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Marilyn Yalom breaks ground again

May 19 2015

Is it possible to imagine the Clayman Institute without its Jing Lyman Lectures? Its tradition of collaborative books and publications? Its beloved Serra House? Not likely, but such might be the case if not for former Institute director and scholar, Marilyn Yalom, PhD. Yalom was a pioneer in the founding of the Institute in the 1970s, establishing many of its most important and enduring programs. Today, this octogenarian continues to break new ground as a senior scholar and best-selling author of several books critically hailed for their fresh and incisive perspectives on women, gender and other topics.

Yalom’s trailblazing role with the Clayman Institute began nearly 40 years ago, shortly after it opened its doors as the Center for Research on Women (CROW). Leaving a full professorship in foreign languages at California State University, East Bay, Yalom become CROW’s first research scholar in 1976.  At that time, as the first institute in the nation devoted to research on women and gender, the Center faced formidable challenges: at the university itself, there were few tenured women faculty members, and even fewer gender scholars. The broader women’s movement community was in upheaval, with diverse and divided views on the best agendas and strategies for addressing the glaring inequalities faced by women in the workplace, academia and society.  Yalom immediately began a series of far-reaching initiatives that would bring together members of the women and gender scholarship communities, and place the Center at the global forefront of research on gender issues.

Laying the Institute’s Foundation

One of Yalom’s first contributions was launching CROW’s Visiting and Affiliate Scholars Program to advance the Center’s research agenda. Recalls Yalom, “At a time when we had few women faculty at Stanford, and few feminist voices, it was essential to bring in the visiting and affiliate scholars to contribute.” The program granted vital library access, credentials and networking opportunities to independent researchers and writers. “One of the things I feel proudest about is that we helped a lot of women early in their careers, and seeded some of the professorships they secured elsewhere,” she notes.

During this time, Yalom also established the Center’s first conferences, and its popular lecture program (later known as the Jing Lyman Lectures). In addition, within two years of her arrival, Yalom secured a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for an experimental CROW course. The course yielded the Institute’s first book, “Victorian Women” (Stanford University Press, 1981), and launched its distinguished tradition of collaborative publications. As Yalom recalls, “The NEH grant was so exciting. We couldn’t believe it! I wrote the proposal with input from various people, and we marched into the Stanford University Press office all six of us! They didn’t know quite what to make of us!” A long line of successful books and other collaborative publications arising from Institute conferences and courses has followed.

A Legacy of Feminist Scholarship and Interdisciplinary Research

Yalom held several leadership positions at the Institute during its early years, including the director role from 1984-85. Her tireless advocacy early on cemented the Institute’s ties to Stanford leadership and faculty, according to her fellow founders, who even credit Yalom with securing Serra House as the Institute’s permanent home.

In addition to establishing many of the Institute’s foundational programs and events, Yalom played a key early role in the development of Stanford’s Feminist Studies Program (now Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies), founded by Estelle Freedman and Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo. When she arrived at Stanford, she recalls, the number of university courses on women barely filled a single page. Yalom and other CROW members formed the Task Force on the Study of Women in 1977 to advise the university on increasing the number of such courses. Four years later, Stanford’s Feminist Studies Program (FGSS) was launched.

The initiatives launched by Yalom and other Institute founders established an enduring model for examining gender issues in a collective, interdisciplinary manner. This fueled the Institute’s future success over the next four decades as an incubator and launch pad for such cross-disciplinary university centers and institutes as the Stanford Center for Longevity and Stanford’s Gendered Innovations Project, both founded by former Institute directors.

Continuing to Explore New Frontiers

Not content to rest on her laurels, Yalom has become a best-selling author of several books, including “A History of the Breast” and “A History of the Wife,” which was most recently noted in a “Los Angeles Times” editorial on same-sex marriage. Her latest book, “The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship,”provides an in-depth examination of women’s relationships across the centuries. Yalom says that the book was inspired by her close, 30-year friendship with the late Dianne Middlebrook, a former Institute director. A collaborative effort with friend and writer Theresa Brown, it will be published by Harper Perennial in September 2015. In recognition of her scholarship, Yalom is a recipient of Wellesley’s Alumnae Achievement Award (fellow recipients include Hilary Rodham Clinton and Diane Sawyer). She has also been decorated as an Officier des Palmes Académiques by the French government.

Yalom’s perspective on her writing and scholarship reflects her pioneering spirit. She says that the central goal has always been to raise awareness and deepen understanding regarding women’s and gender issues in a way that advances change. “I never intended to merely entertain or add to the conversation,” she points out, “it was always to educate. Education leads to change. We were doing this 40 years ago at the Institute, and we are continuing to do this today.”

Yalom’s contributions to the Institute and, more broadly, gender research, were toasted at an “Honoring Our Founders” event, organized by the Institute. More than 100 colleagues, fellow scholars, friends and family members gathered to salute Yalom’s skills and generosity as a founder, leader and mentor throughout Clayman’s 40-year history. Reflecting on her legacy, Yalom remarked, “Whatever I have accomplished in the past 39 years has been intimately entwined with the growth of the Michelle Clayman Institute.” Describing the Institute as “a sisterhood,” Yalom declared, “What has held us together — and I mean all of us — has been a common goal: to advance the position of women so that they are no longer, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, ‘the second sex.’ ”

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.