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Dorothy Johnson, Professor Emeritus, served from 1961-1986 as a History Professor; she co-organized the Old Dominion University Faculty Women's Caucus and served as coordinator 1974-75; she served as a faculty representative of the Board of Visitors 1975-76; and, she was one of the original organizers of the Women's Studies program. In Part 1 of this interview, Johnson discusses her early educational background, her early years as a faculty member in the History Department, the atmosphere on campus in 1960s, and, the organization of the Faculty Women's Caucus. In Part II, Johnson discusses the Faculty Senate, the Webb, Rollins and Bugg administrations, the development of the Women's Studies program, the university honor system, and her philosophy of education.

Oral History Interview
Dr. Dorothy Johnson

September 26, 1980
by Vicky Sanderlin, Old Dominion University

Listen to Interview

Interview Continued September 29, 1980


Sanderlin: Could you please provide me with some information on your origins, your educational background, and how you became interested in the discipline of History?

Johnson: I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota to a family of Swedish stock. My father was born in Sweden and brought to Minnesota when he was an infant. My mother was born in South Dakota. The two of them met in a Swedish Lutheran college. My father became a clergyman, so I grew up in a very religious home. My family consisted of three children, besides my parents. We were all daughters and I was the third. My father was a very warm sort of individual, although he had the usual Swedish reserve. He was also a very affectionate and understanding person. My mother was very proud of being a woman and I think she injected that pride in her daughters. She, herself, would like to have spent some time in a career between college and marriage, particularly in teaching. But her mother was ill, her father was dead, and she seemed to be needed at home. She always regretted never having that teaching experience. I think this was reflected in her daughters because each of us became a teacher, although my two other sisters both married with in a few years. When I think back on it now, there were really some strong feminist influences that operated on me when I was growing up because there were no boys in the family. There was no way in which my parents could be discriminating against the girls in the family. They loved us all and they made it very clear. They assumed that we would go on to college; there was no problem that way, except of course financially. We were taught that a career was as acceptable for a woman as marriage. I had role models of this within my extended relationships. My mother's sister was a nurse and my mother's brother married a woman who continued in her career. My father's brother married a woman who continued nursing after she was married. I don't think that I had typical influences operating on me as I was growing up. I was always proud of being a girl. I never went through any period where I wished that I was a boy. Maybe that will explain some of my quirks. Feminists don't believe in the old Freudian interpretation. You know. I never have, because it's never applied to me. I went to public school. When I was about to start the third grade, we moved from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon. My father died when I was twelve.


The family moved to Tacoma, Washington after that. My sisters were going to college in that area, so it seemed like a good thing to be there. When I was about to enter my senior year in high school, my mother got a position in Rock Island, Illinois at Augustana College, a Swedish Lutheran college. That was very much to my delight because I had hopes that I could go there, although my father died during the Depression, times were very hard, so there was much uncertainty. I was really very pleased when this happened. I finished high school in Rock Island and went to Augustana College, a liberal arts college with a student body of about 800. It was a friendly kind of set up, where everybody knew practically everybody else and the faculty knew the students pretty well. You asked how I got interested in history and I have to say that an interest in history is something innate with me, because as a child, I liked to read stories that were back in history. When I was in high school, I had an exceptional history teacher. She really interested me. In college, the chairman of the History Department encouraged me to major in history. He did it in a very objective way because there was a lot of discrimination against women in the teaching of history at the time. He wanted me to go into history, but he wanted me to go in with my eyes open. He explained this prejudice to me. When I graduated from college and was going to go on for my masters' degree at the University of Minnesota, the man under whom I was going to do my work was a good friend of my advisor at Augustana. My advisor had written to this man at the University of Minnesota about me and when the answer came back, Dr. Ander, my advisor, showed it to me. The letter said something like: "I don't think very much of women in graduate school, but if you think she's good, send her along."

Sanderlin: What do you think would have happened if you hadn't had that letter?

Johnson: I certainly think that helped, but there were other members of the department who had that same kind of reputation. When I got out there among other graduate students, they would say "stay away from him, he really, you know, is hostile to women." I went to the University of Minnesota and got my masters degree there. I did some of my work for my doctors degree, but it became necessary for me to go out and earn some money. First, I got a job as a civilian historian for the Alaskan Division of the Air Transport Command, with headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta. I lived in Edmonton, Alberta for nine months, which was a very interesting experience. I did my part to write the history of the Alaskan Division during World War II. I think I had the most interesting section to write on. There were three of us who did the writing. I wrote on relationships with the Russians. Unfortunately, we had to swear not to tell anybody about anything we were writing because we were using nothing but secret documents. When you can't talk about these things with anybody, in time, the knowledge that you glean from doing this fades away.


Sanderlin: Could you talk among yourselves?

Johnson: We could talk among ourselves, but we were each writing a separate section of the history. After I came back from Canada, I took a position at Morehead State Teachers College (which is now Morehead State University) in northwestern Minnesota, right next to Fargo, North Dakota. I taught there from 1946-56. I taught mostly history, both European and American. At first, I taught some German because I had majored in German as well as history as an undergraduate. I had also taken some German and philology in graduate school. I also taught what we called a general education course in social studies. Now we would call it an interdisciplinary course, it's the same sort of thing, at Morehead State. I left there in order to complete my doctorate at Western Reserve University, now Case Western Reserve University. I went there to finish because I was especially interested in social history and Harvey Wish was particularly outstanding in social history. I was interested in immigration history also and Carl Wittke, the chairman of the History Department and dean of the graduate school there, was in immigration history, but you don't know those things. In the end, it turned out that I didn't do anything with immigration history. I'd had a leave of absence from 1953-54, where I finished off my coursework excepting for one summer session's worth of work afterwards, and then I had my dissertation to do. While I was working on my dissertation, to support myself, I worked in the Cleveland Public Library system at the Hough Branch Library in the Cleveland ghetto. It was a tremendously interesting experience, which I am really glad to have had that experience.

Sanderlin: Who constituted the ghetto at the time?

Johnson: When I first came into the job, it was in transition. There were still some white families who had homes there from way back. There were Italian families who had moved in there, but most of them had moved on. There were some West Virginians who had come up there and lived in the area, but then there was a recession in '57 and many of the West Virginians went back to West Virginia because the steel industry was such a big thing in Cleveland and it was hit hard. They didn't have jobs, so they went back. Temporarily, having them gone really contributed to the peace in the neighborhood because the West Virginians and the blacks, who were already the predominate group in the area, didn't get along very well. The neighborhood became increasingly black while I was there. There was a good black middle class element mixed in with the population ---lawyers, clergymen, I don't recall a doctor -- anyway but there were people of the middle-class as well as the really poverty-stricken. The middle-class element owned some of the homes in the area, and when I first came in there, I was just really struck with how well they kept up the neighborhood. Their lawns were neatly trimmed. They kept the houses painted and their trees pruned. I had to walk for two or three blocks from the bus to the library and I really enjoyed the walk, because it was pretty. As time went on, the neighborhood deteriorated a little bit too.


The middle class blacks were very anxious to preserve law and order in the neighborhood. I'm sure poor people were too. Unfortunately, there were some of the rowdy also, so it was a high crime area. We couldn't leave the building after 5:00 without having a male member of the staff, either a guard or a male page, walk with us to the bus line and wait with us until we caught the bus. If we worked a nightshift, they'd walk us to the restaurant. But, you could really be impressed with these people. You got to know the people who frequented the library rather well. They'd stop and talk with you, when you weren't busy. There was this black woman who was sixty years old who told me one day, " I'm graduating from high school today. I'm so proud!" I couldn't help but to be terribly proud of her also. There were numbers of people who came in and wanted literature to help them teach another adult to read. This was a problem finding materials that would be suitable for helping adults to read because they wanted something more than "See Jane. See Jane run." There were lots of them who were helping others trying to learn to read. You never knew what you were going to be called on to do, because people in the neighborhood would look upon you as an educated person who would have the answer to all kinds of problems, and they would come and talk over their problems, particularly women would come in the morning when there weren't many people around. You had to be sure you knew about different social agencies in the city and how to get them in contact with these agencies. This was not the kind of library job you would have in a middle-class, white neighborhood. It was much more interesting, I think. Anyhow, I got my PhD from Western Reserve University in 1960. I stayed on at the library for one more year.

Sanderlin: Could you briefly describe the circumstances under which you were hired to teach at Old Dominion College in 1961?

Johnson: I had resigned from my position at Morehead, so I was looking for a position. Dean [Stan] Pliska was the chairman then of the History Department [at Old Dominion] and he wrote to Carl Wittke, whom I explained was the chairman of the History Department and dean of the graduate school at Western Reserve. Dean Wittke was on my PhD committee. When Pliska wrote to Wittke and described the sort of person that they needed, the qualifications they needed, Wittke thought that I fit the bill and recommended me for the position. I made an application and was invited to come down for an interview I liked what I saw. I liked the spirit among the faculty and the History Department. I thought the students I met were nice and congenial. It was obviously a developing institution. I had never lived in the eastern United States. Cleveland was the farthest east I had lived. I thought it would be interesting to spend some time in this part of the country. It seemed to be the best of the opportunities that were developing for me at this particular time. So, I took it.

Sanderlin: Did you find the students in your early classes receptive and industrious?

Johnson: Yes I would say so. I think that the student body now is more highly selective. We had a more open admissions policy then than we do now, though our policy now is still pretty open. But by and large, the students in my classes worked well and were receptive.


Sanderlin: Do you have any recollections of outstanding faculty members at the college in your early days here?

Johnson: I think there were two people particularly. One was Bill Spencer, officially his name was Warren William Spencer, but we all called him Bill. Pliska, who was chairman of the Department of History when I was hired, moved up to be chairman of the Division of Social Studies, a division which was only retained briefly and then Pliska went on to be a Dean. Bill Spencer became the chairman of the History Department until 1967. I think Bill was a little bit younger than me, yet he took a very fatherly attitude towards his department and a real interest in each of us teaching here. We were a much smaller department then. He would have us over to his home. He looked out for us in different ways. He and his wife were really very friendly towards me. They were very interested in the development of the department. It made for a very congenial kind of situation within the department to have this kind of a chairman. I was sorry to see him go. The other person was Robert Stern of the Political Science Department who retired 3 years ago -- I think it was something like that. I got to know Bob particularly through the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors because he worked hard in that and I came to work hard in that. Through the years, until he retired, we were working very closely on AAUP matters, not only at the local level, but at the state level. When I was on the National AAUP Council, I would keep in close touch with Bob. I found it was very good to talk over issues with Bob, as we both had our hearts in the same place shall I say. But to get his perspective on things and weigh different pros and cons and possibilities and so on, he was a very human kind of person. He was very concerned about the welfare of faculty and students and the community at large. He had been here since 1946, so he really knew the community and what was possible within the community, as well as the state of Virginia. His political advice was very good.

Sanderlin: What was the atmosphere on the campus of Old Dominion College during the late 1960s?

Johnson: The atmosphere on the Old Dominion campus was more conservative than on the campuses that you read about elsewhere. There wasn't any real disruption on the campus. There were times when students got very excited, particularly around the time of the shootings at Kent. There were some meetings, some demonstrations, and some demands made on the president. The president turned it over to the faculty to handle. The faculty listened to complaints. I think things worked out without any great trouble.

Sanderlin: You have served as President of the Old Dominion College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors and also on their National Council, what was the reaction of this body to the turbulence on college campuses during the late 1960s and the early 1970s?


Johnson: The AAUP was much concerned with student problems and very concerned with looking at things from a student point of view, as well as from other points of view. What the AAUP did and was doing at just the point when I came on the National Council was to prepare a statement of student rights. This was prepared with very great care. They had a special committee that composed it and referred it back to the Council as a whole. The Council discussed it, made revisions, and referred it back to the committee. When I came onto the Council, I got the twenty-sixth revision of the statement. That's how much care that went into the AAUP statement, and still goes into their basic statements. There was also much concern about the war in Vietnam. I think the dominant attitude was that it was a mistake for us to have escalated the war over there. There was much concern about students and their feelings about the draft.

Sanderlin: What was the attitude of the chapter at Old Dominion College/University?

Johnson: I think that there was sympathy with the students and the problems that went on. This was a time also when there were problems in relationships between the faculty and the administration. For the AAUP, this was a distraction from the student problems, but we did have a student who ran into real difficulties. She was in consultation with AAUP leaguers. I was president of the local chapter at the time, when her problem developed. I wrote to the National [Council] for advice and also to inquire whether they would take a student case. The National had to answer that they couldn't possibly do this; their funds were too short to do everything that needed to be done at the time. They had to draw the line to only handle faculty cases.

Sanderlin: What significance did the elevation of Old Dominion College to the University level have in 1969?

Johnson: It meant that we got a new president, for one thing. It meant also that there was an effort to change the standards in the university very rapidly. Changes particularly applied to qualifications for new faculty that would be hired and qualifications for tenure on faculty, and for promotions, things like that.

Sanderlin: What was the reaction of the students to this change?

Johnson: I can't say very much about the students. I think you would really have to consult with alumni who were students at that time to get an answer. It's a question that I somehow never raised with students and I don't recall students particularly talking about it in front of me.

Sanderlin: As Co-organizer of the Old Dominion University Faculty Women's Caucus and coordinator of the organization from 1974-1975, do you believe that the Women's Caucus has made a positive contribution to the female faculty members?


Johnson: Yes I do. One of the first things that the Faculty Women's Caucus did was to sponsor a study of conditions of faculty women on this campus. We couldn't find out what their salaries were so that we could compare them. We sent around questionnaires, where we asked about salaries and a whole range of matters affecting the well being of faculty women and their opportunities for promotion. This questionnaire indicated very clearly that there were numbers of women on the faculty who felt that they had been discriminated against and that their opportunities were not the same. They also felt that they were judged differently for promotions and salary increases. We had some people from the Math Department, in Statistics, analyze this for us and we took our case to the administration. The administration did not agree with the method of analysis that was used, so this became a point of contention. We did force the administration to make their own study and eventually there was an investigating committee, appointed by the president, to look into conditions of the faculty. There were department chairmen who told me that they were really scared of the Faculty women's Caucus. I think that we helped to create awareness among faculty and administration, so that they really had to look out for the interests of women. They wanted to do this before we had any really strong person in the administration to look after equal rights.

Sanderlin: Over the years, from your own experience, would you say women have been accorded equal opportunity for advancement at the university?

Johnson: For myself, I think I have, but I've already indicated that our study showed that there were numbers of women on the campus who felt that they had not been accorded equal opportunity. It was a conclusion of the Faculty Women's Caucus, by virtue of the study. It depends on the department chairman or dean of the school, and sometimes-higher officials also. One of the concerns to us was reflected in the administration. There weren't any women in the upper administration.


Interview Continued
September 29, 1980

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