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II: HER WORDS • Essays


Mackenzie McDermott Oral History Project 25 April, 2014


Women in Higher Education My mother and I sat down on the balcony of our downtown St. Louis apartment at


around six thirty to talk about her life as a working mother in higher education. Stacy McDermott is a short, slight, dark haired woman with high shoulders and good posture. She grew up in a small, religious town in Indiana in the 70’s, a much different image than I have of my strongly feminist, anti-religious mother I saw when I was growing up. The strength she had while raising my sister and me, working full-time and getting her Ph. D in history made her seem like a good person to talk to about women’s issues during her time of study. Because of her knowledge in history and current project on an autobiography of Mary Lincoln, I thought it best to focus on her time in academia as she was receiving the highest level of degree in her field. The 90s—when my mother received her Ph. D.—were a time of progression when it came to women entering institutes of higher learning and getting degrees. During our interview, I learned about her childhood growing up in a fairly rural town navigating the sexism that was sometimes thrown her way by boys in her class. In terms of her experience in higher education, she felt that being a woman was never something that held her back in her field or lead to her being more heavily scrutinized for her behavior. This, it seems was not necessarily the norm for this period of time. We wrapped up our interview as the sun was beginning to set behind the city.


It wasn’t really all that long ago when women weren’t allotted the opportunity to gain an


education at all, let alone obtain a college degree. At the turn of the century, some colleges began allowing women to join their ranks and from there, the door has been steadily opening wider and wider as the decades have passed. As we entered the nineties, women started to outnumber men in terms of degrees awarded, but there were still a number of disparities that existed in for women who pursued higher education. Because of the male-dominated history of college culture, women who entered that previously exclusively masculine sphere were at risk of being isolated from and harmed by that community. There still remained an added feeling of inadequacy placed on women who chose to pursue a degree, a risk of physical and verbal abuse for their desire for education and a lesser assigned value to equal work of their male counterparts. “At 56 percent of the undergraduate student


population in 1999, women are more academically successful than their male counterparts” (249). During the rise of women in institutes of higher learning, they came to receive more degrees than men from each level of higher education—associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s—with the only exception being in the doctoral degrees in which women received only 42 percent of total degrees in 1999. Even with these great strides being made in the forwarding of women to equal level of men in higher education, there were still risks that accompanied their foray into this new territory. Women still remained in very boxed-in fields when they were able to enter college and they generally did so at schools that weren’t necessarily considered the highest quality. There was a very disproportional distribution of women and men in differing fields—with women often dominating those fields that led to lower-paying, often typically feminine jobs. Women were still outnumbered in the top-tier colleges and the colleges they did attend saw high segregation between black and white women in terms of field of study.


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