Oral history project explores women in science
March 1, 2004
No women held tenured faculty positions in the College of Engineering when Denise Denton interviewed for a post in 1987.
"I remember feeling good about the talk I gave (as part of the interview process). There were no women faculty in the department, but women showed up at my talk. It made me feel good that they came out for it," Denton says, observing that she interviewed in March and it was bitterly cold that year.
She took the job, and remained on the UW-Madison engineering faculty for the next nine years. Today, Denton is dean of engineering at the University of Washington. Last fall she recounted her experiences for a new series of the UW-Madison Oral History Project that features women in science.
The series is an effort to record both the struggles and the achievements of women in science, and to help ensure that women's voices and experiences are included when historians address the history of science in the 20th and 21st centuries, says Joyce Coleman, OHP project assistant and the driving force behind the series.
Denton recalls that being the first woman on the faculty often was hard. "Men weren't used to working with women as colleagues," she says. Consequently, she made a point of helping junior women faculty who followed her.
"I reserved a room every month at the Union for women in engineering to network and share strategies about how to get through being in a male-dominated environment," she says, noting that, in time, evening sessions were added for junior faculty in science-related areas.
Denton says that it's particularly important for non-traditional faculty to get both a practical and a philosophical feel for how universities work by learning answers to questions such as these: "How do you make things happen? Where are the pressure points? How do you build alliances?"
"We're deliberately seeking as diverse a group of individuals to interview as possible," Coleman says about the project. "Our goal is to include current and emerita faculty members, scientists, graduate students and administrators, as well as women who have left the sciences or the university."
So far, about half a dozen women have told their stories on tape. Coleman says that the emphasis on diverse personalities in a variety of scientific roles probably will make it difficult to isolate trends in those different experiences. However, she notes that the need for mentorship and leadership has emerged as an informal theme in several of the early interviews. For example, Denton says that the commitment of university leaders -- people in a position to recruit, hire and set the tone for the program, department, school or college -- is critical.
"If you don't have people at the top who are pushing the diversity agenda in a meaningful way, I don't think you're going to make it," she says. "Grassroots alone isn't enough. You need both to pull it off."
Evelyn Howell, professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, echoes Denton's observations. Howell joined the department in 1975 after earning her Ph.D. from the UW-Madison Department of Botany.
"I was kind of out there by myself, doing what I could," she says. "It was helpful that I had been a graduate student here, and I could talk to folks in the botany department. They gave me a fair amount of help in terms of the concerns I had. They'd give me strategies to deal with my new colleagues in landscape architecture."
Like Denton, Howell makes a special point of mentoring graduate students.
Dorothy Pringle had a remarkable mentor in the late Helen Parsons. As a graduate student, professor of home economics and professor of nutritional sciences, Pringle was at the UW from 1949 until her retirement in 1985. She recorded more than two hours for an OHP interview last fall at the age of 84. Many of her comments focus on what made Parsons such a critical figure in Pringle's education, and a profound influence on her own teaching and research.
"She was a hard taskmaster. We accomplished what she expected or else," Pringle recalls.
She says that Parsons' approach to research made an especially vivid impression. "She was really a research-oriented scientist. She used to say, 'Research is just like detective work. You get these clues and follow them up, analyze and observe until you can come to a conclusion. Then you test your conclusion.' I admired her a lot and enjoyed her a lot. She was very good at motivating students," Pringle says.
Parsons did research on folic acid and vitamin B12. While researching the various effects of protein on kidney function, she contributed significantly to our understanding of the interaction of biotin and protein. Pringle's research centered on food habits among African Americans in Milwaukee, children in Colombia and Nicaragua, and American Indians in northern Wisconsin.
Coleman says that since her subjects have been so different, she tailors questions specifically to the person being interviewed. Topics needn't dwell strictly on science - Howell and Pringle both discuss the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, for instance. Coleman says that the totality of their experiences add up to a deeper, richer portrait of the university at a particular point in time.
As the newest OHP series, Women in Science joins existing commentaries on the teaching assistants' strike in 1970, the development of printmaking in the Department of Art since World War II and more. OHP director Barry Teicher says that this latest series will make a significant contribution to the project, a fixture on campus for almost 35 years.
"An interview series has the advantage of providing a number of perspectives on a topic," he says. "I'm very excited about this particular series because we have the opportunity to record the experiences of many pioneers in the sciences."
Coleman encourages woman who have worked in any science and people who would like to learn to do oral-history interviews to contact her at (608) 262-2777 or email@example.com.