Dr. Mariam Chamberlain, 94


Champion of Women’s Studies

By Paul Vitello

NEW YORK (New York Times) — Dr. Mariam Chamberlain, who played a pivotal yet little-known role in establishing women’s studies in the American college curriculum, and financing early research about the inequities women faced in the workplace and other realms of society, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 94.

Her death was confirmed by the National Council for Research on Women, a nonprofit organization of university-based research centers that she founded in 1981 and served for many years as president.

Though she rarely gave speeches, and considered herself more of a researcher than an activist — she had a PhD in economics from Harvard — Chamberlain came to be known in the women’s movement as “the fairy godmother of women’s studies.”

She earned the sobriquet as a program director for the Ford Foundation from 1971 to 1981, granting about $5 million in seed money to a few dozen groundbreaking academic studies, sociological projects and statistical surveys that laid the groundwork for women’s studies departments and public policy research programs across the country.

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Chamberlain’s contribution to the women’s movement was incalculable, said Heidi Hartmann, the president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington group specializing in public policy issues. “It’s hard to imagine how bad things were when she came on the scene,” she said. “Women’s suffrage was not taught in most American history classes.” Female writers were footnotes to the literary canon as taught in most colleges, she added.

“She made a huge impact with small but strategic grants,” Hartmann said.

In 1975, Chamberlain approved a grant for a Princeton University study, for example, that analyzed introductory courses in English, history, sociology and psychology at 172 American colleges. The study found that women’s history and literature were virtually being ignored. It warned that unless changes were made “most undergraduate men and many undergraduate women would continue to leave college without considering the role of women in history, the implications of sex discrimination in the labor market, or the influence of sex stereotyping on their daily lives.”

The Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, founded in 1972 with another of her grants, was among the first to study domestic violence, pay inequities, and discrimination against women in loan policies.

The Ford Foundation, which Chamberlain joined in 1956, had a policy of encouraging changes in American college curriculums to keep pace with changes in the culture. In the 1950s, it encouraged expanding international studies programs; in the 1960s, it provided seed money for black studies research.

In 1967, when Chamberlain was named director of the foundation’s higher education program, she began looking for ways to address what she called — ever-temperate in her language — “the limits that society places on the aspirations of women.”

Florence Howe, the founder of the Feminist Press, which received one of the foundation’s first women’s studies grants, said that Chamberlain’s background as an economist defined her approach to philanthropy.

“She always wanted numbers,” she said. “She would say, ‘give me the numbers’ to back up the case for funding feminist studies.” Howe received a $12,000 grant in 1971 to find out whether and where women’s studies was already being taught in colleges and universities.

The report, “Who’s Who and Where in Women’s Studies,” found a few hundred courses already being taught. By 1976, a follow-up survey counted thousands of courses, and 270 degree-granting programs in women’s studies. In 1977, Chamberlain arranged a small grant to help establish the National Women’s Studies Association, which helped organize international conferences that have since taken women’s studies to more than 100 countries.

Mariam Kenosian was born on April 24, 1918, in Chelsea, Mass., one of three children of Avak and Zabel Kenosian, immigrants from Armenia. Despite the initial objections of her father, a shoe factory worker who did not believe in women’s education, she completed high school and attended Radcliffe College on a full scholarship.

Her studies toward a PhD in economics at Harvard were interrupted during World War II, when she worked as an analyst for the Office of Strategic Services. She received her PhD in 1950.

Her marriage to Neil Chamberlain, a fellow Harvard PhD in economics who taught for many years at Columbia University, ended in divorce in 1970. There are no immediate survivors.

Miriam Chamberlain held teaching positions at Connecticut College, the School of General Studies at Columbia University, and at Hunter College, before joining the Ford Foundation. After leaving the foundation, her work as the president of the National Council for Research on Women helped consolidate and coordinate research centers that she had helped seed at Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Arizona and Memphis State, among 100 others.

An essay in “The Politics of Women’s Studies,” published in 2000 by the Feminist Press, was one of the few articles Chamberlain ever wrote about herself. In it, she used the image of a car climbing a steep mountain in describing her role in the movement.

“The car, in this case women’s studies, was already on its journey,” she wrote. “But outside funding gave it the extra power to get to the top.”


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