I Am Part of UNC’s History Now!

This past month, I became a formal part of the University of North Carolina’s Southern History Program. I guess I’m that old, and if you want to know more about my life before becoming a writer, this is it!

Since 1973, the Southern Oral History Program has worked to preserve the voices of the southern past, collecting more than 5,000 interviews with people from all walks of life—from mill workers to civil rights leaders to future presidents of the United States. Almost 400 of those interviews focused on the history of the University of North Carolina and created source materials for study by future generations.

SOHP internsThere were four students working on the project for the past semester, focusing on the history of feminist activism at UNC:Samantha Gregg, a senior History and English double major; Liz Kennedy, a sophomore at Duke University studying History, Environmental Science and Policy, and Women’s Studies; Holly Plouff, a freshman Anthropology major; and Bryan Smith, a senior with a Linguistics and Women’s & Gender Studies double major. Bryan interviewed me.

Mary Turner Lane
Mary Turner Lane

Women for this study were chosen from the Mary Turner Lane Award winners. The award, established in 1986, is named to honor Mary Turner Lane, founding director of the Curriculum in Women’s Studies. Mary Turner (in the South, women are frequently called by both their first and middle names) was a friend of mine, and she was a formidable woman who served as a role model and mentor for many women faculty. The award is given each year to a woman judged to have made an outstanding contribution to the lives of women on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, and I was profoundly honored to be given this award a number of years ago.

20150429_130715 (2)Samantha, Liz, Holly, and Bryan presented the culmination of their semester’s work via a mixed media presentation, following feminist activism at UNC from the 1960s to the early 2000s. The presentation was quite simple in its concept: with visuals behind them, the students took turns reading quotes from the interviews, standing behind placards with the names of the women being quoted. The quotations drew a temporal picture of life as a woman at UNC, the challenges, the defeats and the successes.

When I arrived at the UNC School of Medicine, only 4% of the 700+ faculty were female full professors and only 13% were female assistant professors. There was no maternity leave, paternity leave, proximate day care, faculty associations for women to support them in their careers, formal mentoring programs, or elder care leave. Among the things I was involved in were the founding of the Association of Professional Women in Science and Medicine, the establishment of maternity and paternity leave policies, the creation of the Carolina Women’s Center, the development of a policy to stop the tenure clock for a year to allow faculty to deal with family/personal issues, and the founding of BRIDGES, a professional development program for women in any aspect of higher education. Since 1993, over 750 women have completed the annual BRIDGES programs, and I am proud to have been part of its establishment. We even had a small informal group of senior women who met to discuss life at UNC over drinks and dinner. I named it “The Ladies Knitting and Terrorist Society!”

The conclusion of the students’ program was basically “We’ve come a long way, baby” but that we have a way to go, now mostly dealing with the subtleties of gender bias. I love the idea that I will be around as part of UNC’s feminist history.

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31 thoughts on “I Am Part of UNC’s History Now!”

    1. Thank you, George. I considered working to make things better for women faculty as a challenge but an accomplishment, as important as anything else I’ve done.

  1. The interview might be very interesting for those who want to learn more about women scientists in academia. Is it available online?

  2. Elizabeth Calwell

    Wow! Noelle, I’m proud of you. You’ve done a lot to help the women’s movement and to preserve the southern voice. I don’t know how you do all the things you do. You’re a “Wonder Woman.”

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I didn’t think much about it at the time – it just seemed like the right thing to do! But that part of my life is over – now I’m just a writer!

  3. Go, Noelle!! I was trying to remember how many female academics there were in my Math/Physics environment. Nobody springs to mind, although one of my tutor group became an astronomy professor. Strange really, since Maths and computer science were then 50:50 in m/f students (undergrad females seem to be a rarity in computing these days, maybe since they renamed it computer/software/hardware engineering?).

    1. When I first began teaching, my labs were in an engineering building. There were NO female bathrooms anywhere on all eight floors. You had to walk next door! I ended up making a sign for the bathrooms on my floor so the female students had a place to go – a flip sign: woman inside, man inside.

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