There is only one Meryl. To those of us gathered in Asbury Hall to hear her debut presentation, she appeared as if conjured up by a genie, floating slightly above the classroom floor. It was 1990, she was on campus as a job candidate, and while other events from that year have vanished from mind, I remember how her talk on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with its Merylian twists, influenced the way I read and taught Woolf from that day forward.
We were (many of us) her elders. Some, like me, were new to Women’s Studies; others, like Martha Rainbolt, Barbara Steinson and Nancy Davis, had for years been advocating for a Women’s Studies program at DePauw. A couple of pioneer WS courses had made their way onto the schedule of classes. And a small committee that called itself the Friends of Women’s Studies gathered in East College most Fridays at noon. Unrecognized and wholly unofficial, composed of faculty members, librarians, staff, and so-called “independent scholars” (a euphemism for unemployed women PhDs in Greencastle), Friends of Women’s Studies was a cauldron of plans and rebellions, of new scholarship and new ways of teaching. FWS was a tougher group than its modest name suggests, and in the late 20th century at DePauw, it was the place to be.
Into this cauldron of frustration and hope stepped Meryl. She offered what you might call a new kind of leadership. Leadership was then, and is now, the by-word of DePauw. Leaders are what DePauw students become, and arguably that’s a good thing. Nevertheless, the Friends who stirred the WS cauldron chafed at all that the word implied. In those years, leadership meant men in positions of power. It meant white men who earned high salaries and who had wives to tend to their nice homes and children. The Friends of WS rejected this model of power and human relationships.
And so Meryl re-styled leadership from head to toe. In place of bravado came understatement -- understatement so finely crafted that her listeners laughed, even when they should have been crying. In place of proclamations came a voice and a presence that was droll, witty, sometimes coy, and when need-be, withering. Meryl spoke up at meetings. When she decided to argue, she looped, hovered, and dove through the air like a bird of prey targeting its next meal. But her targets were worthy prey: pettiness, intellectual cowardice, bullying, willingness to compromise one’s ideals. Meryl wore her learning lightly, as the expression goes, but when she needed back-up, she’d draw on artists, poets, philosophers, and characters from her favorite novels -- all the women and men whose work had shaped her thinking, and whose ideas she wielded like a warrior. Well, a warrior-leader.
Gradually, with a steadiness that amazes me, Meryl built one of the strongest programs of Women’s Studies one can imagine. She made alliances and friendships across campus, creating within a few years a long list of Women’s Studies affiliated faculty members and dozens of new cross-listed courses. Working with the Steering Committee, she created the first WS core courses -- Introduction, Methods, and Feminist Theory -- and the first WS major and minor. She helped sort out which problems the faculty committee should address and which were best handled by allied groups in Student Affairs. At the time, this work seemed complicated and messy. Yet from the perspective of thirty years in the future, it’s clear that WS evolved in a rapid, intelligent way. The WS program became a model for DePauw’s other new interdisciplinary programs, and the original WS major, with revisions and expansions, has become the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program on the books today.
One of the most important ideas emerging from Meryl’s early work has also been among the most lasting: the simple principle that in the classroom, every voice must be heard, and that the best, most lasting, learning takes place when every student has a stake in what happens in that classroom. This simple idea underpins the First-Year Seminar Program that Meryl helped design, and feminist principles of inclusivity that she promoted have been embraced across the disciplines. “And the connection to English?” you may ask. Meryl was hired in English partly because the new WS coordinator needed the protection of an established department to assure that she’d be supported fairly for tenure and promotion; at the time, an extra-departmental hire was out of the question. As a new PhD from Columbia University, she was hired because her scholarship was dazzling. And she was hired because the English department knew that her imaginative courses in modern poetry, women, and gender would enrich our literature offerings and attract smart students.
A few years ago, when Meryl and I were talking about one colleague or another, the way you do, Meryl said, “Some people say that X is difficult, but I beg to differ. X is a pain in the neck. I am difficult.”
“How true,” I thought.
Difficulty may be looked at in many ways. After all, the Special Theory of Relativity was difficult when it appeared in 1905, forcing physicists to rethink long-held beliefs about time and space. Meryl’s no Einstein (she failed Astronomy in her first year at Swarthmore!) but she demands that her readers and her students rethink ideas that they take as the unassailable truth.
More to the point may be the difficulty of Simone de Beauvoir’s two-volume, 836-page treatise The Second Sex, written in the late 1940s and translated today into 40 languages. Like de Beauvoir, Meryl is a long read. And like de Beauvoir, she knows what she’s talking about: she understands how ideas shape and transform human lives. Her ideas belong to no country and they have lasting power.
How fitting, therefore, and how timely, that Meryl’s book, Beauvoir in Time: Sexuality, Race, and Transatlantic Feminism, is coming out this summer. Meryl’s scholarship, now and through the years, reminds us why the history of ideas matters, why speaking out matters, and how a brave writer can help us reimagine what it means to be a woman.
-Tribute by Marnie McInnes