Lois Banner: A Pioneer in Women’s Studies

The young college students who have sat in Professor Lois Banner‘s women’s studies classes are lucky to be living at a time when the field isn’t as stifled and doubted as it was when she began teaching women’s studies in the late 1960s. The Women’s Movement was still in its nascent stages then, having freshly emerged from the Civil Rights Movement.

“There was this new generation of women coming about who realized they were trapped in their homes and wanted more for their daughters,” she says. “A lot of voices began to be heard, and things began to snowball. Women’s studies came out of that.”

As one of the founders of the field, Banner concluded decades of feminist teaching with her retirement last month. Thirty of her years in academia were spent as a history and gender studies teacher at the University of Southern California (USC), where she helped popularize and expand the gender studies program, mentoring innumerable students in feminist history. Students, she said, would:

… enter my classroom saying that they aren’t feminist, but end the class extremely enthusiastic about feminism and wanting to change the culture. So it’s not a lost generation on our campuses. It saddens me that I won’t go on witnessing that.

In her career, students haven’t always been receptive to feminist teaching. She remembers in the “backlash” years of the 1980s that there seemed to be “less interest and more hostility” toward feminist teaching. But in recent years, there’s been a resurgence as the field became more inclusive, paying increasing attention to marginalized groups such as women in developing countries, women in prison and transgender women.

“Students are [now] more sympathetic to feminism; they realized it wasn’t just the movement of white women,” she says.

What might be her most influential achievement is the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, which she cofounded in 1972 to help legitimize women’s studies and advocate feminist scholarship. Working on a shoestring budget and battling the derision of other academics, Banner and her colleagues managed to grow the biennial conference into one of the most recognized in the field, drawing more than 2,000 attendees from around the world. She says,

Women’s studies is filled with women like me. We knew we had to be super performers, so we would always tell each other ‘you can do it.’ We said it often enough times and we somehow ended up doing it.

In addition to the Berkshire Conference, Banner wrote definitive biographies of culturally significant women, such as Marilyn MonroeMargaret Mead and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her work on Monroe has done much to refute the misconception that the icon was a mere dumb blonde. “She was a very intelligent woman,” says Banner, “who stands on a level with Charlie Chaplin in that her persona was all invented.” She adds,

There’s this huge feminist undertone to her even though feminism wasn’t around yet. I wish she had a way to name her oppression but the language didn’t exist at the time. I feel that was a major part of her problem.

Among her peers, she’s seen as a pioneer. The chair of the gender studies program at USC, Alice Echolsregards her as “a founding mother of the field of women’s history, and one of its most prolific and talented practitioners.”

In retirement, Banner looks back in amazement at what she was able to accomplish:

I never thought I could do this, lecture on feminism to hundreds of students and write all these books. I was just this little blond woman from a lower-class suburban family in [Southern California]. I ended up having a son and a daughter whom I had to raise alone, but I still had all these dreams. They somehow came true.

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Associate editor of Ms. magazine