Emory Report
September 19, 2005
Volume 58, Number 4


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September 19, 2005
Pioneering career women tell life stories

BY Chanmi Kim

It was a celebration of two women, a conversation between two pioneers, a dialogue that crossed racial boundaries, an understanding between two mothers, an impromptu chat between two professors who laughed about having gone to see Menopause: The Musical together.

Frances Smith Foster, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Women’s Studies, and Martha Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, were the narrators of the seventh annual “Telling Our Stories,” held Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Miller-Ward Alumni House. Sponsored by the Center for Women, the event provides an opportunity for about 100 faculty, staff and students to listen in on an intimate conversation between two prominent Emory women.

As the night unfolded, so did the stories of two women struggling to establish their careers in the 1970s. These were the stories of two women pioneers facing difficulties of gender stereotypes in their respective fields; stories of two mothers juggling professional and domestic lives; stories of courage, perseverance and strength.

When Foster applied for her first teaching position, a man in the department wanted to know why she couldn’t just be a stay-at-home housewife. “You have a husband who can support you,” she was told. “Why do you need a job?”

Fineman encountered similar discouragements as a career-driven woman. When members of her University of Chicago law class of 18 women complained about the lack of female professors, they were told that “there was not a single woman in the country who was qualified to teach at [the University of] Chicago.” After she got a job, Fineman was asked if she expected to get special treatment because she was a single mother of four children.

Foster also spoke of her struggles as not only a career woman in the 1970s but as an African American in academia. She applied for a position in the English department at San Diego State but was placed instead in the African American studies department—without even being notified in advance.

But for Foster, just getting that far was miraculous. “I never intended to be a professor,” she said. “In eighth grade, I was told I could never be a professor but, if I worked really hard, maybe I could be a secretary in the field.”

At Emory, Foster is not a secretary; she chairs the department. She also holds a chaired professorship in English and women’s studies, and is an associated faculty member in African American and American studies. Before coming to Emory in 1994, she taught at San Diego State. She has written and edited more than 10 books and numerous articles, and has been a fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute and a senior fellow of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University.

Fineman is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. She taught at University of Wisconsin and Columbia University before joining Cornell’s law school in 1999 as the country’s first endowed chair in feminist jurisprudence. In addition to serving on several government commissions, Fineman is founder and director of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project. As Emory’s newest Robert W. Woodruff Professor, she teaches family law, feminist jurisprudence, law and sexuality, reproductive issues, and select topics in feminist legal theory.

Fineman said she was driven by a desire to “invent American history.” And by participating in “Telling Our Stories,” both Fineman and Foster have: The stories they told that night were taped and archived.

“I have spent over 30 years in stories,” Foster said. “And I realized how important it is to tell a good story, not a sweet story.”