Retiring Ann Lane Leaves a Community of Women's Studies Scholars at U.Va.

December 01, 2009
December 1, 2009 — Ann Lane joined the University of Virginia faculty as a full professor of history in 1990 with a specific directive from then-Dean of Arts & Sciences Ray Nelson: Establish women's studies at the formerly all-male school.

As she retires this month, she leaves a thriving cross-disciplinary program, Studies in Women and Gender, that is part of U.Va.'s academic culture.

Her presence and fearlessness in speaking out for equal treatment of female faculty and students opened the door for other women to be heard in the effort to transform U.Va. into a more diverse community, say her colleagues.

"Her arrival here was a cause for celebration," said retired history professor Paul Gaston, who met Lane at national history conferences.

"With her unique ability to focus on things that mattered and with her persuasive powers, she created for us one of the best women's studies programs in the country," he said. "She was always there to help her colleagues who needed her, as she created a model community of scholars."

Some of those colleagues spoke at a retirement party for Lane last month.

"When Ann arrived at U.Va., there were very few female faculty, and only a handful of these were senior," said Susan D. Fraiman, an English professor who teaches feminist theory in her classes. "In addition to coordinating our courses in women's studies to form a new major, Ann coordinated us. She brought women faculty together across departmental lines, and a wonderful byproduct of our meetings was a much-needed sense of solidarity.

"If women are far better represented today – at least in the humanities – this is in part because Ann went to bat for us individually and rallied us as a group," Fraiman said.

Gertrude Fraser, vice provost for faculty recruitment and retention, said Lane would often have meetings at her house.

"There was something powerful created on those occasions, because conversations flowed effortlessly across topics – feminism, University policy, local and national politics, and how best to hire SWAG faculty with the promise and roadblocks inherent in joint hires. We could disagree without the risk of losing the important relationships necessary to a strong women's community," Fraser said.

Faculty of the Studies in Women and Gender program have joint appointments with another department. There are also associated faculty, such as Fraiman.

Lane influenced her male colleagues as well.

"Ann and I worked closely together quite a few times," history professor Herbert "Tico" Braun said. "We usually saw eye-to-eye. When we didn't, she made sure that our views remained professional, and that our friendship was not affected."

The daughter of Jewish immigrants and native of Brooklyn, Lane said she has come to love the South. She will miss this place, her friends and the students here, she said, but plans to move back to New York to be closer to her two daughters and grandchildren.

Fraser said Lane is someone women could always turn to with their academic problems. She tagged the "Ghostbusters" slogan, "Who ya' gonna call?" to Lane, who would do whatever it took to push for a more equitable situation, Fraser said.

"Whenever someone was facing a problem or there was an institutional injustice or a need to mobilize, Ann ... would stand up in meetings or committees, write a letter to the president to help solve the problem or point to the organizational issues that created inequities. Especially at a time when faculty development and mentoring weren't as well established, she had so much courage and a calling to help others," Fraser said.

Previously director of women's studies at Colgate University, Lane said coming to Charlottesville was her first time in the South. When she told her students in her first class here, "The white students said, 'This isn't the South. That's Alabama. That's Mississippi,' but the black students said, 'You're in the South.'"

Lane earned her Ph.D. in African-American studies from Columbia. In 1968, there was no such discipline as women's studies. As she got more involved in the women's movement, she shifted to women's history, particularly women activists, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

"Lane was a bold advocate not simply for women but, even more important, for feminist scholarship," Fraiman said.

"Directing women's studies at the University of Virginia was not a job or a duty for Ann Lane. It was commitment to a cause she believed in. It was a passion," wrote Farzaneh Milani, her first colleague in the program, from Semester at Sea. Milani, a professor of Persian literature, was the second faculty member and the second director of the Studies in Women and Gender program.

Another cause that mobilized Lane was the occurrence of romantic relationships between professors and students, which usually brought problems for the student. Lane and others worked on passing a regulation discouraging such relationships where the professor has authority over the student in terms of grading and influencing academic careers.

In retirement, she'll work on finishing a non-fiction book, so far titled, "Sex and the Professors," making the case against these intimate relationships. She published an opinion piece about the topic in the Chronicle of Higher Education three years ago.

"The inevitable power difference between teacher and student, whatever the teacher's intention or motivation, makes it impossible for the student to be a fully consenting adult," she wrote. "A teacher's role is to provide intellectual guidance and professional support and advice. Such a role is antithetical to that of lover and constitutes an abuse of power and a betrayal of trust."

— By Anne Bromley