Interview with Maggie McFadden2019-09-16T11:53:12+00:00

THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT

Maggie McFadden

“Don’t Listen to What Anyone Tells You to Do! Listen to Your Passion.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA, Executive VP, April 2019

KR:  Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for the VFA pioneer history project. We’re delighted you are.  Please to start by telling us your name.

MM:  I’m known as Maggie McFadden. My birth name is Margaret McFadden. But in the past 40 years, I’m pretty much known as Maggie McFadden, though I have published under Margaret McFadden. I was born in Lafayette, Indiana on August 1st, 1941. My father was a Methodist minister. At the time, he was the Wesley Foundation Director at Purdue University and he was there during the thirties.

In ’41, the year I was born, he was fired for inviting Black students to come to the Wesley Foundation on Sunday nights and to eat and sometimes spend the night. Purdue University, which is a big engineering school, at that time in the thirties did allow Black students to attend but they could not live on campus, and they had to live across the Wabash River in Lafayette. Purdue is in West Lafayette.

West Lafayette was what’s called a “sundown” town. It meant that Blacks could not be in the town after sundown. They could work there, and they could be students there if it was a college town, but they couldn’t stay there. This is a term that’s found in many places in the South and near the South.

One thing about my background is that my parents, especially my father, were both peace and justice workers wherever they were. Dad got fired from many places for going against the local mores of whatever church or town. After we lived there – and I only lived there for a little while because he got fired – the Bishop moved us to Terre Haute, Indiana. This was during the war. He was counseling young men against the draft. My father was a total pacifist and was for his whole life. He really was a Quaker even though he was formally a Methodist and so that didn’t go very well either.

KR:  Especially in Terre Haute I wouldn’t think.

MM:  Right. We lived there for a couple of years and then he got a little church in the woods that was a Federated Church in Indiana. It was Congregational, Methodist, and Quaker in Marshall, Indiana. That was always his favorite pastorate and we lived there when I was just 3 and 4 years old. That one I remember. I loved it because we lived out in the woods and I ran out in the woods and found the wild raspberries. They used to call me Margaret “raspberry” McFadden.

We lived there until the war was over.  At the end of the war, I remember two things. I remember when FDR died, that was before the total end of the war. And I remember when the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In both cases my father cried. I don’t remember when the war actually was over, but I remember those two things. And then in ’47 when Gandhi was killed, he cried again, and by that time we were living in Wyoming.

After the war Dad decided because of the G.I. Bill, he was going to get back into student work, and so we got sent to the University of Wyoming in  Laramie, Wyoming. He became the Wesley Foundation Director. And we drove there, moved all the way across the country. I remember having a flat tire in Nebraska on my fifth birthday that year. We lived there for two years and there are a lot of stories about him.

For example, he helped Paul Robeson who was a great African-American singer and came to sing at the University of Wyoming. But the only hotel in town wouldn’t let him have a room because he was Black. My dad got involved in it. He called up the president of the university and said – “You have invited him to come and sing, and yet there’s no place for him to stay. You’ve got to find him a place on campus, because the only downtown hotel won’t give him a room.”

So, there were those kinds of things all through my childhood. After Wyoming we moved to Utah. We lived in Price, Utah where my father’s church was the only non-Mormon Protestant church in town. It was a mission church that was very interesting because of the immigrant mine workers. Of course, by that time I was in public school along with all the Mormon kids and my older sister was learning Mormon history in her Utah history class. Everybody but her was Mormon. My father made enemies there too. Then he got sent to Colorado, and all the rest of his pastorates were in little Colorado rural towns. Very conservative, not really taking to the pacifist, pro-union kind of work that Dad preached on and worked on. We moved a lot growing up.

My mother was a home economics major at Indiana University which is where she met my father, because he had also been a student minister there. And her background was interesting. She did not continue to teach Home Ec after she married, and this was something that she worried about and decided that she couldn’t do it. Of course, it was during the Depression. They got married in ’33. 

There were many school systems that would not hire married women during the Depression or during the build-up to the war. She didn’t teach again until much later when my younger brother was in high school. She went back to teaching Home Ec and taught boys how to make chocolate chip cookies.

KR:  Clearly your family background would dispose you to being an activist. Tell me how you got involved with the women’s movement.

MM:  I went to the University of Denver and my senior year Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique came out. I remember reading it and buying several copies to send to all my friends, because they were getting married at the end of college. I was determined not to do that and to go to graduate school and take control of my life. I remember sending that book to some of my friends including my older sister who had gotten married right away. They didn’t necessarily appreciate it. I was starting to be a feminist.

I graduated in ‘63 and I went to Boston University and did a master’s in English. I’d studied humanities, philosophy, literature, and art history but was able to go to graduate school in English. I was not happy there. I didn’t want to continue at BU, especially because of my advisor for whom I worked, a man who ran a journal at Boston University and was in the English department. I typed all the letters and worked very hard there to get some of my tuition paid. At any rate he said, “Well, Miss McFadden, you should stop with the M.A. Women should not get PhD’s.”

That’s all I needed to hear, but I wasn’t going to stay there. I did get a job immediately on finishing my M.A. in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and I started teaching English at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI in ‘64 and did that for two years before I found the place where I wanted to work on my PhD.

The beginning part of your question you asked where did you get involved in the movement. It was when I went to Atlanta, which was in 66 – 67, where I started my PhD at Emory University. While I was working on my PhD I was also teaching at Clark College and then at Spelman College in Atlanta, both historically Black colleges. It was through Emory University that I became involved with a consciousness raising group. I was trying to figure out the year and it must have been 68 – possibly 69.

KR:  Sure, that would be about the time that all that was going on.

MM:  It functioned as those CR groups did. We weren’t all graduate students. We were just young women in the Atlanta area who came together about once a week, maybe once every two weeks and ultimately we didn’t continue. We split up. This is an interesting point of that CR group. Grady Hospital in Atlanta, it still exists under a different name, but I think it’s a part of Emory now. It was the big urban downtown hospital serving especially the Black community in Atlanta.

There were people in the group who wanted to go there and have a protest for abortion rights in either 68 or 69. The group split about that because African-Americans thought that the women who were white who were protesting for abortion, were against Black rights. They talked about abortion rights as being some kind of plot against African-Americans. The CR group split on that basis and basically broke-up.

My first real protest was at Emory. In the graduate school there was a “quota” system for women being given fellowships and it was 25%. The women graduate students that were involved in this thought this was dreadful. And that was our first protest. It was actually raising that question and going to the top people at the university about that 25% quota. And it got changed. It took about a year, but it did get changed.

KR:  I know that one of your major accomplishments relates to women’s studies. Could talk a little bit about that?

MM:  I got married while at Emory to a man who was in that same program. We were in the Institute of the Liberal Arts, which is an interdisciplinary PhD program at Emory. People made their own programs and found their own committees and professors and so on. That was a problem for me because I kept getting thrown off by the professors saying she’ll never finish. That kind of thing was very sexist.

In any case we were not finished with our dissertations, but we’d been there a long time. We’d both been teaching and working and got pretty sick of the Emory library and just decided we were going to Europe. So, we did. We started teaching part time. The University of Maryland had courses at American military bases in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but especially in Germany. They hired us for peanuts to teach a course here and there on military bases. My first Women’s Studies course was taught at Ramstein Air Base in Germany in 1972 or 73.

It was quite amazing. It was the year that Ms. Magazine first came out and it was for sale in the Stars and Stripes bookstore. We read books by and about women I didn’t know – I’d never taught women studies. I certainly didn’t study it for my PhD although Doris Lessing was in my dissertation. I had a great group of students and when the course was over they just continued. I came back to the United States to defend my dissertation and they continued on. It was great.

And then the next year we were not able to get jobs. It was during a recession in 74-75 in this country. I was sending mine and my husband’s vitae to literally 200 different possible jobs and nothing. And that year we lived in my parents’ summer home in the winter, in a non-winterized summer cabin in the mountains. We lived by dumpster diving and an electric blanket in the bedroom. It was very exciting, but it was good that it didn’t last forever.

And then we got a call from Appalachian State University in May, which was very late. By that time, I had been sending both of our vitae and saying – would you hire either of us – would you let us split a job? What could we do to work? We went to Boone, North Carolina for interviews in May. By the end of the interviews, where there was supposed to be one job, they hired both of us, which was totally amazing. That doesn’t happen anymore because they would have had to advertise two jobs. They really wanted a woman and they hired me. They hired my then husband also.

We were doing all kinds of interdisciplinary work at Appalachian State University. Almost immediately, I and four other women faculty began a women’s studies program at Appalachian State in 1976. It was the first one in North Carolina, long before UNC and Duke University started theirs. We started with a group of courses and then we got a minor and then a major and a program and a little bit of money and a lot of work with students.

I directed the program for a long time. And we also tried to keep it up because the state system every once in a while decided they were going to get rid of such things as women’s studies, global studies, Black studies and anything interesting in the curriculum. We were always having to fight for the program. In the midst of that there was a student women’s organization that I was the faculty advisor for. There was a gay and lesbian student organization that I was also the faculty advisor for. And a lot of other things like that, that were sort of connected to the university but also connected to students. For instance, Take Back the Night march that was at the university and in the town.

We started a NOW group in Boone. There was a group that helped elect women called 100 Women. These were not specifically university projects; we at the University who were feminists and working in women’s studies were doing those things too. I was at Appalachian State for 40 years. 

KR:  Wow. So that’s amazing that the job came about kind of as a fluke and then you stayed there for so long.

MM:  Right, and I had a number of leaves. I did a lot of writing and research, traveled literally all over the world to women’s studies international conferences where I would give papers. We started the South Eastern Women’s Studies Association in, I believe, 1978 because they did have their fortieth anniversary. It started in Atlanta at Georgia State and it’s part of the NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association).

We started just after the National Women’s Studies Association began. We are the regional South Eastern Women’s Studies Association. I’m one of the “founding mothers” of that organization (which still exists) and just had its spring meeting in Oxford, Mississippi. I did not go this year, but last year I did go. It was in Clemson, South Carolina and I gave a paper about this women’s rights study group at this retirement center where I live now. I’m not heading this group, but persuading people to participate. I gave a paper about what we’re doing in that women’s rights study group here.

KR:  That’s great. So really, your women’s movement experience not only helped you with your career, it became your career.

MM:  Exactly. It was all connected.

KR:  That’s great. Tell me about the women’s rights group where you live right now. What do they do?

MM:  This is a Continuing Care Retirement Center in Chapel Hill. It has a lot of different groups of people who do different things. You can study a language, or you can do book reviews. This group is called the Women’s Rights Study Group. And so last year we studied – and this was my idea, because I wanted to get the film about Gerda Lerner here. We studied Gerda Lerner’s books.

At one time I had a six month leave and I went to the University of Wisconsin to study with Lerner. She was always telling me – Maggie you do not have a PhD in history. I said I know that Gerda, that’s why I’m here. I studied with her and went to her PhD seminars and got started on the latter part of her women’s history books which then we studied here in Chapel Hill. She just died about two years ago and there is a documentary film about her which we brought here.

KR:  That had to be a pretty thrilling experience for you to get to study with her.

MM:  Exactly.

KR:  Any other particularly memorable events from your women’s movement life that you would like to share?

MM:  I had two Fulbright Fellowships. The first one was in Finland and they were both women’s studies Fulbright’s, which before 1991 had not existed. I was at a Women’s Studies Center in Turku, Finland, and that’s where I taught both in the history department and in women’s studies in ’91-92. Then I had a second Fulbright in Klagenfurt, Austria. It was a shorter one, just one semester instead of a whole year. I was in Austria in 2004 but it was also in women’s and gender studies. I was teaching women’s studies and women’s history. Of course, it’s quite wonderful to be able to teach students from a different culture who know so much about women in their own culture. I could learn from them too.

KR:  You are amazing. I’m so glad we’re doing this interview. Tell me about your books.

MM:  They take forever to write. The main one – and I’ve written a lot of articles and book reviews and so on – but my major book is called Golden Cables of Sympathy: The Transatlantic Sources of Nineteenth-Century Feminism. And what this book does is to look at those connections that women were making between Europe and North America in the 19th century before there were women’s suffrage organizations.

Before that time, there were all kinds of connections that women made with each other that really built up this wonderful connection, this wonderful network. So that when there came to be women’s suffrage organizations, they already had this network. Abolition and religion and travel and just all kinds of things. So that book is about that.

And of course, I went and studied the archives in many places. The book came out in 1999, University Press of Kentucky. And it reprinted 10 years later in paperback. So, it is still available. That’s about the 19th century and the one that I’m working on now –  for 10 years, is not about the 19th century, but it’s about the period between World War I and II. It’s about women activists in Europe and in the United States between World War I and II.

Instead of being a compendium, which is what we had in my first book with lots of stories of wonderful women – some of whom you’ve heard of and many of whom you’ve not heard of – in this book I chose six women activists and then I put those materials together and the women are not all Americans.

Emma Goldman you’ve heard of, but the rest of them you may not have. Emily Greene Balch, from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, who got the Nobel Peace Prize in ‘46 and nobody’s ever heard of her. Rosika Schwimmer, who came from Hungary to the United States. She tried to become a citizen in the late 20s, but the Supreme Court refused her citizenship. This was 1929 and she said,  “I will not bear arms.” Now this is a woman over 50 and she was refused citizenship.

These are wonderful women to know about. And a woman from Finland named Hella Wuolijoki who was a dramatist and a politician. Two women from the U.K. Muriel Lester, who worked in settlement houses and then she worked in India with Gandhi. And my parents knew her. So that’s also part of this book, to put in my parents’ stories. And Ray (Rachel) Strachey who was from the U.K. and was a suffragist and worked for U.S. approval of the League of Nations. Ultimately the U.S. did  not approve joining the League of Nations.

Strachey came to this country to lobby for the League of Nations. She also worked for the first woman M.P. in the U.K. who was an American named Lady Nancy Astor. A divorcee who knew nothing about Parliament, so she needed help. Rachael Strachey helped Nancy Astor figure out her way in the House of Commons in England. She was elected because her husband went to the House of Lords and then she got his seat in the House of Commons. But she was an American and a divorcee and she really didn’t know anything, so she needed help. Strachey was really the one who helped her become the first woman M.P. So those are the six women in my second book which isn’t done yet, partly because I’m doing other things.

KR:  It sounds like you’re probably learning a lot too as you research these six women.

MM:  I should tell you I got divorced in 2000 and I came out as a lesbian in 2008.

KR:  Anything else relevant or important that you would like to share that we haven’t covered?

MM:  Outside the place that I live, I’m a part of the Raging Grannies. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Raging Grannies. This is actually an international organization. It started in Canada. In the Triangle Raging Grannies, we go around to various protests and sing songs with new protest words to old tunes.

We’re all over 60 and we have big hats with political buttons, we have aprons, we have shawls. And some of us have canes. Some of us are a little bit sprightlier than others, but we sing. We go to the state legislature when they’re debating things such as a new minimum wage or the violence against women act and so on. We go to different places and we sing protest words to old songs. Raging Grannies are wonderful, and they’ve got groups in New England and out on the West Coast. I don’t know where they all are but the Raging Grannies are in lots of places.

There was a video made of us. The woman who writes most of the lyrics, she’s just a genius at writing the lyrics for these songs. There are lots of pictures of the Raging Grannies because the newspaper people from the Triangle area, that’s Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, like to follow us around because we make good copy.

KR:  I think this has been fabulous. Thank you so much for taking the time and I know you’re busy, but everybody’s story is so important, and you have an amazing story. You’re an amazing person. I’m really honored to get to know you even by phone. Thank you so much.

MM:  Well thank you Kathy.