Myra Dinnerstein is a trailblazer who cleared the path for increased opportunities for women. In 1975, Dinnerstein battled resistant administrators to start the women’s studies program at the University of Arizona. During that time, she met Laurel Wilkening, then an assistant professor in planetary science, who joined Dinnerstein’s band of women faculty from across campus who lent their voices and hard work to the cause of creating the new program.
Because of her passionate support for women’s causes and her admiration for Dinnerstein, Wilkening – who later became the first female chancellor of University of California, Irvine – has created an estate gift: The Myra Dinnerstein International Travel Fund for Dissertation Research on Women. The fellowship, which will be administered by the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, will be awarded to graduate students in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences who need to travel to another country to conduct research on women. Both Dinnerstein and Wilkening received fellowships as graduate students that allowed them to travel internationally, and now they want to help make that life-changing experience possible for future generations.
Wilkening was adamant that the fellowship be in her friend’s and mentor’s name: “Myra’s leadership created an atmosphere that gave hope to an era of equity and aspiration.”
The Golden Years
Dinnerstein’s infectious laugh and warm demeanor belie a steely resolve to protect women’s rights. She speaks of the years fighting for women’s studies as “great fun” and “the golden years,” despite or perhaps because of the battle. “It was a wonderful, exciting time.”
In the early 1970s, Dinnerstein, doctorate in hand, followed her professor husband, Leonard Dinnerstein, to the University of Arizona. Desperate for work, she began teaching any UA history course she could, including “A History of Women,” a course which raised her consciousness about women’s issues.
“The women’s movement was heating up all over the country, and female researchers across the UA began meeting and talking about starting a program,” Dinnerstein said. Dinnerstein took the reins, she says, because: “I was the only one who didn’t have a job. The tenure-track professors were told it would be very bad for them to join what was perceived to be a radical women’s studies program.”
There were obstacles to the creation of the program. “We were not taken seriously at first,” said Dinnerstein. “They did not think we were legitimate. We had to show the administrators that we were about serious research, not about hating men.”
Dinnerstein admits she got into the political game and learned how to work the system to gain support for the program, which was given meager resources. “I loved the struggle, especially when we would win. We did have the support of a number of male administrators and faculty; although, it took a bit of time before some of the more conservative guys came around. I must say a lot of them became our biggest boosters.”
Dinnerstein is emphatic that the women’s studies program was a grassroots, group effort, fueled by the tireless work of women from all over campus.
Because the program had no faculty of its own – just Dinnerstein and a half-time secretary – it relied on courses taught by women in other departments, which could be cross-listed under women’s studies.
“Here are these women who got no credit for doing anything with women’s studies,” said Dinnerstein. “But they were very dedicated and worked many hours, and without them there wouldn’t have been a program.”
Laurel Wilkening was one of those women. Wilkening joined their feminist reading group and helped create WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), which was designed to attract female university students, as well as middle school and high school girls, to careers in science, engineering and math.
Other programs started in the early days still exist today, such as the Southwest Institute for Research on Women (SIROW) and the Women’s Studies Advisory Council (WOSAC).
SIROW was created in 1979, Dinnerstein said, because women’s studies needed money, and they thought getting grants would be a good strategy. At that time, the Ford Foundation was helping set up women’s studies research centers around the country. Dinnerstein made her plea to Ford on the importance of a regional research center in the Southwest, and SIROW was born. Receiving large grants from places like the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Family Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities also helped the burgeoning women’s studies program gain credibility in the eyes of senior administrators.
WOSAC, a community group of women who lend their financial support and influence to the women’s studies program, was inspired by Dinnerstein’s discovery that Stanford’s women’s studies program had such a group.
“I begged, borrowed and stole from whatever was working at other places,” said Dinnerstein. “I had no shame.”
Dr. Marilyn Heins, who co-created WOSAC with the late Dorothy Finley, said, “The important thing to remember about the history of WOSAC is that it all started with Myra, the most amazing mover and shaker I have ever met. She combined gracious gentleness with fierce but friendly tenacity, always in the proper combination, to move mountains. And she succeeded.”
In 1982, Dinnerstein helped found the Association for Women Faculty, a group focused on issues such as pay equity, tenure and work overload as they related to women. Wilkening helped with statistical analysis for their first argument for pay equity across campus.
Dinnerstein, a mother of two, readily admits that her long hours on the job would not have been possible without the hands-on support of her husband.
“It wouldn’t have worked out if I hadn’t had Leonard to take up most of the slack, and there was a whole lot of slack,” said Dinnerstein. “Leonard was the Girl Scout cookie captain. That was unusual during that time.”
In 1989 when Dinnerstein stepped down as head, the women’s studies program was fully established, although it did not gain full department status until 1997.
“I loved almost every minute of the job, despite the frustrations and problems,” Dinnerstein wrote in “A Political Education.” “What I liked particularly was the sense of camaraderie, the exhilaration of working with like-minded women, and the fun. Who could ever forget the deep-bellied laughter of feminists plotting their next move?”
Dinnerstein says that despite the clear progress that has been made in women’s rights, there are still plenty of challenges, from equity in pay, to work/home balance, to assaults on women’s reproductive rights.
“These things come in waves,” said Dinnerstein. “The first wave was for the vote. The second wave was in the ’60s and ’70s with the women’s movement. There has been enormous progress, but there is still a lot to be done.”