‘Women of Rice’ project shines light on Rice women past and present

Thirty-five students in Abigail Rosas’ Introduction to the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality course last fall found themselves playing the role of institutional historians. Their charge: Collect on video the oral histories of Rice University women – faculty, administrators and alumnae.

The students were assigned to groups that interviewed seven women, mostly faculty and administrators. Rosas, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Humanities’ Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality (CSWGS), introduced the students to the methodology of oral history, which requires a balance between scripted and organic questions and an attentive ear and open mind. “Sometimes those unexpected detours in conversation lead to some interesting connections that you didn’t anticipate,” Rosas said.

Three "Women of Rice" project participants stood by a portrait of Alice Dean, a member of the Rice Institute’s first graduating class in 1916 and who served as the institute's first librarian from 1914 to 1947: (from left) Elizabeth Long, professor and chair of the Sociology Department; Ginny Martin, circulation manager at Fondren Library; and Venora Frazier, college coordinator at Baker College. (Photo courtesy of Angela Wren Wall)

The students asked the women about their life choices, challenges and opportunities, both at Rice and beyond their work here. “Students’ eagerness to understand the interviewees’ experiences as women and the advice they could possibly give to this future generation of women was really exciting to see and read in the oral histories,” Rosas said. “It was a good culmination for the students to recognize some of the class’s themes embodied in a real person’s life.”

Katherine Stiles, a Hanszen College sophomore, was part of a group who interviewed Hally B. W. Poindexter, professor emeritus of kinesiology and former chair of the Kinesiology Department. “There were pretty obvious connections between Hally’s experience as one of the few female faculty members at Rice and the topics we’d been talking about in class, so I thought it was a good way to see the applicability of what we’d learned in class,” Stiles said. “What I took away from the project was that I should probably ask the faculty members I know more questions about their time at Rice, because they probably have some pretty interesting stories.”

Zoe Matranga’s group interviewed Elizabeth Long, professor and chair of the Sociology Department. Matranga, a Jones College sophomore, said it was interesting to hear about Long’s firsthand experiences in a variety of the burgeoning social movements of the late 20th century. “Professor Long was involved in many fascinating organizations,” Matranga said. “She attended anti-war protests, civil rights rallies and considers herself a feminist, although second-wave feminism bothered her because she felt it did not sufficiently address race, class or sexual differences. Hearing her talk about her experiences was fascinating, because these movements weren’t simply textbook learning to her. They were — and still are — a genuine part of her life.”

The students’ projects were showcased during Women’s History Month at a special CSWGS symposium, “The Women of Rice: Our Legacy and Labor,” March 13 in Fondren Library’s Kyle Morrow Room. Speakers at the event included Rice Centennial Historian Melissa Kean and Lora Wildenthal, associate professor of history and chair of the History Department, who spoke about the origins of women as an institutional concern at Rice. Also showcased was a digital humanities project led by a group of graduate students to document the contemporaneous developments of Rice first housing women on campus and admitting African-American students between 1957 and 1965.

In addition, a Fondren Library photo exhibit titled “The University Works Because We Do” will display the portraits of eight women, some of the many whose labor sustains the university, through the end of the semester. The portraits were taken by Rice alumna Hallie Jordan ’12. Among the women featured in the exhibit are Norma Cardona, meal plan administrator for the College Dining Service; Nancy Rowe, grounds specialist with Facilities, Engineering and Planning; and Mary Santos, staff assistant in the Athletics Department.

The “Women of Rice” oral history project is part of a larger initiative spurred in the aftermath of Rice’s centennial year by a longtime faculty member, Emeritus Professor of English Linda Driskill, said Rosemary Hennessy, CSWGS director and professor of English. At the time of Driskill’s retirement in 2013, she was less interested in a retirement celebration and more concerned about doing something that gave attention to women’s legacy at Rice as the institution was marking its 100th anniversary, Hennessy said.

Planning conversations were held by Hennessy, Driskill, Rosas, Kean, Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies Dean Mary McIntire ’75, Rice Professor in the Practice of Humanities and CSWGS Assistant Director Brian Riedel and CSWGS Coordinator Angela Wren Wall. “Out of our conversations, it really made sense to focus on women’s labor, because that’s what makes so much at Rice work on all different levels,” Hennessy said. “It’s that broad view of women’s often invisible labor that we thought needed to be in the spotlight.”

The students’ videos, the digital portraits and the related transcripts will be archived in Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center. Oral histories from future CSWGS courses will be added to the collection.

Additional details about the March 13 event can be found on the CSWGS website at http://cswgs.rice.edu/ricewomen.

About Jeff Falk