This article is part of an ongoing series profiling researchers at the University of Michigan.

For University of Michigan professor Mary Kelley, a pioneer in the field of women’s studies over the past 40 years, teaching this year has felt especially meaningful in an election year with the first major party female nominee.

Kelley said her interests in higher education and public life were first sparked by the fact that she did not encounter many females when she was in high school.

“It was the absence that provoked my curiosity,” she said. “I think it was looking for women like myself; that is to say, women who had intellectual aspirations, and wanted to practice those aspirations in public life.”

She later became interested specifically in women’s studies during her time as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke University, the oldest women’s college in the country, after speaking with individuals in the field. Right after she graduated college, in 1965, she took her own first steps into the topic, publishing her first book on 19th-century American female writers that yearned to prove themselves as being capable of more than domestic housewives. During her career, she’s combined expertise in history, American culture and women’s studies to help women’s studies flourish as a legitimate discipline. As a History prof. at Dartmouth — which had only become co-ed a few years prior to Kelley’s arrival in 1977 — Kelley was part of an initiative to establish a women’s studies program and the college's women’s center, dedicated to providing a range of resources for women.

Since 2002, Kelley has been at the University of Michigan. She said she find the school substantially more diverse and accommodating of the need for women’s studies.

Women studies at the University

Today, much of what Kelley discusses in her current class draws on examples from the University. For example, for many years, women were not allowed in the Michigan Union on campus, forcing them to create their own spaces to congregate, like the Michigan League and women’s only dorms such as Helen Newberry, Betsy Barbour and Martha Cook.

Kelley said she likes that women on campus established their own spaces, regardless of existing restrictions.

“Having gone to a women’s college, I think all female spaces for certain parts of our lives, certain segments of our lives are important,” Kelley said.

She noted that because women’s studies can be an abstract field, it requires research into qualitative, not quantitative sources. For her 2006 book, “Learning to Stand and Speak”, she used archives and tangible materials to make inferences about the evolution of American women’s reading and writing practices. Her students use similar tactics to conduct their own research.

Kate Silbert, a Ph.D. candidate in history and women's studies and one of Kelley’s students, said Kelley’s redefinition of the field of higher education for women influenced her own project — exploring the history of female intellectual activity through messages from journals, paintings and architectural carvings.

“Mary’s work has done so much to both recover the ways that women have been active and engaged, especially intellectually, over the whole course of the United States as well as being very clear about the limitations that remained in terms of expectations of women continuing to be deferential or the ways in which women’s intellectual work would be filtered or condescended to,” Silbert said.

For her project, Silbert has gone to different libraries around campus to look at artifacts that show how women were able to attain the educational and political opportunities they have today, something that she noted has vast significance this election year.

LSA senior Michael Gawlik echoed Silbert’s admiration for Kelley, saying the best class he has taken so far at the University was Kelley’s Sex and Gender in U.S. History, 1600-2000. Since taking it his sophomore year, Gawlik has developed an interest in women’s studies and history, and Kelley is now his adviser for his honors thesis.

Gawlik’s thesis looks at differing literature narratives regarding prostitution in the 19th century and aims to establish how social judgments and blame of the behavior shifted from book to book.

As a man, Gawlik said he has often seen misconceptions about women’s studies — for instance, the assumption that it is only related to feminism.

“I think sometimes women’s studies is misunderstood by the general population of students and it’s seen as something that you should only be involved in if you’re a woman or if you’re a feminist, and I think it is something that is just really important because it provides you with a framework — as a history major — for looking at the past differently,” Gawlik said.

Mentorship through research

How to bring women’s studies to a more mainstream integration on campus, Kelley and her students said, remains a slight challenge. Despite her extensive work in the field, Kelley said she does not think the creation of a women’s studies requirement on campus — much like there is a Race and Ethnicity requirement — would benefit the women’s studies movement. She said the idea of integrating women’s studies into history lectures would be beneficial, but has found it sometimes unsuccessful in practice.

“The problem with mainstreaming is that it can look like it’s an add-on as opposed to just being fully part of the curriculum,” Kelley said. “The Race and Ethnicity requirement is in terms of people learning about people who happened to have been deeply disadvantaged in this culture, and certainly not all women have been deeply disadvantaged … on the basis of sex and gender. They’ve been disadvantaged to a certain extent, but not to the same extent, and I think to equate those is not appropriate.”

Silbert said she felt conflicted about whether a women’s studies and Race and Ethnicity requirement could be all-encompassing, but generally felt it would be advantageous for students to think outside their traditional realm of thinking.

“There are very visible ways that there are gender gaps between programs or certain spaces on this campus, but I’ve had the experience of teaching Intro to Women’s Studies and I’ve found in those experiences once students had language for the ways that gender can influence everything students express frustration,” Silbert said. “But I think it’s a healthy frustration so much of women’s studies is that learning to see.”

Gawlik echoed the sentiments of both, saying the current gaps in knowledge show there is room for progress.

“There are a lot of gendered ideas in American society and regardless of how liberal one’s school is, those ideas are still going to be something that students have internalized when they come to this school and that will be part of the campus culture,” he said. “So I think that even though U of M is probably more progressive than most schools … there’s still progress to be made.”

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