THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Catharine R. Stimpson
“Failure is inevitable. Trial and error consists of two words; trial and error. Don’t be afraid. You’re not broken by one failure.”
Interviewed by Rebecca Lubetkin, VFA Board, February 2021
RL: My name is Rebecca Lubetkin and today is February 16th, 2021. I will be interviewing Dr. Catharine Stimpson, a feminist scholar, and a university professor of English at New York University. There’s a lot more all listed along with this link on the VFA page. We’re going to talk today about how Catharine Stimpson became Catharine Stimpson. Welcome, Cate. Is it OK if I call you Cate?
CS: That’s what you called me 30 years ago. Why not? I want to thank the VFA for making me a part of the archives. It’s good to see you again. My experience at Rutgers was one of which I am enormously proud. I have happy, sometimes irritated, memories of aspects of Rutgers like insufficient funding of state university. But I had a wonderful time there and there was just the most terrific group of people.
I have this crystal memory of those years I spent at Rutgers with great affection. Everybody should notice that I spell Catharine in a rather different way. It’s C-a-t-h-a as in apple pie, –r-i-n-e. The middle name is Roslyn and the last name is Stimpson. I was born on June 4th, 1936, in what was then a small town in the northwest corner of the state of Washington called Bellingham. It was named after the English explorer who would come into the waters that properly belonged to the indigenous people. The middle name spelling I gave you was Roslyn, but there’s another spelling, which is Rosalind.
CS: Exactly. As You Like It. The first piece of theatre I ever saw was when my wonderful mother drove us down to Seattle to see a touring company of As You Like It with Katharine Hepburn sprinting about the stage as Rosalind and Orlando in his tights. My love affair with theatre is one of the deepest of my life and that is one of the places I fell in love. For years I thought my middle name was spelled Rosalind and then I had to get my birth certificate in order to get a passport and it was Roslyn on my birth certificate. I thought, this is not who I am.
But the story behind that is that was a small coal mining town in the state of Washington where my grandfather, Edward Stimpson, had practiced as a mine doctor when my father and my aunt Mabel had been born. His first wife, my angel grandmother, had died when the children were very small. Later it’s where a famous television show was filmed. What was my father’s thinking? Because he filled out the birth certificate. Whether my mother said Rosalind and my father heard Roslyn, I don’t know.
All I know is that I thought I was Shakespearean and I turned out to be a mining town in the state of Washington where my family had been born and died. I have alternated between them ever since. In most of the official documents I’m Roslyn, but there is a bifurcation there. Although to say it’s a bifurcation is totally unfair to all the pioneers who took Shakespeare and the Bible with them as they “conquered the land.” So, I have a double name.
RL: You have a double name.
CS: A double middle name but it also represents two really important parts of me. So, Shakespeare is the child who fell in love with literature and theater and made it part of her profession. And Roslyn is the state of Washington and that is very deep in me that I was born in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Luckily, Bellingham had a small teacher’s college which is still a state university. It was because of the college [that] it was not as provincial as it could have been.
Because it was a teacher’s college, it had a lab school run by the most extraordinary group, all of them advocates of John Dewey and Progressive Education. The great pilgrimage on the part of these women was to spend a year in New York at Teachers College. My siblings and I were the beneficiary of a progressive education that flourished. There was one room where we learned to read and another room where we learned how to use hammers. But we were Westin kids, so we knew how to use hammers anyway. There was also not only growing up with all that natural beauty, growing up in a small provincial town, but a fortunate provincial town. I wanted to get out. I’ve never gotten out.
RL: Before we get out, at least partially, what was there in this Dewey-inspired education or even before in your home life, which propelled you toward where you ended up going? Besides Shakespeare?
CS: Shakespeare’s quite a lot.
RL: Were there siblings?
CS: I had six brothers and sisters. My older brother is now dead but I grew up in this large family. The key to my character is growing up in unbelievable natural beauty. To a pioneering family. My mother’s family had lived in Iowa and had come out to Bellingham where my mother was born. My father’s family had come from England when my grandfather was a small boy and had made their way across the country going bankrupt all the way. There was this raw pioneering spirit combined with enormous natural beauty. There are a lot of very bad things you could say about American pioneers, and I can say them all. But when they went out, they’d build a church, they’d build a school, and there were copies of Shakespeare and the Bible.
Both families were passionate believers in education, the American credo, often violated and administered unequally, but the American credo of education and language and reading. The world of the mind – it was there in the household. My father was a doctor with a very broad GP, general practice. It’s not that we just sat huddled in our own little nice doctor’s house. Daddy took us on visits to patients and visits to the county hospital.
We were taken in the hospital to cheer up the patients. It was this great troupe of people and now there’s animals that help people in hospitals. If you could survive the huge group of Stimpsons, I suppose you’d be cheered up. You flatter me by calling me a pioneering activist and scholar but it was in the spirit of pioneering I ended up going to college. At that point very few people went to college. The community colleges came later. My mother was a trustee on the original Whatcom County Community College, an incredible organization. College was not that alien because of the teacher’s college in town.
RL: You chose to go across the country.
CS: Yes, because the mecca were the Eastern colleges until the massification of higher education. It was just Harvard, Yale and for the women, the Seven Sisters Colleges. I read about them in Life magazine, I didn’t even know how to pronounce the names.
RL: What made them attractive to you?
CS: Intellectual life, a broader group. I grew up in the most beautiful, imaginable part of the world and I’m very grateful for it. I was six years old and my mother is ironing. My father is away at the Second World War as is every man of the right age in my family. We’re in a little shack by the water in a place called Birch Bay. I was tired and I rest my chin on the ironing board and I say I want to go East to one of those colleges, Mom.
CS: Six. She said, I’ll help you. Maybe I was seven. But my father was away, so it would have been during the Second World War. Like many of us, I read very early. Reading, not television, maybe a little radio. Reading was the pathway to larger worlds.
RL: Where do you fit in among the seven children?
CS: I think it should be clear. I have an older brother named after my father and my grandfather Edward. And I am Catharine, I was the next, named after my mother and my great grandmother. The generational names went to my older brother and to me. Then I had four younger sisters, and then a baby brother that died and then a baby brother that survived in 1950. Between 1934 and 1950, my mother gave birth to eight children, seven of whom survived. I love my brothers and sisters. I’m very lucky to be in this brood. I can’t imagine being an only child, who do you talk to?
RL: And remembering that memories are institutional for your family?
CS: Oh, yes.
RL: If you don’t have them, there’s nobody.
CS: We have very different memories, but we put the memories together, we are a close family.
RL: I have a similar configuration in that my mother had six kids in 10 years, but the first five were in four years. One boy, five girls and I know the feeling. The recognition of gender inequities, did that come early or was that something that you read about but didn’t really experience?
CS: I’ve written about this as well. Signals were passed down. My mother’s older sister got a PhD in chemistry from Yale. Education, education, education. But I didn’t really know about all the difficulties she had. My grandmother – men may work from sun to sun, but women’s work is never done. My mother was a brilliant woman, but until my father died, she married him and ran a small family business to support her mother until I was born. Then she was Katie Stimpson, she ran the house. My father was a very active father, but still she was in charge. It was the traditional gender role, not viciously so, but still.
I remember making the beds with her on Saturday morning. Girls were making the beds and questioning why my dad and brother didn’t make their own beds. Then my brother and some boys in the neighborhood set up something called The All-American Club in the basement. I went there and sat there and they said you can’t be here. I said I’m going to be here, I dared them to throw me out. Sat there on the stupid cot, clutching the mattress, daring them to throw me out.
I think the club dissolved because they had their choice of trying to throw me out, but that would have gotten them in trouble, of putting up with me and they didn’t want to do that. My poor brother, he had a remarkable career and was a man much admired and for very, very good reason. But he had his difficulties. Seven children, you understand sibling rivalry. You love each other, you’re taught to live together happily, and you do but seven children very close in age.
RL: Absolutely. Your older brother and you were in a class of your own, it sounds like.
CS: No, no. My sister Mary was born 18 months later and then my sister Susan and my sister Jane. They were beautiful children and we were loved. I had the greatest good fortune growing up: I never, never doubted that there would be food on the table. Even when all the men were away, my grandfather was taking care of the family. I never doubted for a minute that I would be fit. I never doubted for a minute that I would go to sleep in my own bed.
It is the greatest gift parents can give. I was loved, I was made secure, we all were. It’s part of what drives so many of us, I believe. The sense of unfairness that many children are not given this gift. What’s wrong with our society that we can’t give children this basic reassurance that you will have dinner, you will be in a secure bed to go to sleep.
RL: Get a decent education. But you chose a women’s college. And you chose to come out east. Was that a culture change for you?
CS: Sheer vertigo. In terms of my choice, I had a choice between Wellesley and Radcliffe-Bryn Mawr, but I had been recruited to Bryn Mawr. My brother went to Harvard before me, but when recruiting white Westerners, this was considered diversity. A recruiter came to our high school. My mother and I got a note asking us to come to tea with the president of Bryn Mawr in Seattle. We put on our best clothes and drove down and the president was an extraordinary woman who was very important in my life.
She was a tall psychologist named Katherine McBride and she put her hand on my shoulder and said you’re the kind of girl we want to bring on. And that was it I was recruited. I was recruited with dignity; I was the charm. It was exactly the right college for me. Of the women’s colleges, it was known as perhaps the most “bluestocking.” American collegiate gothic. There was architectural beauty – it’s not that people lived in concrete cinderblock houses in Bellingham [but] I was intimidated. 75% of the girls had gone to private schools. It was part of the time where kids who came from public schools were two years behind.
I ended up president of the undergraduate association. It was a place that took women seriously, it took these girls and their minds seriously. I still live off the intellectual capital of that education. I often felt under enormous pressure, but I seized it. When I was president of the undergraduate association, there would be monthly dinners at Miss McBride’s house. I would sit there beside her and I imbibed a number of very important lessons about tact and diplomacy. That kind of atmosphere is perhaps easier if you’re born into it. It’s one thing that our common school, Rutgers, I would often rage about is Old Queens was a nice old building. I was enraged that the state would not give its young men and women a decent building, not just cinderblock. Let them have a sense of beauty through architecture.
RL: When you graduated from Bryn Mawr, you went directly to graduate school?
CS: I wanted to study in England and I won a Fulbright scholarship and was admitted to Cambridge. I went to Cambridge for two years. I was not a stellar student, but I had a wonderful time. It was a great moment of theatre in Cambridge and I acted with people who went on to be household names in British theatre. And then the decision was will I stay in Europe? Or will I come home? If I’m going to stay in Europe, what am I going to do? I knew somehow, I didn’t want to marry the boys who came calling. I also am very American. The great French writer Elaine Sussman said I’m the most bourgeois American she knows. At first my feelings were hurt; then I saw the truth of it.
RL: Was it an adjustment to be going to classes with males as well as females? And were there differences in treatment?
CS: Well, no, what you have to remember is Bryn Mawr had set up a small set of coordinated classes with Haverford College, which is right next door, and so I took a class at Haverford. I had gone to a public high school; I knew exactly what it was like to go to school with boys. I knew what it was like to be one of three girls in the physics class. Cambridge had women’s colleges so my tutorials were with women. Possibly what it introduced me to was gay men, although it was a closet culture. But still, I didn’t see that then. I was so happy in England that I was less attentive to the darker sides. I heard the racist comments, they would say horrible things about people from the empire. I had to sharpen my analysis.
RL: I do want to talk about the great contribution you made as the founding editor of Signs: A Journal of Women and Culture and culture and society. I want you to talk a little bit about the inspiration that made you feel you would find a market for such a scholarly undertaking and that it would continue. It’s still in existence today. It’s gone from 1975 and now we’re in 2021.
CS: Yes, two crucial things. The group of founding editors made a decision that the editorship should be rotating so it never got stale. If I’d stayed on as editor, I don’t think I would have handled digitalization as well as Mary did. It was that rotation all across the country that gave it a lot of vibrancy. Two was the University of Chicago press, it had a stable institution behind it.
One of the great debates in early women’s studies was autonomy or mainstreaming integration and each has its virtues and its strengths. Signs had a stable structure behind it and feminist studies didn’t. The editors of feminist studies were very angry with me. But they kept it going until it was taken over by an institution – but all praise and power to them.
The story was fairly simple. A woman named Jean Sacks was head of the journal’s division of the University of Chicago Press. It also had an innovative publisher named Morris Philipson, and they both would become very good friends. Jean Sacks was married to a literary critic named Sheldon Sacks. He became the founding editor of one of the most important journals of literary and cultural criticism we have, which is still going, called Critical Inquiry. Jean said, “It’s time to do something for women,” and went looking for an editor. At that point, I was at Barnard and chaired the committee that founded the Barnard Women’s Center. We had an event called The Scholar and The Feminist to show how activism and scholarship work together.
RL: What year was that?
CS: The first Scholar and the Feminist was early ’70s. Jean came to the Scholar and the Feminist conference. We were all so new and young. I think she asked Caroline Hybrid to edit it. She was far more established than I was. I got the impression, in part from Caroline, that she had turned it down. So, Jean and I met over lunch and we took to each other. Maybe it was whimsical on her part, I was barely tenured, I was kid. She checked me out, she learned that I would be sympathetic to the social sciences and the sciences. And I sat down and shacked out here in the Northlake and the design came to me, the essential format. On a manual typewriter I drew up a proposal and she got it through the press of Chicago. Morris was a very far-seeing publisher. It was a dream to be able to do it.
RL: It was a dream to have it to people who are beginning even in my area, which was an applied area of how to change schools, we had no theoretical base. We had nobody before us who could present data that we could use on which to design training programs for teachers and organizational practices in institutions.
It was so unusual that I remember there is a story that back in the early ’70s there was a plan to develop a women’s feminist magazine, which eventually became Ms. It was developed as part of New York magazine at the time. The story is that one of the newscasters in New York said it would only last six months because that’s about as much time as there would be articles of and about women. I don’t remember who that person was.
CS: It could have been anybody.
RL: But that was the prevailing idea, so for you to have that vision and for Jean Sacks to have the vision that this would be a go and that this was exactly what was needed at the time, was pretty remarkable.
CS: I knew what was out there. We were doing the work. I knew what the work was, you go to The Scholar and The Feminist conferences. Some of the first early anthologies were coming up, it was a series of networks. Jill Bursty, who was at Rutgers in education, I asked her to be an associate editor. And Donna Stanton, who went on to an extraordinary career, was our international editor. Chicago sent us a managing editor named Sandra Whistler. The editorial assistant was a young Barnard undergraduate student with adventurous spirit.
My idea was founded on two principles: one, use footnotes. The earliest issues of Signs were very austere and deliberately so. That was an esthetic decision that carried with it a set of intellectual principles. No poetry; footnotes, impeccable, nobody was to doubt us. The same way the documentation was going on about the status of women across the professions and across the world, this was the parallel to this deep documentation – this is tough. This is no frills. You cannot doubt this work, you’re going to try. Well good luck to you, you’re going to try. I always like to show this book when I’m asked about the distant past. There are so many incredible names on the advisory board that includes Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They all went on to do incredible things.
RL: This was early in their careers.
CS: For the most part. There are some people who had been at it for a long time. The names I want you to know: associate editors Joan Bursztyn from Douglas College at Rutgers, Donna Stanton was also teaching at Barnard. Note the importance of the women’s colleges. Joan was teaching at Douglas at Rutgers, a new women’s college. Donna and I were both at Barnard. I was a Bryn Mawr graduate, she was a Wellesley graduate. At one point on the MLA, the Modern Language Association Commission on the Status of Women, 70% of us had gone to Bryn Mawr.
It was the strength you got from the women’s colleges. You didn’t have to do it, it wasn’t necessary, by no means was it necessary. But it was helpful. I’m so pleased that Kamala Harris is a Howard graduate. We see the spirit and the strength that came from the HBCU’s. Editorial assistant, Martha J. Nelson, Barnard graduate. My principles were footnotes, but also everybody who came to New York had to come to our one room office and we served perfectly awful champagne called Korbel’s. It wasn’t perfectly awful, it just wasn’t exactly cool, but we could afford it.
Martha Nelson went on to have one of the extraordinary careers in magazine publishing. She was at Ms. for a bit and she edited women’s sports. Then she founded a magazine called InStyle, one of the great, enormous success stories of magazine publishing in the late 2000s and early 2000s. Then she became the first woman editor in chief at Time Inc. and she got one of several richly earned awards for women in media and she invited me to come to the ceremony. Cate was her first boss. You never knew quite what was going to happen, but you knew what you wanted to happen.
RL: When you think about the co-educational institutions, that you became a part of: Rutgers, NYU, and you think also about your experiences at Barnard and Bryn Mawr as an undergraduate, did you see a difference in the way women were perceived, respected, and treated in the undergraduate as opposed to the women’s colleges?
CS: It’s easy to get lost as an undergraduate in a way that is hard to do in a small, private liberal arts college, whether it’s co-educational or single sex. I was at Rutgers at an extraordinary time. Ed Bloustein was president and he was married to Ruth, who was as feisty and fiery as they come. Tom Kane was a liberal governor and Rutgers had this extraordinary group of women scholars: Burma Zeltein was at Douglass. Elaine Showalter was at Douglass, Mary Hartman was at Douglass and many others, like Ruth Mandel and they were establishing the Institute for American Women in Politics.
And then I was asked to take it over, the Institute for Research on Women. They were great institution builders. It’s not as if I had gone from a feminist paradise to a patriarchal jungle. I saw that in some of the state legislators, all due respect. I’ve written an article called “Aging in the Classroom” and it was in Change a couple of years ago. The boys were different, part of that was class and I felt that. It was a different place. By the time I got there, there were very strong women there.
Certainly, I was in institutions that I can call patriarchal. But I never felt that I was going to be devoured, but I was very fortunate in that way. I may have seen a little bit more at the MacArthur Foundation, liberal philanthropy. So, I saw it. Then I went into administration for reasons that still amuse everybody. I was made acting graduate dean and then graduate dean. So, it was there, but in my experience, it was not vicious. Except the athletic committee, I asked to be put on the athletics committee.
I had to fight there, and that was a fight about [how] patriarchy and sports were inseparable. Before Title IX took over, sports were inseparable from a masculinized culture. I am grateful for having been part of big institutions that were willing to change. When I went into administration, things were different. You sort of knew who the good guys were, I think my predecessor was perhaps a bit of a male chauvinist or so I was told by the secretaries. I was raised to be polite but some people experience being slightly pugnacious.
RL: Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you were expecting to be asked or wanting to be asked before we finish up?
CS: No, it’s been very good to talk to you. One question I’m often asked is, why did you not become a college president? I went deliberately into an administrative track and there’s always a price to be paid for that. I was playing ping pong with my brother in the basement of our home in Bellingham. We both were out of college by then and he was a very distinguished man in aviation. And such an honorable guy known as big honest Ed.
He asked if I would be a president and I said I didn’t think so. Then after being on boards of colleges, I don’t think I would have hired me. I think you’re never quite sure who you were going to get – if you were going to get. The girl who was tutored by Katherine McBride or the wild woman from Bellingham, Washington. And I think also sexuality, of course. After I met Liz, I was just too open and I’d lived a fairly bohemian life in New York anyway. I was a generation too early. I’m not going to say that’s the reason. But I got a little feedback and think that was possibly a reason in a couple of searches that I permitted myself to go into. I’m not sure that I would have been the right choice.
RL: As a scholar and an activist and all of the other things that you gave to the world.
CS: But also, I realized that I appreciate the chance to serve on boards, I like being on boards. I like being a part of institutions. I believe in institutions that have certain principles. We must have institutions, we must have churches and hospitals and schools and nonprofit societies, we just must. I like being on boards, but I learned at the MacArthur Foundation I didn’t much like reporting to the board. That sounds really awful but some of it’s still in an anarchistic spirit I guess, I don’t mean to flatter myself.
RL: You come across as such a real person, if people are looking at your 32-page CV, they have no sense of who you really are. I appreciate the time that you’ve spent with me and with us. I appreciate the fact that historians years from now will hear your story in your own voice. It will be more authentic and more accurate than anything that they can devise from your CV. I appreciate getting this chance to capture it.
CS: Well, thank you so much for your questions. It’s good to see you again.