Professor of Psychology
Interviewed on October 3, 1979
Rights and citation information
[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions.]
Professor Rose Olver
Professor of Psychology
In her office, Appleton Hall
October 3, 1979
Horace W. Hewlett
For: Amherst College
This is Horace Hewlett talking with Professor Rose Olver in her office in Appleton Hall on Wednesday, October 3.
HWH: Rose, I sent you a number of questions, let’s refer to that as we start.
HWH: I’ll just read the first question which is the longest...
OLVER: Fine. Yes, I think it does give a bit of the history of women at Amherst.
HWH: I would like to get that into the record.
OLVER: Yes, I think that is important.
HWH: (Reading) The first woman faculty member at Amherst College was an ad interim instructor during World War I. Next were a visiting professor and a visiting associate professor during World War II. In 1957, and again in 1959, a visiting associate professor was appointed. All of these appointments were for one-year terms. You were the first full-time appointee, as an instructor, in 1962 and became the first-- and only-- full professor in 1973. Is this record similar to that of other previously all-male colleges, or is it peculiar to Amherst?
OLVER: Unfortunately I don’t have the data on other previously all-male colleges. I would suspect, although I like to believe that Amherst is unique, that in this regard it’s not-- that probably not only at all-male colleges but coeducational institutions as well there were very few women in regular faculty positions. From my own experience, I went to Swarthmore, a coeducational institution, I had one female faculty member. She was an instructor in French-- languages, women, all those things traditionally go together. And when I was a graduate student I had no regular professors who were women-- occasionally a guest lecturer, Florence Kluckhohn in anthropology-- but my role models were few and far between, so that I think that the fact that Amherst did not have women as regular members of the faculty is probably what was going on in American society. The only statistics I have seen, in the end of the ‘sixties, 1969, nine percent-- and this is all colleges and universities-- nine percent of the full professors were women. So that’s a pretty small percentage.
HWH: It is.
OLVER: Clearly that data would be available. Someday when I get time maybe I’ll look and see what happened at Bowdoin, Williams, other institutions.
HWH: Amherst made so much of bringing women into the faculty, very consciously. I suppose other colleges have that experience, too.
OLVER: I suspect so. Certainly Amherst had a big upswing in the numbers of women in 1974, which I think is interesting because that pre-dates the decision to go coeducational. There wasn’t the matter of bringing women students in and thinking, oh my goodness, we’ve got to have women faculty, but a commitment to having women on the faculty prior to having them as students.
HWH: Do you suppose that having women here under Five-College Co operation had something to do with that?
OLVER: Well, I think that’s a murky area. Even at all-female institutions, from my grapevine, not from any hard information that I have, all-female institutions would boast about the numbers of male faculty that they had. So I’m not sure that people really felt that it was important to have women as role models until we began to discuss in the debates on coeducation just how to do coeducation “right,” I think the phrase was. But there were a few women, as you know, who gradually came in during the ‘sixties and it was always a great joy to me to have a female colleague and I became very good friends with many of them-- Lowell Eayres in Anthropology, Ellen Ryerson in American Studies. But I think the attention to the need for women to teach certain kinds of students really grew at Amherst out of our discussions on coeducation.
HWH: I think Mount Holyoke prides itself on having more women on its faculty than it does men.
OLVER: That’s right. I’m not sure what their present statistics are, but I think their general approach had been to argue that women faculty were important people to have around.
HWH: So they finally got a woman as president.
OLVER: Well it’s kind of nice to see women in a lot of positions. From the perspective of 1962, one wouldn’t have imagined that they would be. I guess this rather leads into the second question, which was how I became associated with Amherst College. Certainly I was not sought because there was some need to have a woman on the faculty. Rather, it was all kind of happenstance, in fact. I came to Amherst, came to the Five-College-- then one-university and three-college-area because my husband had a job here. He was in the Chemistry Department at UMass and I thought we were very liberated for our time-- that is, he looked for his first jobs after graduate school in areas where I might be able to find a job. I had originally applied not for a regular faculty position at Amherst, but for a research associate. At that time very few women were in regular faculty positions. They were in the academic world but usually in the position of research associate; they would work with someone, do research usually on soft money and obviously not on any kind of tenure track. Since I had few regular faculty as role models, I looked around and I saw, when I was a graduate student, women working doing research, raising their families, somehow juggling and balancing all that, so that’s what I thought I would do. It was late in the year when I applied to Amherst because I waited until John had gotten his position. I’d been at Harvard, and a man who had just accepted his position at Amherst had given a colloquium, so I had summoned my courage and written to him and said, “Do you need a research associate?,” and he replied, saying that, in fact, he had decided not to take the job at Amherst, why didn’t I apply for it. So all of a sudden I was in the position of saying, “Well, gee, why not?” The thing I thought I was going to apply for was not available, so I asked my thesis advisor to call Ted Koester, chair of the Psych Department, and suggest my name for the job. As I understand it-- now all this is gossip and second-hand and you know people like to make a good story, so that you may want to check bases with other people who know the other side to this. I understand that when my thesis advisor suggested my name, he was told that Amherst did not hire women. That’s back, you know, in 1962, no legal bar to saying things like that. And my thesis advisor, being a man of some encouragement of women in a scholarly way, said “Why not?” And I guess Amherst couldn’t come up with a reasonable reason why not. Also I think, being that they, the Psych Department, had thought it had things lined up for the following year and having someone then say they weren’t going to be joining the faculty, had left them in a bind. I mean, one does have to get course descriptions in and know what you’re going to teach, so that I think there was a real need within the department to hire someone. It was late in the year, and there I was.
HWH: This was in the spring of ‘62?
OLVER: Yes, it must have been April-ish. You know, past the usual hiring season. So that the fact that I’m at Amherst, I think, was a bit of surprise to the faculty and the administration. I understand that Ted Koester checked around with his colleagues and said, “What would Amherst think of having a woman faculty member?” I don’t really know, I’m not sure I want to know what they said, but he did offer me the job. And I think it even perplexed the President, Cal Plimpton. When he offered me the job on the phone he said, “What have you done to my psychologists?” Now, I didn’t think I’d done anything to them; I’d just applied for a job. So I’m here all because my husband got a job in the area, and because Amherst didn’t have the quick answer to “Why don’t you hire women?”
HWH: Cal Plimpton, of course, was President then. Was he at all surprised? I believe you just said, “What have you done to my psychologists?”
OLVER: Yes. He has told me since that he’s proud of himself for having hired the first regular faculty appointment given to a woman. The trouble is that the world has changed and how one looks back upon things one did long ago depends upon what the current norms are. At that time I don’t think there was any particular prestige to hiring a woman. There were no affirmative action quotas to be filled, things like that. I certainly am appreciative of the fact that he did. And he’s been personally supportive. He took me-- you know the institution of morning coffee, which is not something that junior faculty had attended back in the early ‘sixties-- Cal Plimpton made a point to take me down to morning coffee, introduce me around, so that he certainly did more than just the obligatory things of signing the papers and welcoming me to the campus, but made an effort to see that I got introduced.
HWH: Given your Swarthmore and Radcliffe background, do you think you would have preferred to teach at a coeducational or women’s college?
OLVER: Well, coeducational. And I worked very hard on various committees and so forth-- the Select Committee on Coeducation, and I was on the CEP in preparing the casebook on coeducation, because I think that that’s the way that education ought to be. I’d never really had much experience with all-female institutions. I went to Radcliffe as a kind of administrative thing, that is Radcliffe was an undergraduate college which was separate from Harvard, and as a graduate institution Radcliffe was the administrative admission, signing-of-papers for women entering Harvard. The Harvard Department made the decisions about graduate students and then the men were routed through the Harvard administration, the women through Radcliffe. So I haven’t felt really very closely identified with Radcliffe as an all-female institution. I guess my views on that may well have changed in the past seventeen years, that is, I can now see a very staunch role for all-female institutions that at that time my experience just didn’t encompass.
HWH: That has come, of course, since you began your professional career.
OLVER: That’s right. I’ve seen and had to grow along with a lot of changes.
HWH: Did you have any problems, when you joined Amherst, facing an all-male faculty and student body?
OLVER: That’s a tough one! I think probably I had more problems than I knew about and that I was well protected, in a sense, because I didn’t know how the institution treated faculty in general. I’ve tried to give some thought to that, because all along that’s been one of the key things. When I first came here I would be interviewed by the student newspaper, the Alumni Magazine, and they would say, “What are the difficulties, what are the problems?” And at that time I was just so pleased to have a real honest-to-goodness job, conveniently located where I could keep my family life together and at a very prestigious institution, that I could hardly see that there were problems. But looking back on it, I think one of the big areas of difficulty was what I might call professional socialization, because I think that I was cut off from a lot of the informal contacts among faculty. I participated, obviously, in the classroom, in staff courses within the department, but I couldn’t join the Faculty Club and I had difficulty imposing myself on the faculty lunch crowd-- you know, those that were gathered around a circular table, it takes a certain amount of bravery or pushiness that I don’t think I have to push yourself into that kind of situation. You know the Faculty Club stories, maybe you know them better than I. Were you on the Board of Governors back then?
HWH: No. I’m not aware of... no.
OLVER: Well, as I understand it-- and again people try to make a good story, I think, as they look back on past events-- the Board of Governors of the Faculty Club searched the constitution of the Faculty Club very carefully with the hopes that they would find that the Faculty Club was limited to male faculty. But apparently in framing that language, no one had ever thought that they needed to make that limitation. What resulted then was that a senior member of my department came to me and said, “Rose, we find we must invite you to join the Faculty Club, but we really hope you won’t.” And the conversation was that it would make people uncomfortable. It’s always been an all-male kind of situation and, as I understand it, even faculty wives did not approach the Faculty Club. If they wanted to get hold of their husbands, they left a note on the doorstep. So that for a woman to walk into that situation would have disrupted a lot of norms. I guess what one does, if a senior member of one’s department says, “You ought to turn this down,” one says, “Oh, I didn’t mean to trouble anybody; of course I won’t join.” And that was my stand the first year. The second year I was just included in general mailouts and did join the Faculty Club. A professor on the faculty inquired as to my intentions on that, thought it would be all right if I really thought I would enjoy doing those things-- his implication was that I probably wouldn’t-- but if I was there just to try to make trouble, then he thought maybe I ought to turn it down again. And I allowed as how I didn’t want to just make trouble, but that in order for me to be a fully functioning member of the faculty, I needed to have some contact with my colleagues and hoped that the Faculty Club might provide that.
HWH: This was when the club was located down...
OLVER: In the White Homestead. And as I understand it, the key problem was that there were no toilet facilities for women, and the argument was that this was a difficulty. More recently I have heard that the real difficulty was that some members of the faculty said that they had never closed the door to the men’s room and they didn’t intend to start doing it. So that at my first dinner at the Faculty Club, Ted Koester took me, and, you remember, they used to eat down in the basement, and we assembled in the upstairs part and had to walk by the men’s room, so as we approached the dangerous area, Ted Koester said, “Eyes right!” And so I looked carefully away from the open door of the men’s room and went down the stairs. But since then I’ve been president of the Faculty Club and the world certainly has changed.
HWH: You didn’t become a member until your second year here?
OLVER: Yes, right. I didn’t come to Amherst to try to shake up the traditions. I have since developed that intention-- the all-male student body, I think it’s better that it’s become coeducational. But I raise that as an example of how there are a lot of things outside of the classroom that a faculty member participates in that, because I was female, were not easily accessible to me. And I think that for that reason several older members of the faculty I regard very highly because they did make an effort to extend to me a kind of mentor relationship-- the people I served with on committees, Ted Greene, Tom Yost; Joe Epstein asked me to teach a course with him, which I did, and that was very influential in terms of my understanding what it was to teach at Amherst. Bob Birney in my own Department, a very busy man, but I could catch him for a cup of coffee and some conversation just about the College and what it was to be a faculty member, what kinds of things you had to emphasize, how you somehow combined research interests and teaching, with everything taking too much time, and how you weighed and balanced. So that there were people who I remember very fondly for having been very helpful. But I think that as an institutional kind of thing it was difficult for me to get that kind of access. The other area of difficulty was that I think I had some general attitudes about women against me in terms of having my abilities-- and I don’t mean to be prideful in this-- I think it was difficult for Amherst to imagine that a woman might chair a department, for example, or might serve as the head of a committee, and I suspect that had I been male, rather than female, my entry into those kinds of positions-- certainly by now I’ve served on many a committee and I’ve chaired the Department many times-- my entry might have been a little speedier and easier to those kinds of positions.
HWH: I suspect there were some members of the faculty who continued a kind of resentment in seeing a woman in the Faculty Club, on the faculty, at faculty meetings...
OLVER: I expect so. I’m sorry about that! [Chuckle] Well, any sort of change is troublesome and I think that there are obviously members of the faculty who would prefer somehow that women never got into that kind of situation. I think that these days the composition of the faculty has changed substantially-- well it’s represented by the vote on coeducation and that was a very supportive faculty vote for including women on the campus.
HWH: Were you conscious of any resentment from faculty wives?
OLVER: I worked very hard to try to avoid that. Then I first came I went to the first meeting of the Ladies of Amherst-- I guess it’s now the Women of Amherst College-- with hopes that I could see who they were and they could see who I was and I wouldn’t be such a threatening kind of individual. At social events-- it sounds a little too manipulative-- but I really made an effort to talk with the wives rather than with my colleagues because I didn’t want to create an impression that might be distressing. It also turns out that I enjoy talking to faculty wives, that they are women in their own right, and that some of my own developing views about feminism and woman’s role has come through faculty women, faculty wives, early Amherst women’s liberation women, and so forth. So that it wasn’t just that I was talking to them because I didn’t want to create trouble, but also because they were attractive people to talk to. But I was very conscious of the possibilities-- I’m not aware of whether I actually produced any threat-- you may know more about that than I do.
HWH: How about students? Did they readily accept the fact that a woman was teaching?
OLVER: Well, I thought so. What I had going for me there was that I had faculty status. I had control over their lives, I was giving grades and things like that. I think that occasionally they found it awkward in situations of crisis; sometimes they would call me “Sir,” and I would say, “No, you’re wrong. It’s Ma’am.” Amherst was more formal then anyway and the number of prep school students was greater, so that saying “sir” was a kind of automatic response. But my initial feeling was that because the title of “faculty member” was an important one in their lives, that may have obscured the fact that I was female. But whenever I didn’t carry that title, then I think there were, well, amusing and embarrassing situations. As you know, I came here as an instructor, therefore I could not call myself Professor. I went to the faculty-freshman tea at the President’s House and would introduce myself as Mrs. Olver and the students would quickly respond, “Oh, what does your husband teach?” And so I’d explain, “Well, he teaches but not at Amherst, and I’m the one who teaches here.” Those things were a little difficult. They clearly had not expected me to make that kind of response and I hate making people feel embarrassed about their assumptions. But it was a lot easier the second year when I was an assistant professor and could introduce myself as Professor Olver. The awkwardness, I think, was reduced.
I’ve now talked to students who graduated in say ‘63, ‘64 who’ve returned as alumni. They indicate that there was more conversation amongst themselves than I was aware of about whether they would take courses given by a female faculty member, that there may well have been a certain amount of self-selection, so that students who felt that that was awkward or not-to-be-done could avoid my courses, and that those who felt comfortable could take them. I think they probably worked that out.
HWH: Can you recall any comments of the faculty, or do you have any comments on the faculty and administration or student and alumni attitudes towards Amherst becoming coeducational? Because, as I recall, you were on that Task Force.
OLVER: Yes. Well, I was on, I served on practically every task force or committee that had to do with coeducation. I was obviously pleased with the kind of support from the faculty and the administration, particularly as coeducation was rejected and then had to be worked on again and yet another series of committee reports.
Yes, I was surprised at the Alumni reaction, surprised particularly when I would talk to students whom I’d taught who saw no reason why Amherst should go coeducational, surprised at alumni who didn’t seem to want their daughters to be able to participate in the benefits of an Amherst education. Everyone was very polite in explaining this kind of position to me, but I really thought that if they thought Amherst had a very unique and high quality kind of educational experience, that alumni would quickly want to extend that to their daughters. I think that it may have been the conversations about coeducation, the kinds of arguments against it, that led me to reevaluate my own position at the College, because the arguments really seemed to be that women shouldn’t be educated, didn’t need to be educated in the same way, that they didn’t bring the same sorts of things, that one should not give up male slots to bring women in. I’m afraid at that time I really had to start thinking about what does that say about their view of me as a woman doing certain kinds of things. Those discussions were probably an important part of my education, and after I’d gotten over my initial surprise and began listening to the arguments, there was a kind of sadness, I think, that women were not accepted as equal human beings.
HWH: As I recall, talk of coeducation began while Cal Plimpton was president, but not very seriously.
OLVER: It certainly has a long history. Yes, I think, in a way, Amherst’s Five-College or Four-College position influenced that, probably positively and negatively. I mean having women in the classroom allowed one to say, “Yes, women can be competent students,” and perhaps more importantly that the presence of women on campus is not going to prevent Amherst men from studying. I guess I must be very naive, because I’m always surprised when people have lived different lives than I have-- and I came from a coeducational institution all the way through kindergarten up-- it never occurred to me that women were going to be distracting in the classroom because all the classes I’ve been in had men and women in them. The big thing at Swarthmore was the so-called study date where you went to the library together. I was on the College Council and was on the committee which preceded that, and we were trying to get the rules changed so that women could be in the dormitories later. You remember back in those days there were times when women could be in the dorms and when they couldn’t. I was trying to argue that this would not at all keep people from studying, that in fact books would be brought along and people would study together, and Cal Plimpton laughed!! He could not imagine that any couple in their right mind would spend their time studying.
HWH: Being an alumnus, myself, I can vouch for the opinion of many of my contemporaries and even today many are still opposed to it.
OLVER: What remain the major arguments?
HWH: Because it’s not “Dear Old Amherst.”
OLVER: Well that’s true. It is not dear old Amherst.
HWH: It isn’t, and it can’t be, and it shouldn’t be.
OLVER: Well, I guess the real sticky wicket on that is, should it be? Now I look back upon my college years with a kind of nostalgia. I’m afraid to go back to my undergraduate institution because I know it’s changed, and I won’t see the same faces; and the faculty, most of them would be older; and there is a kind of wanting to preserve what was a very good experience. I think it speaks highly of the way alumni feel very positively about the college, and one hates to say, “you can’t have that.” But I think if they really examine it, they don’t have it anyway. If they came back, they would have changed, the world has changed, the college has changed-- there are some new buildings, it’s just-- you never really can re-create that past.
HWH: You will probably recall, as I do, that when there were fraternity parties, the women from Smith and Mount Holyoke had to come in taxis or limousines with a chaperone accompanying them and they had to go home at a certain hour. Normally Mount Holyoke had to leave earlier than Smith, but if you had a date here from Wellesley or Vassar...
OLVER: Oh I see, they didn’t then have the parietal restrictions. (Laughter) Well, I well remember as a college student living under those kinds of restrictions. Also, they influence my life as a faculty member. You ask later on in your questions some thoughts of mine on women in fraternities and I have very little to say on that except a story or two. I was an advisor to a fraternity, faculty advisor to Phi Psi, the one that is now Charles Drew House. I was advisor, in fact, at the time when they wanted to change substantially the way people became members of that fraternity and worked very closely with them and with their alumni body to have it become a non-selective fraternity. But I had a problem. My problem was that most of those meetings occurred after ten o’clock at night when women were not allowed in fraternity houses, so we had to get a special ruling from Art Davenport as to whether or not I could be, in my role as faculty advisor, in the fraternity house after the hour at which no women could be in. And the ruling was returned as follows: “Some women are not women.” (Chuckle) Now, I assume what he meant was that some women didn't have to follow the women’s regulations rather than some slur upon my femininity. But it’s interesting how my life was hedged around by the same kinds of constraints, that is, that the exercise of my due and proper role as fraternity advisor had to be legislated on.
HWH: That’s when Amherst was all male?
OLVER: That’s right. Yes.
HWH: Do you have some thoughts on fraternities that you want to express?
OLVER: Just briefly. I’m of a very mixed mind. It seems to me that some of the worst things about Amherst come out in fraternities. Several years ago an article on sleazing indicated the way fraternity members, male, viewed women-- not as human beings, not deserving of respect and individual treatment. On the other hand, I have seen many of my male students who have been staunch fraternity men-- presidents, those taking strong roles in a fraternity-- developing all sorts of leadership skills, a whole different aspect of their educations other than what they’re getting in the classroom. I suppose I’ve always tried to believe, and I guess I don’t want to know too much about fraternities, tried to believe that somehow Amherst’s fraternities were better than those at other places, that Amherst has a history of being more liberal in terms of its allowing various different kinds of individuals to join fraternities, and less terrible in terms of initiations and exclusions. Now I think we still have a way to go on that. The over-the-quota meeting, everybody getting a bid somewhere, is a step, has always been a step in the right direction as far as trying to soften some of the personal pain that I think students go through at fraternity bidding time. But I hope we can do even better than that.
HWH: Do you have any sense of consensus among women in attitudes towards fraternities?
OLVER: I think it’s probably based on individual experiences. One thing that I have learned is that women, like men, rarely as a group agree on anything and I think there’s a whole spectrum of perspectives on fraternities.
HWH: I believe half the fraternities now take in women-- this always seems strange to me, why they continue to be called fraternities.
OLVER: Oh, there is a trick of the English language to use the male side of things to include both male and female. I think it’s always allowed us to exclude females, but maybe someday we’ll have a better name. Certainly, at best, the kind of fraternity arrangement, with very good social interaction space-- the living rooms, the fireplaces, the recreational facilities, the study facilities-- can, I think, be very important ways of students beginning to develop some good interaction with each other. Better than just a hallway or corridor with separate rooms, or some of the attempts in the social dorms where you really have small groups segmented off around a common living space. I guess my assumption, and I hope I’m not proved wrong, is that Amherst fraternities have been leaders in terms of being responsive to social change and will continue to do that, and that things will evolve.
HWH: Do you feel that Five-College Cooperation, first Four-College Cooperation, assisted Amherst’s becoming coeducational? The fact that it existed?
OLVER: The fact that it existed. Well, there were some arguments that Amherst didn’t need to become coeducational because there were women’s colleges nearby.
HWH: From alumni, particularly.
OLVER: Well, the way it was phrased was usually, “With girls within arm’s reach, why do we need to admit them to the campus?” That certainly implied (the use of the phrase “girls within arm’s reach”) just a kind of social interaction rather than an equal intellectual sort of thing, so that I suppose if Amherst had been isolated, not within the Four- or Five-College context, that arguments against coeducation could not have been raised. On the other hand, I think the presence of women in the classroom through both the Five-College or Four-College exchange-- also the twelve-college exchange, women actually residing on campus as well as going to classes-- helped ease the transition, and I know that faculty members have had mixed experience with whether or not women talked in classes or didn’t talk in classes. But at least, back to our earlier conversation about whether women were so distracting that they were going to ruin the intellectual endeavor, they didn’t seem to do that. They may not participate a lot in some classes, but they didn’t actually prevent the men from learning. I think it was probably important to have that.
I think there are other aspects of it, though. I suspect that now that we have become a college for men and women, some of the difficulties Amherst women students experience have to do with the fact that there are so many women in the Valley.
HWH: So many women?
OLVER: Women in the Valley nearby, and the kind of allure of-- for an Amherst man-- of dating a woman that you don’t see in your classes who hasn’t seen you put down in an argument, who hasn’t appeared not dressed up for Saturday night but in whatever one wears to classes. I have heard some conversation from Amherst women students that Amherst men are good friends during the week, but on Saturday night some of them go elsewhere, to Smith or Mount Holyoke. I think that at all institutions it’s a kind of prestige thing to date off campus, but I suspect that norms are changing in terms of dating in general and that these things will work out. One of the ways in which Five-College Cooperation, I think, has assisted coeducation in larger scope, though, is the presence in the Valley of good conversations about incorporating materials by and about women into the curriculum-- very active women’s studies organizations, good seminar discussions of things, and also the opportunity-- and now I speak personally-- the opportunity to teach in a classroom with women faculty. I have taught a three-college course called “Sex and Politics” with Sue Bourque at Smith and Jean Grosholtz at Mount Holyoke, and it was a real revelation to me-- since I’d not had many women faculty teaching me-- to have women colleagues, to explore different styles of teaching, as well as incorporation of different kinds of materials, so that I think the richness of women colleagues and the kinds of conversations about women in curricular materials have been a great benefit of the Five-College Cooperation endeavor.
HWH: It seems to me, it might have been helpful, too, in preparing male members of the faculty for having women in the classroom.
OLVER: I suppose so. Occasionally I get into situations where I am the only woman in the room and I think, “Gee, this is just like it used to be, there’s a sort of familiarity about it.” One needs to change the visual impact. By the time that Amherst admitted women as students to Amherst College, when Student interviewers would ask, “Are your classes a bit different?,” you’d say, “Well, not really. I had a lot of Five-College students; there were already women there.” In fact, the classroom had changed in a more gradual way than just the impact of coeducation. I think probably that was useful.
HWH: On another tangent, Rose. I’m reading now, again for the record, mostly: Last year (since we don’t have a catalog yet for this year, this is 1978-79) there were 35 women teachers listed in the College Catalog. Of these, 6 were visiting, 3 were Five-College appointments, and 26 were full-time at Amherst. Of the last group, you were the only full professor, 3 were associate professors, and 22 were assistant professors. Is this any indication of whether women faculty members get fair treatment at Amherst?
OLVER: Well, I wish I knew what fair treatment was.
HWH: I raise that because there was a kind of criticism among young faculty women.
OLVER: Let me address it, then, in that light. What you have pointed out in the statistics is the fact that women are unevenly distributed by rank. Now I suppose that the best thing that you can attribute that to is the fact that Amherst did not hire women back in the ‘sixties-- that is, if one assumes that most faculty come in at the junior ranks and work their way up, the fact that so few women are in the professor and associate professor categories doesn’t say that women have been poorly treated once they’re here but that they weren’t allowed in. They certainly were not sought during the ‘sixties. I think then what that suggests is, if one wants to examine the question of whether women are treated fairly at Amherst, what one needs to do is to look at those women who are now junior members of the faculty and see what their history will be. I participated in some of those conversations, mainly concerning several women, four, I believe, who had decided not to stand for tenure, others who expressed some dissatisfaction with the tenure process, and I think-- the world’s not fair, and I’m not trying to say that Amherst is any worse than any place else. Although I guess it may seem so to me because I expect it always to be better than any place else, I think that Amherst puts additional burdens on women and it does so in part for good reason. I think junior women on the faculty serve on more committees. Now that’s by conscious design. One wants to incorporate women faculty members into the ongoing institutional life of the college, but by doing so one’s taking time from the sorts of things that male junior members of the faculty might have time to do. Yet at the moment of judgment for tenure, one has to have equivalent credentials. I think the College has only begun to be able to take into account some of the additional things it asks women faculty members to do. Now I think people probably define fairness differently. There are those who argue that affirmative action has no role at the moment of tenure but only at hiring. Other institutions have worked out various ways-- and I think the law does read that in things like tenure and promotion affirmative action must operate-- but there’s really not good consensus as to what that means.
HWH: I was troubled that some remarks in faculty meetings, while I was attending such meetings, clearly indicated to me that a number of the younger women on the faculty felt that they were being overlooked or not treated, perhaps even in the minds of the faculty, with the same attitude that men were.
OLVER: Well probably that’s true. You talked earlier about the possibility that some members of the faculty might have resented my coming here. And I think there is, even in those who don’t resent women being here, a kind of suspicion. I’m always struck by, when I lunch over in the Commons with, say, two other women colleagues, someone is sure to stop by the table and say, “Oh, having a caucus?,” or make a joke about a conspiracy. Now if three male members of the faculty are eating together, there’s not that assumption that there’s evil work being done. So I think there is a kind of threat, resentment, fear, suspiciousness about women, and that obviously makes women a little uneasy. I think the more identifiable things are in terms of committee assignments, extra advising that women do. I think many women students make extreme demands on female faculty for counseling and advice; and many men students also. I think that there are additional burdens that women carry, some in areas where it’s harder to document. Amherst has a kind of style about how you should teach in the classroom. I spoke earlier in our conversation about the education it was for me to teach with other women because their styles in fact are different. Amherst rewards, I think, what you might call hand-to-hand mental combat, a very confronting style. Now that can be very exciting; it can get lots of ideas generated; but there are also other ways to teach.
HWH: It can be very intimidating.
OLVER: Yes, it can be intimidating. And I think that women faculty, when I’ve talked to them about this particular issue, argue that many of them-- not all of them and not all Amherst male faculty use a combative, argumentative style either-- but on the whole I think the general statements hold. Women may adopt a style which encourages more participation from students, which, rather than pitting one argument against another, begins to try to say, “How can we work these things together?” It’s not an I-win, you-lose kind of situation but a more developing kind of argument. Yet, at the same time, I think in the minds of students, and often in the minds of faculty, those people who are considered intellectually competent are the ones who do that, well, high-pitched stuff, rather than the more encouraging of diverse points of view kinds of things. So that I think that women feel that when they use the style that they might find more congenial, they’re automatically then being classed as lessened in competency. And one of the things that I found rather distressing is that students, both male and female students, assume that women faculty are mediocre until they’ve proved themselves to be brilliant. They don’t make that assumption with male faculty-- they assume that they’re brilliant. In my discipline of psychology, there have been a number of studies that indicate that the same article attributed to a male author, or a female author, is judged differently. If it’s got a male author, then it’s judged better. So women are running against these kinds of assumptions.
[BEGINNING SIDE TWO, TAPE I]
HWH: Rose, continuing with the questions that I prepared for you: Of the 26 women teaching full-time at Amherst, two earned their doctorates before 1970, 13 since 1970, and 11 do not have the degree. Is it more difficult for women to earn a doctorate than it is for men?
OLVER: Well, it certainly used to be. I think my sense of the statistics on that is that it’s changing. The 1960s statistics that I’ve seen suggest that about 10% of doctorates were earned by women. In 1977, 25%.
HWH: That much difference.
OLVER: Yes. Though I think it suggests several things: one is that there is change, that more and more women are earning doctorates. But since women are something like 50% of the population, 25% is still below that. I think there really are difficulties for women in earning doctorates. I don’t know the graduate school scene-- the contemporary graduate school scene-- but certainly when I was in graduate school women were looked upon with some suspicion, and the likelihood from the point of view of the graduate school was that if you invest in a woman, she’s going to get pregnant, drop out of school, so you’ve wasted the first few years. And even if she makes it through, she won’t use her Ph.D. I think there’s a lot of evidence now to show that women who earn Ph.D.s do in fact stay employed and do use them. But I think that now with affirmative action, the actual entrance may be easier to graduate school. But the norms of our society are still very powerful in terms of women, if they do marry, going where their husband goes, and many a woman has earned her doctorate, not at the institution where she started, but at some other institution. That is, she has followed her husband to his job and then had to make do or put together, transfer what credits she could. In addition, our society puts a lot of burdens on women in terms of childcare, and so if you are trying to live all the various facets of the female life you’ve got your hands busy. So I think it probably is more difficult for women to earn doctorates. I think it’s getting less so and I’ve cited statistics to indicate that more women are earning doctorates. Another factor here is that women often earn doctorates in the less traditional areas, where it’s easier to gain acceptance, which does mean that the number of women holding doctorates in particular disciplines varies, not only in traditional ways where there were fewer in science than in the humanities, but also in terms of sub-areas within various fields, too.
HWH: I suspect it’s probably easier for a man to get financial aid, too.
OLVER: Well, certainly it used to be. Now I presume that the legal situation has eased that up. It seems that the law has accomplished a great deal in terms of saying things that you cannot do. The fact that a graduate institution-- well, it was Yale. I was accepted at Harvard and several other places, went to Harvard, but I was rejected as a graduate student by Yale and took the occasion of presenting a seminar there once I’d gotten my degree to ask, “Why didn’t you let me? I would have come here.” And they said, “Oh we don’t admit very many women because our experience is that they get pregnant and drop out.” You can’t have that conversation any more. The same way Amherst could no longer say, we don’t hire women. So that if one was going to discriminate, it would have to be at a much more subtle level, and I assume that there’s a lot more tracking of what’s going on. I think, though, that the major problem for women in getting doctorates is the difficulty in sustaining the effort necessary to get a doctorate if you’re also trying to combine that with doing other things-- like having children, like trying to be flexible in terms of following some maximizing strategy between the husband’s and wife’s careers. My own experience-- and looking back on it I don’t know where these rather liberated notions came from-- certainly from today’s perspective they weren’t very liberated, since my husband found his job first and I then followed. But he did finish his degree half a year before I did and rather than going out of the area, the geographic area for a job, he got a job at M.I.T. to stay where I could continue a regular progression to a degree. I then finished my degree half a year later-- he had a year’s job-- and taught at Harvard for half a year. But we tried to stay, to maximize getting the degree. Now what would have happened if, before I’d finished my doctorate, before I’d written my thesis and gathered the data, I then had to enter a totally new atmosphere at a distance from my thesis advisor who was not the easiest man in the world to see? I think it would have been much more difficult to have carried through. I’m a stubborn person, I think probably I would have persevered, but I don’t think my experience would have been as good or as easy. I think that does affect a woman’s getting a degree.
HWH: I noted that women are members of 19 departments.
OLVER: There is one in biology. I note it’s not mentioned in your list. Elaine Brighty is now in biology.
OLVER: Elaine Brighty. A new faculty member this year.
HWH: Yes, this is based on last year as I don’t have the present list. I had said that there were none in biology, economics, geology, mathematics, and physics. Does this reflect Amherst’s educational needs at the time, or women’s academic interests?
OLVER: Oh both. Certainly women get doctorates in different proportions in various fields. I tried to check some of those statistics. Again for 1977, about 2.5% of doctorates in physics were given to women, whereas in English 28% of doctorates went to women, so that the actual population available from which Amherst then selects its faculty differs from field to field. But I don’t think that that’s the whole question or the whole answer to the question. Obviously, in terms of positions available at Amherst, there are lots of factors-- the general structure of the departments, what kinds of courses need to be taught, and so forth. That has to be figured in. But even beyond that, departments with the best intentions of hiring women sometimes make the job offers and get rejected. I know that at least one and I believe it might be two offers were made to women by the mathematics department last year and the math department did, I think, try to encourage women to come to Amherst to accept those offers. They made available an afternoon to talk to the women on the Amherst faculty, and I think really did try to encourage and go out of their way to make the kind of effort that I think is very good. Yet, they were turned down. Now I wonder at that and I hope, in fact, our Affirmative Action Committee begins to look at that this year. It seems to me you’ve got a whole sequence of things that happen in recruiting. You have to define where the position is at the College and then you are either tacking into an area that has a high population of women as possible candidates or not. You’ve got to recruit visibly so that women hear about the job, and often they’re not on the “old boy” networks, though there are now “old girl” networks a-building. You have to then evaluate their characteristics. We talked a little earlier in our conversation about the fact that sometimes women are just automatically judged lesser because they’re female, or it might be that their styles differ-- the style of presenting the seminar that most of us present when we come here for our interviews. Then there’s the problem of, will the woman accept the job? And then if she does, will Amherst be supportive, or will it overburden her so that she can’t follow the normal progress? It’s more complicated than just, where does Amherst have positions? What are fields in which women have doctorates? It’s a more lengthy process and I think quite appropriate that the Affirmative Action Committee really try to see where in that whole process we are doing what Amherst intends to do in recruiting and keeping women.
HWH: Do you think the presence of other institutions in the Valley helps persuade women to come here to teach?
OLVER: I think it helps persuade women as it does men to come here. I know as Chair of a Department one makes a great deal of the fact that there are colleagues in the area, since most Amherst departments are really too small to have anyone in closely allied research fields, and the fact that there is a colleague at Smith or Mount Holyoke or Hampshire or the University is a selling point. In recruiting both male and female faculty within the department, I haven’t found it to be a different kind of selling point. But the fact is that it is very nice that Amherst is located near other institutions. Very helpful.
HWR: Along that line, most women teachers at Amherst did their undergraduate and graduate work at coeducational universities. Do you think they find Amherst’s nature and attitudes different from their own experiences, even after five years of coeducation?
OLVER: Oh I suspect so. Amherst has had a tradition of being Amherst for such a long time, but I really have difficulty answering that question. I’ve tried to reflect upon my own experience as an undergraduate in a coeducational institution, but you see I don’t really know what it’s like to be an undergraduate at Amherst, nor do I know what it would have been like to have been a faculty member at Swarthmore at that time, so that I am comparing two very different kinds of things.
HWH: Apples and oranges.
OLVER: Yes. I know that Swarthmore had started out as a coeducational institution, follows a Quaker tradition which argues that women should speak their minds and speak up, yet hired very few women. So that as a student I was encouraged; I was encouraged to go to graduate school, encouraged to develop my talents equally with those of my male colleague students. But had I been a faculty member, I would have been in a very isolated position, since there were not many women faculty, so that it’s really hard, I think, to take one’s student experience and match it against one’s faculty experience.
HWH: In your relations with women students, have you found some who wish they had enrolled elsewhere? If you have, are there fewer or more than there once were?
OLVER: Well, there are more women students than there once were, so obviously the number increases, but... Yes, I’ve found women students and men students who come to me as their advisor and say, “I really think I would like to leave Amherst,” and we talk about it at great length. The majority of the reasons for wanting to leave Amherst for both men and women that I’ve talked to have been really academic ones. The kind of program that they want is not as easily available here. I try to talk to them about what Amherst has to offer. Usually there are specialties they want to go into, they want more advanced work in a particular kind of area, and I give them what I think are good arguments about opportunities at other 5-College institutions, about the value of liberal arts curricula, but sometimes they hold staunchly to these notions and I write them letters of recommendation, saying they’re good students and we’re sorry to lose them but I hope your institution will take them. I haven’t monitored the numbers. I know there was a great deal of concern that many women students were leaving Amherst once having gotten here and I’m not sure we have a real answer to that.
HWH: I think Bill Ward was particularly upset about that.
OLVER: He was indeed. And he asked students to write to him and say why they were leaving. Our data was a little murky on that. It wasn’t clear that we were separating out students who were leaving for a year abroad from students who were leaving forever. And I really don’t feel that I have a good command-- my personal experience has not been of an increasing number of women in comparison to the women in the student population wanting to leave. It has been that the kind of women who came the first years of coeducation were different. I mean they were the pioneers. You have to be a little different to put yourself into an emerging coeducational institution, different from women who come into a situation where the ground is already broken. But personally I have not experienced any particular increase in the percentage of women leaving.
HWH: The same question could probably be asked of men students, too.
HWH: I think the administration particularly tended to look for social rather than academic or intellectual reasons.
OLVER: Well, you see it might be that it is social reasons that are causing them to leave, but if you are a woman student coming to talk to your advisor, I think you are more likely to make the academic case, since you’re looking for a letter of recommendation and usually the student’s letter of application emphasizes, “I want to switch institutions because you offer more in my academic area.” So I’m not sure that I’ve got the data on that.
HWH: Have you felt that women might be leaving for very legitimate reasons, for lack of a program they seek here at Amherst? That’s not well put.
OLVER: I think most of the students who have left, both male and female, in fact, leave to search for particular kinds of academic programs or because of personal disruptions in their life. There’s always a number of students who find for one reason or another that Amherst is not for them, not because of the social situation, but because they are under intense family pressures, or they really want to go and work for a couple of years and find out who they are before they commit themselves to certain kinds of things. Whether their academic reasons are justified, well it depends whether you believe in a liberal arts education. The same question comes when students ask to graduate early so that they can go and pursue, let’s say, a doctorate in mathematics and the department says this student has exhausted our resources. Now I think that someone firmly committed to liberal arts education would say, “Ah, perhaps the resources of this department, but what about the resources of other departments? Has this student really had a liberal arts education?” And I suppose the student could respond, “I don’t want one of those. I want to pursue this particular thing.” In which case they are better off at a graduate department.
HWH: Also I suspect, and this is true of men certainly as much as women, that students coming here find the College more competitive than they expected it might be. It’s certainly more competitive than most other colleges, though I won’t say exclusively.
OLVER: You see again, it’s awfully hard for me to know comparatively. I’ve only taught at Amherst and Harvard, and Harvard’s a pretty competitive place, too, and I’m sure our admissions office draws from the same population, so I’ve really been dealing with the same students in a university setting or the liberal arts college setting. I think that a number of students come from a situation where it used to be much easier for them to be the top person in their class, and this is probably true for both men and women, and now they’re dealing with other people who were the top in their high school or preparatory school classes. Yes, it is tough and you have to find out a lot about yourself: Are you going to put in the time to maintain that position? Do you consider college a different kind of experience where you want to distribute your time among a variety of endeavors? But in order to be accepted at Amherst, I think women and men students have to have very similar feelings about competitiveness and about where they want to be on that spectrum.
HWH: Have you been aware of any change in attitude or behavior among men students since women have lived on campus?
OLVER: That’s a difficult one, because the transition was gradual, as we mentioned earlier, having women actually on campus in the role of students for a long time before they were residents, also having the exchange students residing on campus, occurring at the same time, I believe, that Amherst was diversifying its undergraduate male student population-- such programs as admitting more transfer students from community colleges. Certainly over those years I think the attitudes of male students have changed. What I find difficult is attributing it to the presence of women. There’s really no way for me to tell. Things are a lot more richly diverse than they used to be; much more is discussed about women’s issues. I teach a course in Sex-role Socialization. I usually have a class fairly evenly divided between men and women and they’re talking about things that I never even thought to talk about as an undergraduate-- about the appropriateness both of traditional male and female roles. Those things weren’t talked about when I first came to Amherst, but society has changed. The student body, male as well as female, has changed. I find it difficult to pin down any of that to the specific presence of women on campus.
HWH: As attributable to the presence of women on campus.
It may be my age rather than what’s actually happened, but it seems to me that there’s a little more courtesy around the campus than there was ten years ago, a little more thoughtfulness. I don’t know that this can be attributable to the presence of women.
OLVER: Well, I don’t know. It seemed to me that the campus is less formal than it used to be. Rarely now do I get called “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Very often it’s first name and that’s very good, I think. If that then makes them more responsive in a personal situation, I think that’s good. But I guess my problem on that is that students have always treated me as they’ve been brought up to treat females, and now they treat me as a relatively elderly female with a certain amount of respect and deference due, at least to my face. What they say behind my back, I guess I’d rather not know, so that I haven’t been in a position to pick up those kinds of changes.
HWH: Would you object if I lighted up a cigarette?
OLVER: No, please.
HWH: Would you like one?
OLVER: I’ve got some, thank you.
You raised some questions in your next one about the number of fellowships awarded to women.
OLVER: Yes. You want to read it?
HWH: I’ll just read that: Of the 72 fellowships awarded in 1978, only ten were made to women. Is there a noticeable difference in career aspirations between women and men students at Amherst?
OLVER: Well, there are fewer women than men at Amherst and I don’t know how many applied for fellowships and things like that, so I don’t know what to make of the numbers, so let me avoid the numbers and talk about the “career aspirations” part of it.
HWH: Fellowships may not at all be the basis on which to ask this question.
OLVER: Yes, but I think the question is an important one. My sense is that the career aspirations are the same, but that men have an easier time in realizing them. It seems to me that a change occurs in women students somewhere into the junior year, beginning of the senior year, when all of a sudden they have to face up to some realistic things-- things like what are their intentions about marriage, how in the world do you get graduate school to accept both of you in the same geographic location? If, in fact, only one of you gets into a particular place and the other member of the pair gets in somewhere else, just what do you do? On occasion, and in particular in the ILS course on the professions that I worked in last year, we asked students about their aspirations and, yes, there are women who want to be physicians, and lawyers, and all those things that Amherst people want to be. But both men and women students say that they want to have children, and what is not clearly worked out in their minds is how they’re going to manage all that. Now in this Introduction to Liberal Studies course, which is a course directed at freshmen, we had some pretty good conversations where the men students argued that they assumed that their wives would stay home and take care of the children, and the women students argued that that was probably a pretty poor assumption, and yet they were troubled. They felt the children were important and that taking care of them was important, that somehow there must be a way of working that out, but they hadn’t quite confronted it. And I’m not sure that there is a solution. It’s obviously something I’ve struggled with myself-- I have a daughter. She’s ten. I have not interrupted my career for that, but it is a juggling and balancing act. And when students say, “Well, gee. How did you do it Ma’am?,” all I can say is, “With a lot of luck!” No, it isn’t an easy kind of thing.
HWH: And a lot of work.
OLVER: Yes, and a lot of taking on of additional kinds of things and willingness to make arrangements and lose a little sleep at night so you can work everything in. I think in regard to careers that Amherst men and women share very similar aspirations. I think that what is really going to be the point of exploration, and, I hope, good innovative discussion, is how do you maximize those aspirations? How do you combine career aspirations with aspirations you might have for being a human being? And what does that consist of? What kinds of interpersonal relationships do you want? What kinds of relationships with your kids? Things like that.
HWH: I would think that the gradual change of Amherst’s becoming a college for men and women has had a great educational effect, particularly for men, as this gradually took place.
OLVER: Well, I hope so. I wish the answers were a little clearer. It seems to me there’s a whole panorama of options-- you can argue, and I think this was part of the argument in going coeducational, that Amherst really didn’t need to change when women were admitted to the college, that it’d be wrong to change because you were admitting women to the college. They didn’t need special programs; they could participate in the same kinds of tough courses, tough-minded courses that Amherst men have always done. Yet at the same time, there are inconsistencies between arguing that everyone should be focussed on careers and arguing something about humane values, which I think Amherst has always stood for, too. I think our conversations are going to be very interesting over the next few years.
HWH: It’s a microcosm of society. Students are rather fortunate, I would think, to have a chance to discuss this in this kind of atmosphere.
OLVER: Well, I hope so. I’ve talked about this with women of my own generation. It never occurred to us that it was going to be impossible-- no one had ever told us you couldn’t do it, that is, combine both the traditional roles that women have and career aspirations-- so that we went forward bravely and blindly. I guess now one walks forward with one’s eyes open a little more, and that, I think, is all to the good, but it does mean lots more decision-making during the college years.
HWH: That leads very directly to the next question: Do you think Amherst did as well as it might have in preparing for women students-- facilities, security, counseling, things of that sort?
OLVER: I think Amherst made an honest effort on those things. I think not only of institutional responses but also of the ad hoc committees that sprang up to talk about these various issues. Truly we were not perfect, but there was not only ignorance about what kinds of things ought to be done to blame, but also a hesitancy to do a lot of things before there were actually women on campus to make those decisions for themselves. It seemed somehow wrong to be paternalistic about it and say, “Ah, we must take care of the little girls.” I think we did some reasonably realistic things, like more lights on campus. I think even male colleagues find it’s easier now to walk across the quad without falling into trees and things like that. I think the key, though, to watch is, now that women are on campus, are we being responsive?
HWH: “That’s behind us.”
OLVER: Yes. And I think that there are lots of things that need to be developed and need to develop in good conversation and concerted effort with the students who actually are experiencing various aspects. You can’t predict. Amherst could not totally predict what kind of changes it would need. My hope is that it has the openness to listen as the voices are now here to be heard about what kind of changes.
HWH: There’s a great difference between physical planning and cooperation.
OLVER: That’s true, and a lot of tough questions-- questions about the curriculum, the matter of style that we talked about before. If the aspirations, career aspirations are the same for men and women, shouldn’t we give them, continue to give them what Amherst has always provided, which is very good training for those careers? Or are there better alternatives? That will be the work of the next several years-- maybe the next lifetime, trying to work that out.
HWH: The new administration will have this opportunity.
OLVER: That’s true. Already I think it’s begun.
HWH: Do you have any comments on similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses of the two administrations you have known at Amherst?
OP/ER: I guess we’re really talking about Cal Plimpton and Bill Ward. My problem on that is that I have changed so much. During Cal Plimpton’s years, I was really an adolescent in terms of my professional life, more, I hope, an adult during Bill Ward’s years, marked by things like getting tenure, being promoted, chairing my department, serving on various kinds of committees, so that my relationships with those administrations, by necessity, were different. I indicated earlier that I found Cal Plimpton making a personal effort to help me enter the community, taking me to morning coffee, protecting me against some of the assumptions of-- oh, I guess I can tell a story. I don’t think he would mind terribly. I think it does illustrate the difference in my role relationship and, because of the increased number of women on campus during Bill Ward’s administration, the different situation that the administrator was responding to. As you know, we now have a very good maternity leave policy-- some would argue that it’s not good enough because it doesn’t allow paternity leave-- but it’s far more than the legal minimum for maternity leave. And I attribute a great deal of that to Bill Ward’s concern for creating a community-- a place, I guess he would call it-- where women could develop as professionals. Back in the Cal Plimpton era we had no maternity leave policy. In fact, there was a great deal of fearfulness, I think, within my own department that I might get pregnant, that that might be disruptive. My sense on that, and I never really had the courage to ask, was that it wasn’t so much that pregnancy might make me inefficient in the classroom, but that it would be wrong for me to be in the classroom teaching if I were pregnant. Certainly public schools made women leave after the fourth month. Cal Plimpton called me in and he said, “Rose, I understand that you and your Department Chair are a little worried about your getting pregnant.” And he leaned back in his chair in that marvelous way he had and said, “Rose, you get pregnant and stay pregnant all you want!” He was making a supportive, individual, personal gesture and I appreciated that, although I had some rather firm notions about when I wanted to be pregnant, how to work it into my career life. Cal was in a position, because there were very few women on campus, of being able to deal with this issue in a personal kind of way and he was being supportive and he was essentially saying “Attitudes aside, I will not kick you out if you get pregnant. You can teach if you’re pregnant!” Whereas Bill Ward was dealing with a piece of legislation that was going to affect all women on campus and, yes, very supportive of maternity leave policy, but because the number of women had increased, it was no longer a one-on-one supportiveness. So that I think both administrations have, from my perspective, done some very good things for women. I was hired under one and have seen coeducation, leave policies, a whole host of very good things under the other.
HWH: They were so different in nature.
OLVER: Well, it wasn’t only the president, but also a change in the Deanery. With Dean Porter, everything was carried in his mind. Now we have a faculty handbook with things sketched out-- the whole situation has changed so that it’s very difficult to draw comparisons, and also because, as I said earlier, my contact with the institution was not as widely based when I first came to the campus as it certainly has been later.
HWH: Amherst has been fortunate in the people who have been presidents since World War II. Charlie Cole was ideal for the period in which he served, yet I think he would have been very unhappy to have served during the time of either Cal or Bill. I think you’re right: each really reflects the situation of the time.
OLVER: I think so, and I think Amherst has been lucky since it has had leadership to take it to the key questions of the various times it was encountering and I have no reason to think that we won’t continue to have that kind of responsive leadership.
HWH: Rose, one question, that’s not directly concerned with Amherst, but obviously it is in the long haul. I’d like to ask you if the Dukakis Commission on the Status of Women, of which you were Chair in 1975-76, achieved positive results? Did it set goals that it would like to achieve and, if so, did it achieve them?
OLVER: Well, it certainly made a beginning. The Commission on the Status of Women during my chair asked for and received from the Governor a very strong mandate to examine all policies affecting women within the state; to educate not only the populace of the state but also the Governor-- that is, the notion was that the Governor needed a group of women who could advise him on what were positive policies on women’s issues. “Women's issues” sounds like it’s a funny set of peculiar things, but really women are concerned with everything from transportation through affirmative action. It’s not just a small set of specific issues. Unfortunately, change comes very slowly and when you ask whether or not the Commission achieved positive results, getting a new mandate, being instrumental in the passage of the state equal rights amendment-- I think those are positive things. But things achieved by legislative or executive order can easily be overturned, and as an administration changes, some things get undone, funding no longer comes through. The Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women is now in exile. Governor King dismissed the Commission when it criticized his budget and has now, I believe, appointed a much more conservative group of women. I am working with the Commission in exile to try to continue doing those things we thought were going in a positive direction, we’re concerned mainly with working on legislation and budgets, monitoring what the state is doing, and educating the people and the governor about what women and other human beings need in the Commonwealth.
HWH: When you say you’re working with the Commission in Exile-- how many are involved in this now?
OLVER: Well, the Commission was a group of about 40 women. When disbanded, the present commissioners (I was not actually serving on the commission at the time) quickly got in touch with all past commissioners and through the media got in touch with lots of other men and women in the state and said, “Look, the job we were doing still needs to be done. We no longer have state funding, will you help us do it?” And they have been well received, working under the leadership of Margaret Merry, who is a long-time academic person from the Boston area. In fact, I’m going to be running a fund-raiser in early December to try to help. The Commission, before it was in exile, had a state budget line; now it must find its funds where it can and it is receiving rather widespread support. So yes, I think positive results, but you have to get your satisfaction from very small gains and you have to be continually aware that those gains can be eroded by changes in administrative policy.
HWH: Did you convene quite often?
OLVER: When I was chairing the Commission, I was in Boston about one day a week and the Commission met once a month. In addition, I worked with my staff-- an executive director, a number of interns-- because our ongoing job was to monitor legislation as it went through the legislature and reached the Governor’s desk, so that we needed to be able to provide testimony at various hearings and really keep an eye on where things were. That was a very busy year for me. I was also Chair of the CEP at the same time and would often be writing my CEP minutes on the Peter Pan Bus as I was going to and from Boston. But it was exciting and I think an educative experience for me-- partially instructive, because with my husband in the political realm, I found it difficult to be there also. Although I consider, and he considers, that we are separate, independent individuals, putting pressure on some of his colleagues was not always perceived by them as independent action on my part, and he had to take some of the grief for that. So that I learned a lot about what possibilities in the political realm are available to me and at what cost.
HWH: That’s interesting. Did you have office space in Boston?
HWH: In the State House?
OLVER: In one of the state buildings nearby. There were difficulties with the Commission because, as I have suggested earlier in this conversation, women don’t always agree and to get forty individuals to agree upon a plan of action took a lot of discussion and even then couldn’t always be pulled off. But I guess that’s one thing I hope Amherst begins to realize. I spoke earlier in this conversation about the fact that I think there’s a fearfulness that somehow the women are acting in a conspiratorial kind of way, yet if colleagues would look around during faculty votes, there are women on various sides of issues. I think that one of the nice things of having many women colleagues and many women students is that we may stop talking about the female perspective and talk instead about individual perspectives-- women will be seen as just as diverse as men.
HWH: You bring us to a very appropriate point as we are just about at the end of this conversation and I know you have an appointment.
OLVER: Yes, in my role as mother I have to be at my daughter’s school.
HWH: But I think it’s interesting that just about the last thing you said is that women’s views cannot be perceived as exclusive from those of men, that they in many cases have exactly the same reactions or exactly the opposite reactions that a group of men would have.
OLVER: Well, I think that both a group of men and a group of women are going to have a diversity of perspectives. One of the real strengths of Amherst, which I think must be preserved, is that women and men have always worked together, whether it’s on official committees or ad hoc groups or through informal conversation, to discuss where there were differences on an issue and to join in concerted action. This is not to imply that there are not times when men should work together and women work together, but I think uncharacteristic of other institutions, where very often there has been a confrontational stance between the men and women. Whether it’s on the faculty or in the student body, Amherst has, I think, the solid foundation for a more integrative working out of issues and I hope that continues.
HWH: I thank you very much.
OLVER: Well thanks for chatting, it’s been fun.
HWH: If you think of some things that we might talk about further-- and I’ll think, also-- let me know.
OLVER: O.K. Why don’t we reflect upon what we’ve been talking about and if you have responses of horror or enthusiasm to various topics I’ve raised, we could pursue them further.
HWH: Well I’ve enjoyed this.
OLVER: So have I. Thank you very much.
[END OF SIDE TWO, TAPE I
Final transcript January 19, 1980]
The interviewer and interviewee place no restrictions -- other than standard literary credit -- on the use of this transcript.
Suggested citation format:
Oral history interview with Rose Olver, 1979 October 3, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 18), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/rose-olver>
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