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Cornell More Tolerant ‘After Diane’

 

Ann Scholl Boyer

 
Professor and activist Diane Crowder, co-founder of the women’s studies program in 1984, spins and weaves such items as coats, scarves, vests, and rugs.

Spanish professor Sally Farrington-Clute refers to it as “before Diane” and “after Diane” when she talks about the climate for women at Cornell College.

Diane Crowder, professor of French and women's studies, came to Cornell in 1977, after earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in French at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Those of us who preceded her came from traditional university programs,” says Farrington-Clute. “I think that we knew we had as much to offer as our male colleagues, but we did not have the words or the theoretical structures to put forth our views or defend our positions.”

Farrington-Clute recalls at least three women on the faculty whose husbands also taught at Cornell. Although the women were “superb teachers and enormously talented,” Farrington-Clute maintains they were treated as second-class citizens in many ways.

“Diane broke the silence. She had the words and she was excellent in debate. She gave us a voice and I, personally, shall always be grateful to her for that. She jumped in with both feet, as they say, and gave a brilliant convocation expressing her views to a full house in King Chapel, almost immediately. What an achievement for a new, young, untenured faculty member,” Farrington-Clute says.

Crowder, who was recently honored as the Richard and Norma Small Senior Faculty Chair, came to Cornell as a known feminist, having written a feminist dissertation, and found a segment of the Cornell community hostile to some of the ideas she represented. One faculty member in her department was against her hiring because he did not want a feminist in the French department.

Crowder says she wasn’t going to wait to be a tenured professor to speak her mind. It was, she recalls, a tumultuous start. But Crowder had a strong ally in another new teacher that fall, the late English professor Stephen Lacey ’65. The two professors immediately hit it off.

“We were kindred spirits,” Crowder recalls, allowing the tears to come as she remembers her friend who died March 27 of a progressive lung disease. “It was obvious from the first time we met. We just understood each other so fully.”

They shared another connection, too: Lacey was a gay man and Crowder is a lesbian. Neither hid their sexuality from others. Beyond that, Crowder and Lacey worked to change attitudes toward gay and lesbian people on campus. As a result, Crowder believes gays on campus now feel comfortable. “That’s not to say everything is comfortable and easy, but Cornell has come a very long way,” she says.

As examples, Crowder points to a gay support group that formed on campus in 1978, which she believes is one of the first at a private college in Iowa, and to gay students who have been elected to offices on campus.

Crowder says she didn’t feel she had a choice or a desire to hide her sexuality. “I don’t want to be in a place that can’t tolerate who I am,” says Crowder, who was married at one time before she came to Cornell. “It’s just too difficult. If you have to hide your ideas, what’s the point of being an intellectual? I felt from the very beginning that I didn’t think Cornell would fire me for my ideas or not give me tenure for my ideas.”

Though she has been vocal over the years, Crowder says she is, in reality, a shy person. “It’s taken a lot of effort for me to learn to say what I thought in an open manner,” she says.

Crowder didn’t plan to stay at Cornell. She stayed because she appreciated the college’s open-mindedness. She also saw she would be able to have an influence in areas such as feminism and women’s studies.

Crowder was born in Denison, Texas, but grew up in Tulsa, Okla. She recalls listening to her parents’ friends, who were ultraconservative. Like others during that time period, her parents and their friends thought the Civil Rights movement was a Communist plot. While Crowder didn’t argue with her parents’ friends, she did voice her opinions to her parents.

“Keeping your mouth shut wasn’t an option,” she says. “Keeping your mouth shut was agreeing with those ideas, and I didn’t.”

Though she was too young to participate in the Civil Rights movement, Crowder believes that time period fueled her desire to champion the underdog. It led her to thinking about how women, like blacks, are treated unjustly.

The women’s studies program was virtually nonexistent when Crowder arrived on campus. She developed all of the core courses. Women’s studies now is a flourishing program.

“The reward is being able to see the influence that you have,” she says.

Proof of Crowder’s influence at Cornell is her selection as the recipient of the Small Senior Faculty Chair. The award is presented to one senior faculty member every two years to reward exemplary teaching performance, distinction as a scholar, and outstanding service to the campus community. She is the first woman to receive the honor.

Ann Scholl Boyer is a staff writer for The Cedar Rapids Gazette.

 
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