Celebration of Eleanor Maccoby’s Life
Delivered by Myra Strober
Professor Emerita, Stanford Graduate School of Education and Graduate School of Business
Founding Director of Center for Research on Women (now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research)
I first met Eleanor in 1972. I had just come to Stanford as an assistant professor in the Business School – the first woman faculty member ever hired there. Stanford considered me a novelty and held a press conference to tell the world of their good behavior. Afterward, I was interviewed by the Palo Alto Times, whose reporter wrote a story. “Not only did the Stanford Graduate School of Business just hire a woman faculty member,” the story said, “but believe it or not she does research on, of all things, women.”
An undergraduate student, Cynthia Davis, read this article and came to see me during office hours.
“We want to start a Center for Research on Women here at Stanford,” she told me, “and from what we read in the Palo Alto Times about you, we think you are just the right faculty member to head it up.”
Eleanor Maccoby in 2018
I couldn’t help laughing as I imagined what my 90 white conservative male colleagues would say if they knew I was thinking of starting a Center for Research on Women. Remember, this was 1972. “Well, Cynthia,” I said, “I can certainly help you to get the Center started, but you’ll have to find some senior faculty to head it up. New assistant professors don’t head up research centers. Do you know some senior faculty who are interested in this topic?”
“The only senior faculty member I know who might be interested is Eleanor Maccoby,” Cynthia told me.
“Okay then,” I said as I stood up to end our meeting. “See what you can do.”
I will spare you all the details of what happened after that, but suffice it to say that Cynthia got together with two other students, and they got Eleanor and Jim March to agree to come to a meeting with the three students and me.
I liked Eleanor from the moment I met her. She was serious and critical, humorous and supportive, all at the same time, and I was thrilled to meet another woman faculty member. At Stanford in the 1970s, women faculty made up slightly less than 5 percent of tenure-track faculty and only 2 percent of full professors. And Stanford was typical of the rest of research universities. In my entire career to that point – as an undergraduate, a graduate student and a faculty member – I had met only two senior women faculty members. Women faculty were rare birds, and senior women were even rarer.
As the meeting began and the students explained what they wanted in a Center for Research on Women, it became clear that Eleanor knew how Stanford operated and how foundations doled out grants.
“If you want to start a Center,” she explained, “you need money. You have to show the Provost that you can get outside funding.”
Jim March was also highly versed in the rules of the game, and he and Eleanor talked back and forth for 10 or 15 minutes, while the rest of us listened in awe. When they were finished strategizing, they agreed they would write a joint letter to the Ford Foundation requesting a planning grant for $25,000 to start a Center for Research on Women. In today’s dollars, that $25,000 would be the equivalent of about $150,000.
Eleanor and Jim wrote a mere two-paragraph letter to Mariam Chamberlain, a program officer they knew at the Ford Foundation, and on the strength of their two signatures, she agreed to fund a planning grant of $25,000. Just like that. We had hooked up with two superstars.
When the funding came through and the six of us got together again, Eleanor and Jim suggested we create a Policy Board for the Center, and they agreed to chair it. The students and I were all on the Board, and we also corralled the Dean of the Law School, Tom Ehrlich, and the Dean of the School of Engineering, Bill Kays, who had four daughters and was keenly interested in making sure the world would accommodate those daughters’ talents and ambitions.
Eleanor was clear throughout her time on the Policy Board that the mission of the Center had to be research, that although several other universities had created women’s studies programs that offered classes, Stanford’s comparative advantage was in research, and we needed to concentrate on pushing the field forward.
Although Eleanor and Jim were co-chairs of the Policy Board for only a short time, they were critical to the Center’s success. Eleanor was clear throughout her time on the Policy Board that the mission of the Center had to be research, that although several other universities had created women’s studies programs that offered classes, Stanford’s comparative advantage was in research, and we needed to concentrate on pushing the field forward. She helped stake out territory that remains Stanford’s advantage to this day, because Stanford’s Center for Research on Women, familiarly known as CROW, is today the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, a thriving and highly successful endeavor. The research that CROW and now the Clayman Institute has carried out now for 45 years is a tribute to Eleanor’s clear vision at the very beginning.
When I wrote to Cynthia Davis Russell, the student who originally came to see me about starting a Center for Research on Women at Stanford, and told her that I would be speaking today at this celebration of Eleanor, and asked for her thoughts, she wrote the following:
In the eyes of Stanford administrators, Eleanor’s willingness to serve as Co-Chair of the CROW Policy Board was a huge endorsement, and added tremendous legitimacy to our efforts. Eleanor brought a calm intensity and gravitas to every Policy Board meeting, and made sure we accomplished our work quickly. She was serious and sometimes a little intimidating, but she was always patient and encouraging. Eleanor helped CROW succeed during its early years, and she made an immeasurable impact on its growth.
Eleanor and Jim served as co-chairs of the Policy Board for only a few months, and then they recommended that I take over and guide the Center’s growth after that, which I agreed to do. They were both extremely helpful to me in securing a larger grant from the Ford Foundation and in my negotiations with the Provost to make the Center a permanent institution on campus.
By virtue of her highly respected stature, Eleanor played an important role on campus, even for those who did not know her personally. One day she told me a story that illustrated this clearly. A young woman doctoral student in the math department whom Eleanor had never met before came to see her to tell her an exceedingly sad story. The woman was being propositioned by her advisor and was preparing to leave the program rather than accede to his demands. She said she didn’t want to make a complaint because she felt that would ruin her career. Rather, she was planning to transfer to another university. “But I didn’t want to leave without telling you about this,” the woman told Eleanor. “I thought it was important that you know that I, and several of the women who were Professor X’s advisees in the past, didn’t leave because we couldn't do the work. We left because we were put in an untenable situation. Women can do high level mathematics just fine, if we are left alone to do our work.”
Years later, when President Gerhard Casper put his anti-sexual harassment program into effect, Eleanor’s story was important. The system he set up created a clear path for women to come to senior faculty outside their own department to tell their stories and seek counsel.
The last time I saw Eleanor was last May when she attended an event put on by the Clayman Institute. Throughout the afternoon, she was surrounded by women who admired her. Many of us had been the recipients of her guidance and advice. But for others, especially young women, she was a role model writ large. That is, although they didn’t know her personally, they knew her eminent reputation. She was important to them because through her achievements, they could imagine their own.
Eleanor has been a commanding force on the Stanford campus for decades. We shall miss her sorely.