From the Bars to Barnard to Stonewall, Part III

Captain Jean T. Palmer, 1946

I knew nothing about Barnard’s history and internal politics when I fell into a secretarial job there—but over that one academic year, I learned plenty.

The one thing I’d guessed correctly about Miss Palmer, my boss at the college, was that she hailed from the Midwest. She was from Omaha. During the next few months of 1968, after she’d come out to me with that big wink, she let me know a bit more about her life. She’d been head of the WAVES (the women’s branch of the US Naval Reserves) before coming to Barnard, and had been the leading force in getting the Navy to let women become yeomen. These women were often well educated, trained as what we would now call executive assistants, but without that yeoman classification, they couldn’t receive the same pay as men who did that job and did hold the title.

During the 1940s, in the civilian world women generally got a little over half a man’s wages. The sailors weren’t pleased with women’s entry into military service because when women took the clerical jobs, the men who would have been doing them were released for combat.1

Now and again Miss Palmer let me know that some of the women who ran Barnard were lesbians, among them Virginia Gildersleeve, who’d been dean of the college from 1911 to 1946. That was, of course, long before my time. In 1952 that title was changed from “dean” to “president.” The current president, Martha Peterson, was one of us as well.

Miss Palmer’s tone of voice conveyed quite a bit of admiration for Gildersleeve. She always did let me know what she thought about people. For example, Eleanor Elliott, an alumna and trustee, was one of the principal fundraisers. Since the general secretary oversaw fundraising, Mrs. Elliot spent quite bit of time in our office.

One day Miss Palmer asked me what I thought of Elliott. “She seems okay,” I replied. I really didn’t know much about her, except that she appeared to be in her early 40s, stylish, and very upper middle class. She smiled, but never spoke to me.

“She’s a snob,” Miss Palmer said flatly.

*          *          *

During my lunch breaks, I started going to meetings really intended for the students. At one I met famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, another alumna of the college. She was 67 at the time and rather disabled, with a bandaged knee. I remember her complaining that young people don’t listen to their elders anymore. I retorted, “That’s because our elders are sending our brothers to die in Vietnam.” She didn’t respond. Later I learned from another anthropologist that Mead was privately against the war, but never made those views public.

Another meeting I attended presented a rosy picture of the prospects new graduates would enjoy. I spoke up again, to the effect that my own bachelor’s degree (albeit from the much lesser CCNY) hadn’t opened many doors.2 By the time I returned to my desk, someone had already notified Miss Palmer. “Academic freedom is only for faculty and students,” she warned me. “It doesn’t apply to administrative staff.”

My subversive behavior apparently came to the attention of one faculty member, Kate Millett. She sought me out and we met a couple of times, and then in December she told me she’d been fired, despite being popular with the students. I asked if she wanted me to help organize a demonstration on her behalf. She declined, saying that she preferred to spend her energies finishing a book she was working on. That book turned out to be the best-seller Sexual Politics.

*          *          *

In February 1969, at the end of my initial six months at Barnard, I received the $300 refund of the employment agency fee and a week’s vacation. There was snow on the ground in Manhattan. When I arrived in San Francisco, blossoming plum trees scented the air. I’d grown up in neighborhoods of brownstone and brick, of a steady rain of soot that grayed the building facades and grimed their residents’ faces and clothes. In San Francisco the hills were dotted with Victorian houses painted in three or more colors: white and pale blue, with indigo accents; white and light tan, with crimson trim… Who would dare paint a New York building white?

During that week I stayed at the home of Rita LaPorte, who was national president of Daughters of Bilitis. Rita had been in the military, but her experience was quite different from that of my employer. Like so many other enlisted women, she’d been raped, and although she was an effective activist and very welcoming to a total stranger, I could sense that the pain and anger were still with her. I also met Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, two of the organization’s founders. We met in a little café. Unlike Rita, they seemed quite cheerful.

I took a day to visit Berkeley. I meandered through the UC Berkeley campus, and its grove of blue gum eucalyptus trees. Some say the trees’ scent is medicinal and refreshing; I thought they smelled like a cat box. I got caught up in a student antiwar demonstration but wasn’t arrested.

I had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant: avocado, tomato, and sprouts on fresh baked, whole grain bread. I never ate avocados in New York—they were prohibitively expensive. My only previous taste of the fruit had been in 4th grade, when our teacher cut one up and gave each student a tiny square. In California you could slather avocados on your sandwich or dump chunks in your salad.

I’m going to move here, I told myself.

*          *          *

After my vacation, back in NYC, I had a new assignment as DOB speaker: participating in a series of debates on morning TV with psychiatrist Charles Socarides and psychoanalyst Irving Bieber. They both believed homosexuality was an illness and could be cured. I suspected that they made a good living tormenting gay people by providing an early form of conversion therapy. I despised them. Once taping was done on the series, I decided that I had better come out to my mother, before she heard about it from than any of my aunts who might watch the show. I’d already told my father, who shocked me by responding, “So what else is new? I knew that already—from your drawings and poetry. Don’t tell your mother. She’ll blame me.”

Predictably enough, Mom didn’t take it well. She blamed Dad for not disciplining me enough, and my popular kid sister for not getting me dates with boys. She offered to spend the money she’d been saving for my wedding on a psychiatric cure, or on a plastic surgeon, who would amputate a chunk of my Semitic nose to make me more attractive to men. I declined.

*          *          *

Miss Palmer retired at the end of the spring semester. I was offered a contract for a second year at Barnard, working for whoever would replace her. I declined this offer as well, remembering her admonition: Academic freedom, the freedom to speak one’s mind, doesn’t apply to administrative staff. Instead I moved to the Lower East Side, to a cheap apartment and a three-day-a-week job that would allow time for writing and political organizing.

A few weeks after I left Barnard, my life took another sharp left turn. Somewhat past midnight, on the last weekend of June 1969, I was giving a couple of out-of-town visitors a tour of Greenwich Village, when we encountered a group of young men outside the Stonewall Inn, throwing things at cops. At the time I thought it was just another antiwar demonstration. It wasn’t.

To be continued…

1From Recollections of Captain Jean Palmer, U.S.N.R. (Retired), an oral history taken in 1969 and stored in the Barnard archives.

2In response to the first draft of this post, Barnard alumna Elisheva Yuval writes that when she matriculated in 1961, then President Millicent McIntosh addressed the incoming freshmen: “Here at Barnard you will receive the best education available to women anywhere in the world. But if you want to get a job after graduation, learn to type.”

*          *          *

Addendum: some biographical information

Virginia C. Gildersleeve (1877-1965) graduated from Barnard in 1899. A brilliant scholar, she gave up her research when asked to be dean of the college, and served in that post from 1911 to 1946. Among her other achievements on behalf of women, she persuaded the Barnard Board of Trustees to enact a maternity policy that provided one term off at full pay or a year off at half pay for all new mothers on the faculty. During World War I she coordinated the work of several volunteer women’s organizations. After the war she spoke on behalf of the League of Nations Association, an organization set up to promote U.S. entry into the League. During World War II Gildersleeve helped create a women’s naval reserve, the WAVES. Among the U.S. delegates charged with writing the UN charter, she was the only woman.

Although she opposed racism, Gildersleeve’s policies regarding Jews seem ambiguous. On the one hand, she hired Prof. Franz Boas, a German Jew and a socialist, away from Columbia when he was threatened with being fired for opposing World War I. Yet in the two decades before World War II she changed admission policies specifically to reduce the number of Jewish students at Barnard. After the war and her retirement from Barnard, she devoted herself to “struggling ardently against” (in her own words) the creation and, later, the continued existence of Israel. Fundraising wasn’t her strong point and Barnard was in bad straits financially when she left. Once she had done so, however, a wave of gift-giving from wealthy New York Jews helped restore the college’s economic health.

Gildersleeve met Prof. Caroline Spurgeon in 1918, and the two shared an “intimate” relationship for several decades. Later she lived with Barnard English Professor Elizabeth Reynard. They are buried together.

Jean T. Palmer (1904-1992) was a Bryn Mawr graduate and a powerhouse in her own right. At 24, she became business manager of the Association of Junior Leagues. In 1942 she enlisted in the WAVES, where she rose to the rank of captain, and then became director of that service only three years after enlistment. During her stint there, the Secretary of the Navy organized an advisory committee to set policy for the WAVES, and recruit women to enlist. Most of its members were heads of women’s colleges. Palmer was on that committee, as was Gildersleeve—and in 1946 Gildersleeve recruited Palmer to become director of admissions at Barnard. In 1949 Palmer became general secretary of the college.

Palmer met her life partner in the WAVES. I never learned the woman’s name, but she ran the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school in New York.

During the year I worked at Barnard, Miss Palmer was treated for breast cancer. Long after she retired, I was happy to learn that the treatment was successful, and she lived another 23 years.

Martha Peterson (1916-2006), president of Barnard at the time I worked there, was the daughter of a wheat farmer and a local news reporter. She graduated from the University of Kansas, spent some years teaching high school math, and then took advanced degrees in educational psychology. She was dean of women at U. Kansas and then at U. Wisconsin, and in 1967, after a nationwide search, she was offered the presidency of Barnard. Peterson was successful in working with the students, keeping the campus protests of that era from interfering with the normal business of the college.

However, Barnard had budget deficits for five successive years during Peterson’s time in office. She wasn’t solely to blame for these financial problems. Columbia, the much larger, Ivy League men’s college with which Barnard was affiliated, was also bleeding red ink, and now demanded payments from Barnard for use of its gym facilities and libraries, for cross-registration that allowed students to take courses on either campus, and for “general services” overhead costs. The projected costs, around $2 million as best I can calculate, wouldn’t have significantly reduced Columbia’s deficit of $17 million. One Columbia staffer admitted that the real purpose of the financial demands was to force a merger—to eliminate Barnard as a separate entity. This and a new arrangement giving Columbia more control over tenuring Barnard’s professors gave rise to a split within the college’s Board of Trustees.

In 1973 Eleanor Elliott became chair of the Board and forced Peterson out of the presidency. It has been suggested that Barnard’s financial problems were not the only reason for this (see below).

After leaving Barnard, Peterson found new employment as president of Beloit College in Wisconsin. Her “companion” was Dr. E. Maxine Bennett, professor and chair of the dept of otolaryngology at U. Wisconsin Medical School.

Eleanor Thomas Elliott (1926-2006) was a product of New York’s Republican elite. She graduated from Barnard in 1948 and immediately found employment as a staff writer and editor for Vogue magazine. In 1953, after Eisenhower took office, she became social secretary to her distant relative John Foster Dulles, the primary force for anti-communism in the Eisenhower administration. By 1957, she had married advertising executive John Elliott and joined the Barnard Board of Trustees. She also wrote for Glamour magazine, worked for the NY State Republican Party, served on the boards of philanthropic organizations, and became an active member of the National Organization for Women, which was then homophobic in its policies.

The practical result of the proposed merger with Columbia would have been the end of Barnard’s existence as a college. Elliott spearheaded the faction of the Barnard Board that opposed the merger. Two Board members who disagreed with her resigned and were replaced by reliable allies. She then helped organize administrators, faculty members and students to keep Barnard’s independence.

Elliott became chair of the Board in 1973, and was instrumental in forcing Martha Peterson out as president. Some  have suggested that Elliott viewed Peterson as too Midwestern and unsuited to the task of fundraising among New York’s wealthy elite. She may also have disapproved of Peterson’s domestic arrangements. Even at the time I worked there, Peterson was known to be a lesbian.

Kate Millett (1934-2017) graduated from the University of Minnesota, then got her master’s at Oxford University and her doctorate at Columbia. (Her dissertation became the basis for the book, Sexual Politics.) She started teaching English at Barnard in 1964-1965, and joined the newly formed National Organization for Women in 1966. She was fired the year I worked there, 1968-1969. Later I discovered that the firing was because of Millett’s radical politics and the publication of Token Learning, a pamphlet arguing that “women who attend the Seven Sisters schools are training for the Mrs. Degree.” After she was forced to come out as a lesbian, her academic career was over. It seems that academic freedom doesn’t apply to non-tenured faculty either. She wrote a number of other books, did sculpture, and at one time made her living running a Christmas tree farm. She was an active member of New York Radical Women and of Radicalesbians. I’ll write more about her in future posts.

4 Responses to From the Bars to Barnard to Stonewall, Part III

  1. Esther Newton August 15, 2020 at 10:10 am #

    Martha, hoping that these segments will ultimately come together as a memoir. I like the additional information of the prominent women that you mention.

  2. Martha Shelley August 15, 2020 at 10:50 am #

    Thank you! That is my intention. I’m having to retire from my paid job at the end of the year (the woman I do research for is retiring), so I’m going to focus on the memoir.

  3. Caroline August 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm #

    Hi Martha, this is fascinating and I love reading the arc of history.

  4. Connie O Byrne September 1, 2020 at 5:19 am #

    Thank you so much for your continued documenting of Lesbian History. If it weren’t for you and a very few others, this history might well be lost. I always look forward to your next chapter and am deeply appreciative.

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