In 1950, doctoral candidate Elizabeth Douvan began working at the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center and joined the Psychology Department as a lecturer in 1958. By 1970, the year a sex discrimination complaint was filed against the University, she had been promoted to full professor and held an endowed chair.
Douvan was one of the few professors who was a member of FOCUS on Equal Employment for Women. She brought her professional skills to the task of organizing and presenting the statistical data that backed up the complaint, which was investigated by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).
This oral history was conducted as part of a project marking the 25th anniversary of the Academic Women's Caucus, a successor organization to the Commission on Women that was created in response to HEW's findings. Douvan recalls her experiences as a female faculty member, and the range of experiences she had with male colleagues, both positive and negative. As a result of the HEW complaint, Douvan's salary was more than doubled, but she did not receive back pay for the nearly 20 years during which she had worked at a lower salary than her male peers.
In the interview, Douvan expresses a more positive view of U-M President Robben Fleming than the one held by Jean King and other women activists. She recounts an anecdote in which Fleming described how he helped promote the career of Barbara Newell, his top female aide, who played a prominent role in the resolution of the complaint. But Douvan also warns younger women about taking the gains they have made for granted.
Douvan was known for the surveys she conducted, tracking changes in American social trends beginning in the 1950s. She also helped found the Women's Studies Program at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s. She died in 2002 at the age of 76.
Interview of E. Douvan
Transcript of Interview
Interviewer: Elizabeth Duell = EDL
Respondent: Elizabeth Douvan = EDV
Date of Interview: December 20, 1999
EDL: We have Professor Elizabeth Douvan with us. She was involved in some of the very early times here at the University in women's issues. We'd like your recollection about the climate for women in the early days, and any information you can give us. And sort of contrast it with what it may be like today.
EDV: I'd be delighted. I think it's hard for women today . . . for young women to realize that although the atmosphere was negative for women, that is it was difficult to get a position in the University and it was unusual, that is like you'd be the lone person like Elizabeth Crosby in the neuro-anatomy area was the only woman, I think, for many, many years who had a regular faculty position in the medical school.[A] We had a woman in psychology for many years before anything sort of broke.
But I think it's hard to recognize that because there were so few women and because the atmosphere was chilly, we were just glad to have a place where we could do our work (chuckles). I mean, it sounds so reactionary now, you know. But people would say . . . one dear old friend of mine said to me and to his wife who is a world famous historian, he said, "Doesn't it really get you that you don't get paid what your male colleagues get?" And she and I looked at each other and laughed and said, "Not really." It didn't bother us. I mean, we were so grateful to have a place where we could do good work and enjoy our students and do our research that the fact that we didn't get paid very much didn't really seem to count for much with us. Now that does seem really crazy today. You know, I can't imagine myself sitting in that position today. But it was true that . . . and I think that's a reflection of how really constraining the atmosphere was at that time.
Let me just say . . . I think there were places in the University that were better for women. And I happened to be in one of them. The psychology department was very advanced. We had three or four women by the time I became a faculty member.
And I love to tell the story of how I became . . . how I got on the regular tenure track. I had been teaching for years, of course, but always as a lecturer or some non-tenured position. And one day I ran into Bill McKeachie in the hallway. He was our chair at that time and he said, "Hey Lib, I think . . . don't you think you should go on the tenure track now that your children are a little older?" I said, "But Bill, I'm only part time and I thought you couldn't go on the tenure track part time." He said, "Well, that's true. But I think it's time to fight that rule."[B]
So that was really so thoughtful and generous because I think a lot of what happened that stood in the way of women advancing in the University was really unconscious. I mean, I think most of the men, once it was pointed out to them, they responded. But Bill McKeachie thought of it on his own, I mean, that he picked out this sort of what he considered a flaw in the system that affected women and said, "I think it's time that we fought that rule. So clearly I was in one of the better positions in the University right from the start. But there were lots of cases for us to fight about as an organized group of women for the whole University. And there were other constructive tasks I think, for us to do.
At one point, the Caucus developed a list based on a list that I got from a friend at Berkeley of things for young women faculty to pay attention to. "Never give a speech without recording it. Never . . . never spend your time just on speeches, unless they can be easily turned into a publishable article. Never do so and so. Be sure you do this. Be sure you do that. Build your dossier so that no one can question when you come up for tenure." So we did things like that which I think were quite helpful in sort of opening up the opportunities for young women. We also ended up giving this to young male faculty too because it was important for them as well. But the impetus came from recognizing that because women were inexperienced in this field, they could easily overlook some of the things that helped in the struggle to get tenure. So that was one thing.
The other thing that I helped with was the starting of the Women's Studies program. And I think that was very helpful for women generally on campus, whether they were interested in Women's Studies or not. Just having legitimacy attached to research that had to do with women's lives, I think revalued women who perhaps hadn't thought about their lives as being distinctive or having special issues and problems and burdens and so forth. So I think the development of that was very crucial. Michigan was pretty good overall, I think, compared to what my friends at the Eastern private institutions talk about their situation. They were in many cases, much more blatantly discriminated against than we were. And it is interesting, as I say, that as soon as it was pointed out to people that women were being given the shaft, so to speak, there was a lot of response from our male colleagues. Not uniformly, but a lot of people who had a lot of power said, "Well, you know, that's true. That's not really right. And we'll have to see if we can't do something about it.
Of course, one of the things that caused . . . that created a lot of stirring, ferment and change was this external group, FOCUS, whom I'm sure you've already talked to, who challenged the University by bringing a suit for discrimination. And I was a member of that group. It was organized by Jean King, a local attorney who has a wonderful sort of record of pushing the
[p. 3]envelope on women's issues. And Jean found . . . I mean, she was alarmed when she discovered how much . . . how consistently women were paid less than men on the faculty. So she called a group of women together and we decided it was time to do something. And she and Mary Yourd . . . both of these women had very close ties to the University, but they were not faculty members. And it was decided that that would be better for them to bring the suit, challenge the University because the women on the faculty might get some kickback from taking part in that.
So they brought this suit, and I understand that there is a record of Mr. Fleming's response, that is that he at first said, "I'm sure we can weather this and it will all go away." Pretty soon, two weeks later, he was saying, "Well this is turning out to be a lot tougher than I ever expected," and so forth. I mean, they held up some millions of dollars worth of contracts, and it was a terrible irony that the first contract held up was in the public health school and it was something that women really supported. But in the long haul, that had to be yielded temporarily in order to make the point that we really wanted to make.
So at that point, as I always say to people with just a slight bit of hyperbole, my salary doubled when they were mandated to go through and check on the question of discrimination. I had been making probably $14,500 as a full professor, and my salary went up into the $30,000 somewhere, and I could remember Charles Trinkaus in the history department,[C] who was an old friend, said, "Well Libby, did Alan Smith[D] offer to give you the money for all those years that you worked for half pay?" I said, "Charles . . . let's be real (laughs)." Anyway, that was an exciting time and I think was critical in bringing about some of the changes. Now in subsequent administrations in Washington, I think that the EEOC[E] has been so watered down that I'm not sure they would have held up the contracts today. I mean, I just think there's been . . . I guess today they would, but certainly during the Nixon . . . the Reagan era, I think they would have said, "Well, that's just the way it is." By that time, their budget had been cut and they didn't have that many investigators. And I think that was a critical moment in history to bring a suit which would then really bring about some changes. So it was a luck issue partly, a luck of timing.
Anyway, I have also a wonderful story about Robben Fleming, which I hope he wouldn't mind my telling, and I'm sure he probably doesn't even remember, so many things happened to him during this era. At one point, he was going to appoint a provost, and it was quite clear that it was going to be Frank Rhodes.[F] And the women on campus were not wild about that idea. So a group of us . . . It was Sarah Power, who was a Regent at the time, and Nellie Varner, who was the Affirmative Action officer in Mr. Fleming's office, and Zelda Gamson from sociology and a wonderful women, whose name I've unfortunately forgotten, who taught in the business school. She taught
[p. 4]business writing. Her name was Mary and she was married to a man who was a political scientist in the department. Anyway, she was just wonderful.
So we all met with Mr. Fleming to say, "Please be careful who you appoint." And he must have been living under a lot of strain at that point, and he got very annoyed with us and was really, I would say, edging on rude. He said, "That is none of your business. That is my appointment. I have to clear it with the Regents, but that's my appointment and I don't have to take the advice of any group like yours."
So . . . and then I think he was a little embarrassed about having come back so hard on us. So he said, "You know, women have not had the kind of experience you need to become provost. I mean it's just unlikely that we would have women candidates who would have that kind of background." He said, "For example, when I brought Barbara Newell here from Wisconsin, if you go back and look in the press, or any of the press reports, you'll see that every time Barbara had to make a critical decision, she hadn't really had that experience before. I was there with her. I always backed her. I supported her. I made a visible presence so that she had the support to go through it for the first time."[G]
Nellie Varner, bless her soul, said, "Mr. President, that's all we're asking of you. That you should treat women now the way you treated Barbara at the time, that if we don't have the background, someone has to give us a leg up." Well, it was just a stunning response and he thought about it and was much more positively oriented toward us on the way out than he had been on the way in. Anyway, I thought that was a quite lovely story. And certainly Robben Fleming has done a lot for women.
And I think Jim Duderstadt[H] made a striking contribution in making it such a public issues, saying this is the way . . . this is what we're going to aim for and we want to make sure that women have an equal opportunity and so forth. And in talking with my colleagues and friends, it's clear that that probably was influenced by his daughters' experiences. The same with Harold Shapiro, I think.[I] Once their daughters were in medical school or in the basic sciences and they discovered that they really were discriminated against, I think those fathers learned a lesson in a way that probably no political orientation could give them. Do you know what I mean? It hit home.
Anyway, so things were mixed, I'd say, in the early days. They were not good. I mean, that is women were excluded from a lot. But on the other hand, we were used to it being so bad that we didn't really see it. I can remember in the women's movement, sometimes when I'd go to a conference, I was struck by how often the women who were obviously political . . . I mean, they had an agenda, how often they would say, "Of course there is discrimination, but I never experienced it." I mean, these were stellar women
[p. 5]who clearly experienced it. I mean, there was no way that they could have not found that they didn't get paid as much as their male colleagues or didn't get the kind of recognition, never became chairman, never moved up in the power structure. And I thought little by little that diminished. You didn't hear that as much.
But there were certain people who never took that position, who knew perfectly well that they were discriminated against, and spoke out. And little by little, these other wonderful women who have done such stellar work, said, "Well, maybe it was really discrimination. You know, the fact of the matter is I didn't progress as quickly as my male colleagues. And maybe that really was part of a system that nobody intended, but everybody adhered to in their actual behavior. They always thought . . . "Well, I can remember when I came up for promotion, or I guess it was that time when Bill put me up for tenure. So it meant that I'd go from lecturer to associate professor. And a very dear friend of mine; a man that I have very positive, sweet feelings about, Edward Borden,[J] one of the clinicians in our department said, and I got this through the grapevine . . . I mean somebody came right out of a meeting and told me that Ed said, "Well, did they really think it was fair to put me in the position in a regular tenured position where I would be competing with young males who didn't have the major responsibility for raising little children?" So it was putting me at a disadvantage. And I'm sure he meant it completely, honestly that this was going to somehow handicap me to be on the tenure track. Well, you can see, he had a wife who was a very active professional and intellectual. He certainly didn't mean to put women down, but in effect, that's [w]hat his behavior would do. If they didn't give me tenure because they thought it would be hard on me (chuckles). I mean, they don't say that kind of thing about a young male they're putting up, "This is going to be really hard on him because he has to do the dishes at night." You know, nobody would think of doing such a thing.
Anyway, so I think there was a lot of unconscious collaboration with a system that was essentially unjust. And I think we've come a long way. I think we are really . . . I mean if you look at certain departments . . . our department is fabulous, of course, and we have this wonderful woman chair, Pat Gurin.[K] So we have lots of women in the department and they are just burgeoning. But in English and history, I mean those were, in the old days, the bastions of conservative positions, where men would say they didn't think women should do it because it was too tough a game, you know and that sort of thing. And now there are like, I don't know, six or seven outstanding women in each of those departments. Martha Vicinus[L] was the chair for a long time and it's just a different ballgame, really. It's just completely changed. Not all departments. I think we do have some departments that still have what we call a revolving door. They hire very young women, but then they never give them tenure, so then they have to
[p. 6]leave. A couple of really egregious cases come to mind. So in any case, I think over the whole University there's been enormous change, and I think a lot of it done with real grace. I mean, someone like Duderstadt declaring these objectives about discrimination and that we were going to have open opportunity and it was going to be for everyone. And that was just a great help; a great response.[M]
EDL: What sorts of things would you advise younger people nowadays?
EDV: Well, I think something you said earlier, that you can't assume that we are on the way to Utopia. You can't assume that this is going to be an automatic movement to a better and better life. I learned that as a very young person. I mean, I was in college during the second world war and I just assumed, because all I had ever really known was the Roosevelt administration, I just assumed that life was just going to continue to be better and better and we'd get more justice and there would be a more equitable distribution of the fruits of labor and so forth. Then it came as a terrific shock when the forces of reaction, who had just been waiting in the wings, came out to destroy a lot of the progress that had been made toward a more just society.
Well anyway, so I think for young women, I would say, "Don't take it too much for granted. I mean it's true that you don't have the same fight that people had in the ‘60's, but you still have to be prepared to defend the gains that have been made. And they could slip away. So take notice. Be careful. And keep asserting your right to the fruits of everyone's labor."
So I guess that's my main thing. I think a lot of young people . . . we one time at the beginning of the women's movement, we started some support groups in the psych department for women. And a couple of the young women; very, very ambitious, said they didn't have time for support. I loved that. I mean, that's so bitter to think . . . So you have to be willing to recognize that what . . . see when those older women said there was discrimination but not to me, because I always had these wonderful male patrons so to speak, what they are ignoring is really progress in the world is not made by individual effort. It takes a lot of collective action. So hang in there. Remember you should be solidary with other women. Fight for the right wherever you see it, and maybe we can maintain the great gains that we have accomplished; that have come our way and have been the results of collective action.
EDL: Thank you very much. This has been very informative. It's interesting to find out the early beginnings and the progress that has been made. I don't know if there's anything else that you might want to touch on. I found this to be very interesting.
EDV: One of the things I thought was really nice about both the Caucus and the Commission was that they didn't. . . . they weren't so determined to go with
[p. 7]the normal academic hierarchy. You know that included both staff women and faculty and I think that's been characteristic of the women's push in the academic world; that to want to align with women of very different sort of statuses within a structure, that we refuse to make the kinds of discrimination that have been traditional. And that seems to me a very good thing. Thanks, Elizabeth.
EDL: Thank you very much.
(end of interview)
Transcribed by Kathleen Peabody
Ann Arbor, Michigan
A. Elizabeth Caroline Crosby was on the faculty of the University of Michigan's
Anatomy Department from 1920 to 1959. Crosby was the first woman appointed as the
Henry Russel lecturer, recognizing the faculty member judged to have made the
most significant contribution to the advancement of their field of specialty. Douvan was
the second woman to receive that honor.
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F. Frank H.T. Rhodes was appointed vice president of academic affairs in 1974, after
serving as dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. He later served as
president of Cornell University.
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G. Barbara Newell came to the University of Michigan with Robben W. Fleming. She
was serving as acting vice president for student affairs when the HEW complaint was
filed and then returned to her job as Fleming's executive assistant.
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J. Edward S. Bordin joined the Psychology Department in 1948 as an associate professor
and chief of the Counseling Division; he served as director of the Counseling Center for
most of the next few decades. His wife, Ruth Bordin, completed her manuscript, Women
at Michigan: The "Dangerous Experiment," 1870s to the Present, shortly before she
died. Ruth Bordin's own struggles as a female scholar are described in the Foreward and
Preface to that book.
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