Associate Professor of History Robert Cassanello tells a story from the ‘80s that is still having an impact on UCF women’s and gender studies classes today.
In 1988, Shirley Leckie was the first woman in the department to be up for a promotion. At the time the University Personnel Committee judged her research on women’s history as “weak” and was critical of her promotion. But the chair of the department, Jerrell Shofner, supported Leckie in a three-page memo criticizing the committee’s assessment of her work, stated her lessons added “a much-needed element to our curriculum,” and she received her promotion.
“I couldn’t believe she had to confront this and wondered if other women had to confront this when they were the first to become tenured, full professor, a chair or something like that,” Cassanello says. “So I sat down with M.C. Santana, [program director for the women’s and gender’s studies program], and we said we should look at all of women’s firsts throughout the university and put them into a collection.”
In Fall 2019, the two connected with lecturer Anne Bubriski to develop an assignment for her students in her Women and Leadership course to work in groups to conduct interviews with women who have UCF affiliation and begin building the Women First at UCF oral history project, which will be archived in STARS this summer. Students received training on how to conduct research, develop interview questions, best practices for interviewing and other skills that they could add to their resumes.
“I definitely see a gap in the materials in archives from women, especially women in leadership positions,” says Mary Rubin, archivist for Special Collections and University Archives. “To be able to grab these stories and make sure this is an ongoing project assures we aren’t losing our history.”
The interviews were later used to help create custom banners that document major highlights through the decades and were created by students from two of Associate Professor Kim Jo’s graphic design classes.
By early March 2020, the banners went up in the John C. Hitt Library so the campus community could learn more about influential women at UCF. However, the coronavirus cut short this experience, as well as the planned display and panel at UCF Celebrates the Arts.
But the project lives on as students from Bubriski’s courses have continued to conduct interviews virtually through elective individual assignments that fulfill a service-learning component. “This project continues to be important as there are women at UCF whose great contributions still go unrecognized and their stories are significant to share,” she says. “We have moved into a “Women at UCF” offset of the initial project in order to collect as many oral herstories as possible. As courses went online due to COVID-19, collecting interviews become optional and used for service-learning projects.”
This semester, human communication major Macy Esco chose to conduct a virtual interview to learn more about Cecilia Rodriguez-Milanes, an associate professor of English and author who has studied under Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
“Just being able to hear Dr. Rodriguez-Milanes’ perspective on a lot of her experiences with the intersection of being a Latinx woman, and being a woman especially in academia and here at UCF, was really incredible,” she says. “My biggest takeaway was she wishes she had someone who told her to persevere and keep going because there were lots of times in her career that she had doubts. As a woman and first-gen student it was really great to hear that.”
Esco decided to participate in the project because it gave her a chance to interact with someone new on campus, an opportunity she says she hasn’t really had since she hasn’t been in a classroom in over a year.
“This was a really meaningful experience for me — this class and project have reinforced the importance of speaking on social issues for women” Esco says.
The Past and Future of Women’s History
With 30 interviews in the archives, here are just a few women who have shaped history at UCF.
Professor emeritus who was one of the first women professors hired in 1968, kept teaching and advocating for equal treatment for women faculty until 2003.
“On some of the committees that I served on there were men who would look at credentials of women and [would have a], ‘Oh-I-don’t-know kind of attitude.’ And I would say ‘The criteria is clear, we have certain criteria we have to meet to get promoted. If they meet that criteria … if they did the work, they get the promotion.’”
Associate professor of history, who was the chief negotiator and chair of bargaining for the United Faculty of Florida-UCF (2019-2020).
“We were able to get parental leave, so that was good. Parental leave is for both parents, and it’s anywhere depending on if you’re instructional or non-instructional. So, if you do teach, it’s a full semester, and if you don’t teach, it’s anywhere from 13 to 16 days.”
Pegasus Professor of biology and the director of the Center for Success of Women Faculty
“We just had a lot of requests from [pregnant] women, not just women faculty, but women staff and students, saying they were having a really hard go of it [during] their third trimester, and they asked if we could help. And we actually spent two years getting parking spaces for expectant mothers approved at UCF.”
As the university resumes more face-to-face courses in Fall 2021, Bubriski plans for her Women and Leadership Honorsstudents to contribute more to the project and in Spring 2022 she will make it major assignment again. Cassanello and Santana note they’ve only just begun to document women’s important roles at the university.
“Women have not been included in any history so were still centuries behind,” Santana says. “Although UCF is young, we still have 50 years to cover — and uncover. Creating this project will continue until we don’t have to identify anybody as male or female. Just as a worker.”