with quite a distinguished poet and translator.

NFC: Who was that?

MR: Willis Barnstone. He said "Oh, you love poetry--why don't you go to Spain and study poetry--it's great." So I did. I got a fellowship to study in Spain at the University of Madrid. I had not studied much Spanish literature in college. And in Spain I found that I did love Spanish literature--especially poetry--I liked its form and its directness in dealing with themes that often appear in a more distanced way in the Anglo-Saxon tradition: passion, death and politics. I found the bravery of the majority of Spaniards I met and their willingness to take risks by expressing their opposition to the fascist regime compelling. In 1965, my first year in Spain, writing anti-Franco graffiti on a wall could get you 10 years in jail, but many of my friends were willing to take that risk to express their ideas.

NFC: Was that the height of Franco-ism?

MR: No, it was already on the decline. The Civil War ended in 1939. The height of Franco's power was in the 1940s when there was total repression in Spain. In the 50s, some of the most stringent restrictions on Spaniards started to be relaxed for both internal and external reasons.

In the face of the Cold War, the US successfully negotiated for air bases in Spain. That ended our postwar isolation of Franco for his association with Hitler and Mussolini. The establishment of these bases brought foreigners, foreign newspapers, a connection with the outside world to Spain.

NFC: Are you from a political family?

MR: Yes. I grew up in Brooklyn. My parents supported Adlai Stevenson. They were very critical of many aspects of American politics and were acutely aware of class differences, privilege and ethnicity. They always supported the losers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, people who were outsiders. I was brought up with a social conscience, but they also sent me to Indiana University, which was very peculiar.

NFC: Was that their idea?

MR: Oh, yes. I had never even heard of Indiana, except that they had sent my sister there--she's 13 years older than I am. They just thought it was a good place for girls. That was a very politicizing event for me because I had never been in the Midwest. I had never really been out of New York City, and it was so different. It was less different going to Madrid from Indiana than from Brooklyn to Indiana.

NFC: Why is that?

MR: Madrid was cosmopolitan and people were politically aware--more like the New Yorkers I knew. There were people with brown hair. In Indiana I felt like the only brown haired person. It was odd to be Jewish, odd to be from New York, odd to be academically engaged. But I also got a lot of positive attention from my professors and was in many honors programs.

NFC: When did you get married?

MR: My second year at Yale. I was the first woman faculty resident of a Yale college where we lived for five years. My husband, Stephen Ault, who was a graduate student in English literature at Harvard when I met him, moved to Yale and commuted to his job at the City University of New York.

In 1972 I became director of undergraduate studies in Spanish, responsible for the undergraduate curriculum, faculty organization and supervision of graduate students. This was a difficult time for many reasons. First, my colleagues in my department were all very egotistical Latin men. One of them had a five-foot map of Latin America with his head superimposed on it hanging over his livingroom couch. Only one of them spoke fluent English, although they had lived in the States for years. I had to be very aware of my colleagues' idiosyncratic fantasies and fears of academic women.

During my third year at Yale the faculty as a whole reviewed "the experiment in coeducation." I listened as several respected gentlemen colleagues said things like "Coeducation is like Vietnam, the only respectable policy is withdrawal."

I can laugh about it now. The positive thing about being in a minority position was that as the token female member of many, many committees, I came to understand rapidly how uni-versities really work.

NC: What was it like for you growing up in Brooklyn?

MR: My parents were not wealthy. We lived in the same four-room apartment until I went to college. I had a scholarship to college and I always felt I had pretty much everything I wanted. Now I think about my own children (Jessica, 11, and Daniel, 4) and how much more they have materially than I had growing up. I thought everybody lived in two bedroom apartments. I never felt that I needed a house, grass, things that people often think are necessary for children. I want my own children to understand that while food, clothing, decent housing, medical care, are absolutely essential for everyone, the rest is not related to what really is important in life. Material things were never an issue in my family and it's very hard to keep that as a value with kids.

NFC: Do you see money as an issue that affects women?

MR: Definitely. We're taught that material goods enhance the way we look, the way we act, who we are. And I'm often very surprised that many women I consider totally autonomous and wonderful people on their own find attachments to men who are famous or wealthy, necessary to make them feel OK about themselves. I've never been afraid of being on my own.

NFC: Was that something that you got from your parents or grew up with--a sense of your own self esteem?

MR: Maybe, but I don't know how.

NFC: Does your mother have a career?

MR: She was an elementary school teacher and my father was a chemical engineer. My sister married as soon as she got out of college, had three children right away, and didn't go on to a career until her kids were grown. Now she has an active career. She's a school guidance counselor, but she also does private college counseling and she's enormously successful at helping kids identify what kind of school they want to go to and getting them into it.

NFC: How did you get involved with the Women's Oral History Project at MIT?

MR: In 1977 I came to MIT as head of foreign languages and literatures. My experience at Yale taught me how important it was for women to have power in hiring and promotion decision so when I decided to find another position, I looked for one that would allow me to combine teaching, research and administration. In 1976, after living in Mexico City for a year doing research, my husband and I found New Haven limiting and provincial. We wanted positions in an urban setting and that is when I came to MIT.

I was head of the Spanish program here for five years and we built a program that's one of the only departments at a major research institution where the tenured faculty is 50 percent female.

I came to the Women's Oral History Project through two different routes at MIT. One is Women's Studies. In the late 70s, Professors Jean Jackson, Ruth Perry, myself and others grouped together the courses we were teaching in various sections having to do with gender under the rubric of Women's Studies.

I was at the same time housemaster of McCormick Hall. I had used the MIT archives to create a permanent exhibit in the entry of McCormick so that students would know who Katharine Dexter McCormick was and what she had done. In using the archives, I realized that there were many women like Katharine Dexter McCormick who changed the world in significant ways using their MIT educations.

NFC: How did she change the world?

MR: She had studied biology here at MIT. She first used her knowledge (and considerable wealth) to support an investigation of the organic causes of schizophrenia--a disease her husband was afflicted with. She also supported research in birth control in a big way, funding Doctors Rock and Pincus of the Worcester Foundation, who ultimately developed the first contraceptive pills. She had a major impact in that area.

When I was asked to give a talk at the 25th anniversary of McCormick Hall, I went back to the archives--reading about Katharine Dexter McCormick's funding of Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood and her spunky participation in suffragist causes. I'd love to do a biography of her. Reading of her unswerving determination to help young MIT women in particular and all women in general reminded me that this kind of information goes largely unnoticed in historical documents.

NFC: So that was a stimulus for the Women's Oral History Project?

MR: Yes, my personal interest grew out of that. But the project itself grew out of the interests, initiative and experience of many people--Bonny Kellerman, Charlie Weiner, members of AMITA, Jane Sherwin, Warren Seamans, Helen Samuels and others. We were all interested in establishing an archive containing oral histories of MIT women graduates. The archive would provide a valuable research resource for anyone interested in women in science and technology.

NFC: How do you do an interview for the project? What do you ask?

MR: It depends on who asks the questions.

NFC: For example?

MR: For example, I am less interested in asking linear questions: when did you do X, Y and Z; more interested in the edges of their experiences--who were their mentors, did they notice a difference between their experience and that of their male peers, what motivated them to study fields traditionally the province of men, how did their dedication to their field color their personal lives.

Many of our students don't know older women. They know their mothers and family members but most of their mothers were not in science, or were not engineers. Our idea was to pair women undergraduates with women who are in the same fields. And we had to decide whom to interview. We do not want to limit our interviews to only those who achieved success measurable in conventional terms. We are also interested in graduates who didn't follow the straight and narrow path.

From the start I have felt committed to the project because we are not dealing onlywith "stars." You're too apt to lose a sense of what the web of a person's life is, if the only focus is when did you accomplish this, when did you make that discovery. And we want to get students to see that whatever path they choose, there are lots of ways they can use their education.

NFC: How have you proceeded?

MR: We have generally agreed to interview the oldest alumnae first without excluding younger women.

NFC: Which have you completed?

MR: We've completed Liz Drake (Class of '58), whose academic work has taken interesting turns, Margery Pierce(Class of '22), who has continued as a working architect since she graduated from MIT, and Leona Zarsky (Class of '41), a surgeon whose reflections on her life and work proved an inspiration to the student who interviewed her.

Even these few interviews give a truly multi-dimensional vision of what MIT is as an institution. One of the fascinating aspects of oral history is that any single transcript leads to other things. For example, one of the people interviewed recalled that a classmate married Raoul Castro (Fidel's brother), and is living with him in Cuba.

NFC: How do you train students to do the interviews?

MR: It's complicated because you have to teach them to listen carefully and to interrupt productively. It's hard for an undergraduate to interrupt an older person. You also have to show them how one story leads to another, how interesting digressions are. In most history you don't get digressions. And digressions tend to be the most interesting part of people's lives.

NFC: So what's going to happen now to this, and to the women's history?

MR: It's ongoing. We have five students working on the project. It's slow, mostly because of funding. The money comes from alumnae who have been extremely generous. We now have more than $50,000 in an endowment fund--we can only use five percent of that sum per year. We have several students who are doing the project for UROP credit. It is a complicated task but students who work on it are truly dedicated and love it. The student who interviewed Lenore Zarsky said, "This has been the most moving experience of my whole undergraduate career."

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 18).

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