March 22, 2003
Ask Beth Willinger if she is a good humanist and she'll laugh and point to a longstanding academic rift that places her own discipline, sociology, out in the left field of the humanities.
"I don't think their definition includes sociologists, unless it's qualified by all these guidelines," she says with amusement.
Academic gerrymandering notwithstanding, Willinger has been named Humanist of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. It's an honor that not only puts her in the company of scholars and writers such as Stephen Ambrose, Ernest Gaines and Richard Ford, but also casts a favorable light on the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, where she has presided as director since 1982.
"The embarrassing part is that the award should really be given to the center, to everybody who has ever worked here," says Willinger. "This has not been a solo effort but rather a mission accomplished by many, many people."
Founded in 1975, the Center for Research on Women saw three directors before Willinger joined some 21 years ago. Under her leadership the center has blossomed into a repository of source material for scholars researching issues related to women, as well as an academic outreach to the community. And while it may be a collaborative effort between the center's staff, scholars and participants in a wealth of programmatic activity, it is Willinger's leadership that has kept the center striving for excellence, says Susan Tucker, the center's archivist and librarian.
"Not a week goes by that someone doesn't give a presentation on the lives of women," says Tucker.
Over the years Willinger has played a key role in organizing and funding major conferences, oral histories, poetry readings, theatrical presentations and high-profile lectures by the likes of activists such as Gloria Steinem and Patricia Ireland and writers such as Maxine Kumin, Dorothy Allison and Lee Smith. (Those who remember the early days still entertain images of Willinger darting around backstage, clutching a tray of finger sandwiches or a stack of freshly printed programs.)
In fact, the programmatic activities inspired Tucker and Barbara Ewell of Loyola University to nominate Willinger for the award. The two encouraged others to write supporting letters as well. It was the breadth and depth of that support that impressed the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
"We saw a remarkable cross section from different institutions, both in the academic as well as the political realm, testifying to the importance and effectiveness of Beth's work," says Michael Sartisky, executive director of the endowment. "Among the points about her work that were frequently cited was that she has sustained and nurtured the center. She has created a network of scholars that extends the center's influence out into the political and policy realm."
Though Willinger sees herself as "very much an administrator," always on the lookout for funding and frequently called upon to sit on university committees, legislative caucuses and various task forces, she remains much in tune with the issues of the day. While the quantity and quality of scholarship on women has surpassed what many could have hoped for 20 years ago, the way in which the genders still define themselves and behave has not been as progressive.
"The part of the women's movement that has failed is at the intersection of work and family," says Willinger. While women have moved into most occupations and achieved male acceptance there, men have not demonstrated the same willingness to move into the domestic world. "Women are still going to be in charge of the kids and the household," she says.
Perhaps most startling to Willinger is when she hears young women say, "In my next life I want to come back as a man." "As long as we hear that, we know something is not right," she says. "There is a male privilege that is still not quite fair."
Nick Marinello can be reached at email@example.com.
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