Retiring history professor Barbara Steinson discusses history of Women’s Studies at DePauw


The lights in Peeler auditorium went dark for a moment in the midst of Barbara Steinson’s talk, entitled “You’ve Got to be Kidding”, but neither the speaker nor her audience were phased.

Having been a professor at DePauw since 1978--and a key member of the committee that would eventually convince then-DePauw President Robert Bottoms to create the “Women’s Studies Coordinator” on campus--Steinson covered her own career at her lecture and how she came to be involved in women’s studies, as well as the creation of that department on DePauw’s campus.

“Barbara suggested that the focus could be less on her academic accomplishments—which are many—and more on her work as an activist on this campus,” said Women’s Studies Director Tamara Beauboeuf in her brief introduction.

Steinson, who is retiring at the end of this semester, garnered a laugh from the packed auditorium even before beginning to speak herself. During Professor of English and Women’s Studies Meryl Altman’s reminisces, Altman touched on the faculty vote for the creation of a women’s studies major.

“I was up all night the night before, thinking up these really good arguments for why this was a good thing, and answering questions and really prepping for this debate,” she said. “But we got in there, and someone made the motion, and someone asked a question and I answered it. And then there was silence. So somebody said, are we ready to vote for this? And everybody voted for it.”

At that, Steinson threw up a fist pump from where she was waiting behind the podium.

Steinson herself did not neglect to mention the names of other women important to the women’s studies movement on DePauw’s campus. She cited Mary Beard, a women’s rights activist who graduated from DePauw in 1897, as well as past DePauw professors Sarah Jane Williams and Margaret Berrio as inspirations and leaders.

After former DePauw President Richard Rosser “laughed in my face”, according to Steinson, when she proposed the idea of a women’s studies coordinator, she found Bottoms more receptive to the idea, and in fact even secured an endowment for the position from Janet Prindle, but there were still many hoops to jump through. A committee came together to outline what they were looking for in this position.

“We outlined—at minimum—three different jobs,” Steinson said.

Even once a candidate had been found, she wasn’t quite perfect. Though the committee hired her in the spring of 1897, she requested a year off to complete a fellowship at the University of Adelaide in Australia, and at the end of that year, announced that she had decided to stay down under.

“I probably broke his eardrum with my response, which I think was probably to scream, ‘are you kidding me?’” she said. “I was just stunned. She hadn’t even had the courtesy to contact the women’s studies search committee. I’ve written here in capital letters: many bad words were uttered.”

This delay meant that it wasn’t until the fall of 1990 that a women’s studies coordinator was successfully hired: Meryl Altman.

By the end of the evening, the floor was opened up to questions, upon which the discussion veered into some of the more interesting histories of DePauw: shared professorships between spouses and the male faculty-only nude pool hour—that was later invaded by a woman psychology professor and prompted swimsuits to be worn again.

She ended her talk with a “favorite” quote from Beard:

“’If modern women could, in their thinking, move closer to the center of life, understand where they actually get sustenance, how they are in fact either building up or tearing down civilizations, then strengthened and glorified by their historic and potential role in culture, they might answer one of the greatest riddles of the universe: what do women want of life, and come nearer to getting it.’”