Women's Studies' Original Organizer

January 29, 2004

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

I'm one who tends to pick up a ball if it's bouncing my way and is a good cause," says Jean Danielson, associate professor of political science and director of the honors program.

womens studiesIn the early 1970s, the ball spinning Danielson's way was bursting with liberal feminist ideas. Danielson is completing her final and 13th year as honors director.

She also plans to retire in July from the faculty position she's held since 1965, when she was hired as the first female faculty member in the Newcomb College political science department.

At that time, women's thought and experience were almost completely peripheral to the university curriculum. Danielson herself studied political philosophy, a male-dominated field.

She was the first woman to earn a PhD in political science from the University of Kansas. But change was afoot. Thirty years ago this fall, Danielson organized the first women's studies colloquium at Tulane. New ideas about women were spreading. Danielson met other women faculty members in several academic departments who were thrilled to participate in the course that was offered to 15 students.

At dinner parties, these women "clicked" as they planned the colloquium, excitedly discussing research, politics, history, biology, anthropology, sociology, literature, children, equal rights, gender roles and how the experience of women could be addressed in their various disciplines. "None of us were radicals," says Danielson, "but all of us felt in some way, shape or form that there was a story about women as well as men and that it should be told."

Even at Newcomb College, with its long history of educating Southern women, a women's studies course had never been taught. The daughter of immigrants and from the working class of Chicago, Danielson says she had "none of the grace" of faculty members from the Southern tradition, ladies such as Fannie Rayne Russ, a 1924 Newcomb College graduate and professor of English and Biblical literature, who often wore stylish hats.

"I had a big mouth," Danielson says. "I was never afraid to articulate my ideas. So I was something different." One older, established woman faculty member expressed her alarm about women's studies to Joe Cohen, associate dean of Newcomb, telling him, "Oh, the alums will be so upset when they hear about this."

But Cohen, Danielson says, agreed with her that "to try to keep women wrapped in the cocoon of traditional Southern thought was as foolish as keeping women's feet bound in China." Barbara Moely, professor of psychology, and Joan Bennett, professor of biology, participated in the colloquium, which was a seedbed for future women's studies courses they have taught.

Bennett says, "Jean was a catalyst for the faculty. She had enough independence of spirit and feistiness. She roused the troops. Because she uses humor, she was able to do things that maybe other women couldn't. Her wit is disarming. And she's a great storyteller." Thirty years later, Bennett recalls that Danielson started the colloquium by saying, "I'm going to give the broad view." Her clever pun and deadpan delivery made everyone laugh. Danielson admits, "I'm kind of a standup comic. I can get people to relax and laugh a little bit and bring them together. That's what we really needed."

Danielson tells the story of another genteel, woman faculty member who told her, "I never heard a woman talk at a faculty meeting until you came." Danielson doesn't know if it was the truth, but apparently the "lady" faculty member believed it and told Danielson how wonderful and inspirational it was to hear her. Nowadays, of course, many women faculty members and students freely speak their minds. Women's studies is a major, and feminist thought a burgeoning, thriving academic discipline.

"Dean Jean," as she is affectionately known, has dedicated herself to the Tulane honors program. Throughout her career, she has shown a "knack for being close to students, both male and female," says Bennett. Danielson stays in touch with former students for years, keeping track of their careers and families. Danielson hears different sorts of comments from women students who come in to talk to her today than she did three or four decades ago.

She says, "They are interesting to me because it leads me to believe they think women can do anything they want, which is a good thought. They have so many options available to them. Some are harder than others but still they're out there. And they go for them, and I give them credit. "Change comes bit by bit, but all of a sudden you look back and the change is really profound."

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