Founding Mothers: Barbara Heldt on Women in Slavic Studies and the AWSS

Editor's Note: A version of the blog below was first published in the AWSS newsletter, Women East-West. We republish it here with the permission of the author and AWSS.  Join AWSS.

By Barbara Heldt

Even a comfortable suburban background in the forties and fifties could not hide the fact that something was wrong with a world where women aspired only to the familial and social, men disappeared weekdays on the train to Manhattan, and children were educated to be equal up to a point, not beyond: the older the girls, the lower the expectations for us. Parents were marked by the depression and the war, so their idea of gendered safety was perhaps understandable, but….

I chose a women’s college after a co-ed high school, and all was good until senior year, when the Head of the Placement Office asked me if I had any secretarial skills. I had purposely not acquired them, wanting to avoid the Woman’s Fate. Her reply to my honors student arrogance: “My dear, you are pure as the driven snow.” These practical New England words drove me from her office in tears of shame and outrage. 

I passed the Foreign Service exam, but at the interview the two gentlemen asked me what would I do without a husband, because the wives help out at social events. Then, at a Harvard cocktail party I heard that the US Information Agency was interviewing for 12 positions, to be filled equally by women and men, to be guides at an exhibit called Transport CША. I applied, spent my last savings on a plane ticket to DC, was interviewed partly in Russian, luckily not for long as I had only studied it for a year and a half, and got the job. blog The fact that the USSR proudly promoted women’s equality had prompted the US to use its own female resources-in-waiting. Another guide was Ellen Propper Mickiewicz, later the first woman President of the AAASS. Working in Stalingrad during the name change and then in Kharkov, we could talk to Soviet citizens eager for knowledge about life in capitalist society. They were not naïve. 

This job in late 1961 and another one using my language skills, taking French pharmacists around the US in spring, 1962, paid for my first year of grad school at Columbia. When again no fellowship money was forthcoming for a second year, I got married. That was the only way I could finance the PhD, though the University of Chicago did give me a tuition fellowship for one year. I held off having children (two abortions), thinking I could avoid The Fate. I got a Fulbright to spend a semester in Moscow in 1966-7, when Rochelle Ruthchild in Leningrad and I were the second and third women to be accepted on the exchange of scholars, after Rose Glickman. 

The University of Chicago surprisingly hired me in 1967, as an Instructor, promoting me to Assistant Professor in 1968 as I had finished my thesis before beginning teaching. Even more surprising to me at the time was that the man they had hired as Assistant Professor at the same time as me had not completed his thesis and was being paid 20% more per annum. I only found this out after his contract was renewed and mine was discontinued in 1971, after my first book was published. I had not avoided The Fate. 

I called a meeting of all the women at the U of C who had been fired in the past few years: all had similar stories. We started an HEW class action, which somehow ended up being just me, as others feared for their futures. My own shame and outrage knew no bounds, which resulted in my having to go to western Canada to work three years later, though eventually even there the Dean showed me a letter that warned I was trouble. Two years ago I met the young HEW lawyer who had come to Chicago from DC to defend me: he had become a Maine State Supreme Court Justice. He hesitated, then told me how, when he had walked into the office of President Ed Levi of the U of C, Levi, surrounded by a phalanx of male toady assistant lawyers, uttered as his first words: “What does that f*ing bitch want now?”

So it was with utter joy that I first met Mary Zirin delivering her talk about gathering the names of women writers in Russian, at a meeting in LA in December, 1979. I had translated Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life as a preliminary to writing what eventually became Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature. For the first time in my own field I felt not alone. In all the Slavic fields there were more of us, and the AWSS was founded in 1987. In 1988, I got a phone call from Diana Greene about naming the book prizes. When we were discussing founding the AWSS, we had expected no support from anyone but ourselves. I had just sold my house in Vancouver to pay for my children’s college education, and had some extra dyengs (family word for money), so offered to set up a fund for expenses incurred by our new organization. In the event, the AAASS contributed, as it had for years for the various ethnic groups within. I was embarrassed at the time, but now feel that these named prizes constitute the greatest honor of my lifetime. Thanks to you all, who have built the AWSS. Long may it wave. 

Photo caption: Barbara Heldt in Kharkov in 1961