The Academic Feminist: On the loss of academic feminism’s godmother, Mariam K. Chamberlain

chamberlain1_0Welcome back, Academic Feminists. In a diversion from our usual format, instead of featuring an interview, this edition of the Academic Feminist pays tribute to one of the less widely known, but hugely influential figures in feminist academia and beyond, Dr. Mariam K. Chamberlain. Mariam, who I was fortunate enough to count as a close friend and mentor, died on April 2, 2013, a few weeks shy of her 95th birthday.

Part of the gift of coming to feminism from academia, like many of us from younger generations do, is that we get to learn about extraordinary women who have been sidelined in mainstream accounts of history. But rarely do we learn about the women who made it possible for us to learn this history within the academy in the first place; those who built the foundation for the women’s and gender studies programs, centers, and departments, that we take for granted these days. Today I want to introduce you to one of those women: Dr. Mariam K. Chamberlain.

Mariam was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1918, the daughter of Armenian immigrants. She received a scholarship to Radcliffe College, at a time when women were not allowed to attend Harvard. She went on to receive her PhD in economics from Harvard (Radcliffe had no graduate program) and, after a period of work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, became a Program Officer for the Ford Foundation in 1956, where she worked until 1981.

During Mariam’s tenure at Ford, she directed over $5 million in support of the creation of women’s studies centers and women’s research organizations around the country and worldwide.  After leaving Ford, Mariam became a founding member of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the founder of the National Council for Research on Women. She also served on the boards of various women’s organizations and authored several books, including: Women in Academe: Progress and Prospects, Women of Color and the Multicultural Curriculum: Transforming the College Classroom (with Liza Fiol-Matta), and a chapter in The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from 30 Founding Mothers.

I met Mariam in the last decade of her life – she was 85 and I was 25, and had just begun working  at the National Council for Research on Women. Although she had retired as the Council’s first President well over a decade before, Mariam still came to the office every day, taking the subway from her apartment in mid-town east to our offices off Wall Street. While at the outset, our pairing might seem an unlikely one, over the years Mariam became not only an important mentor, but a close friend. Even after we both left the Council, Mariam and I enjoyed meals together, had long phone conversations when I was out of town, attended feminist galas and celebrated holidays together several times a year, along with a group of feminist friends from all generations. 

Our closeness was due in no small part to the fact that, despite her age and wide experience in the field, Mariam remained, until her dying day, genuinely interested in the feminism of the present. Although she wasn’t on the internet much (though I have a great story from the day I taught her how to “google”), she often asked me what younger generations of feminists were doing to further the cause, and was an avid ally of contemporary feminist work online and off. In sum, our friendship was a daily reminder of the power–and pleasure–of intergenerational feminism not only for the movement at large, but in our everyday lives.

It is therefore fitting, I think, that I am posting this tribute on the day of the #FemFuture launch at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, spearheaded by Vanessa and Courtney. As part of her work during her time at Ford, Mariam gave a grant to BCRW to help start the feminist scholarly journal Signs which, decades later, is one of the most prestigious journals in the field. As we enter the next phase of the feminist movement, I know that the “godmother” of feminism is looking down and smiling, safe with the knowledge that the revolution she helped begin continues.

You can learn more about Mariam’s life here, here, here, and here.

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