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Class of 1972

I transferred to UNC in 1970 from the University of South Florida in Tampa, where I had taken intro to sociology and a course in race relations. (Being a child of the South from a good white liberal family, I was constantly reminded of status inequalities by race and wanted to learn more.) For that class, we were required to make trips to the predominantly African American public housing projects to play with kids. I can’t remember now what we were supposed to be accomplishing for the residents, but it was an eye opener for the white middle-class students who drove into the dangerous inner city from the safety of the suburbs. And recently it had been dangerous: the 1967 race riot that started in Tampa’s Central Park Village Housing Project was the first case study in the Kerner Report. I was too young to recognize it at the time, but my biography was being shaped by history – my first encounter with the sociological imagination.

When I got to UNC, where women still needed a higher GPA than men to be admitted, I declared my major in sociology.  I took research methods with John Shelton Reed and a demography course with Peter Uhlenberg. Those two professors shaped my career opportunities for many years. John (I can use first names now) taught me SPSS when you still used punch cards and waited hours for results; that skill gave me an advantage and impressed my peers at UMass Amherst, where I attended graduate school. I chose UMass because it was one of the few universities with a female professor, and a demographer at that, Hilda Golden. Hilda became my mentor and advisor for my thesis on trends in women’s labor force participation. Can’t remember now what the independent and dependent variables were – sorry, John – but it was demographic and about women’s status. For that, and a subsequent stint as a statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau, I have Peter to thank.

My interest in women’s issues was ignited in Chapel Hill.  I was to learn later that the town was a hotbed of feminist activity. My own introduction to feminism came when a member of a local consciousness-raising group asked me to join them. My first reaction was that civil rights for blacks were more important than women’s rights. After all, women weren’t lynched. True, she countered, but women were raped and subject to violence by men, and were a much larger proportion of the population than African Americans. Maybe it was demography, after all, that turned me into a card-carrying feminist. It was certainly the intersection of biography and history again. The early 1970s were the glory days of Second Wave feminism, and I was right there. I joined a support group in Amherst and frequented the Women’s Center.

Due to funding opportunities, I wrote my dissertation on the consequences of racial residential segregation for the status of African Americans. I earned my Ph.D. from UMass in 1977 and continued to focus on racial inequities to avoid being branded a raging feminist. But it was the parallel between racial and gender inequalities that inspired my first book, Gendered Spaces (UNC Press, natch, 1992). There I argued that women’s status is lowest in societies in which women and men are spatially separated in homes, schools, and workplaces. Like African Americans, women suffer from a lack of access to resources held by those with power. That did it. I was publicly identified as a feminist and there was no turning back.

My current book, Constructive Feminism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City (Cornell University Press, 2016), argues that the Second Wave, like other social movements, had both deliberate and unintended spatial consequences for the city.  The civil rights movement, for example, achieved legal desegregation so that African Americans could occupy all public spaces, but it also spawned violent protests (like that in Tampa) that killed and injured people and destroyed acres of land. Activists in the women’s movement created new spaces for women – women’s centers, feminist health clinics and bookstores, and domestic violence shelters – that established women’s rights to the city. But once the majority of women took advantage of those rights and pursued full-time jobs and careers, their previously unpaid care-taking labor was transferred out of the home and into the public realm. Fast-food restaurants, daycare franchises, adult-care facilities, and hospices have proliferated since the 1980s. Did the Second Wave cause suburban sprawl? No, sprawl was already firmly established before the majority of wives and mothers joined the labor force. But social movements have spatial consequences, and participants cannot anticipate them all.

I am retiring in December 2016 after thirty years of teaching at the University of Virginia.  I am now the James M. Page Professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning.   I began my career at Virginia as the trailing spouse of Steven Nock, whom I met in grad school and subsequently married.  For the first four years I held a joint appointment with sociology and urban planning; both departments needed affirmative action credentials. In my fifth year I moved full-time into planning, where I became the first woman to earn tenure and work my way up the academic food chain.

The invitation to write this recollection arrived right before Constructive Feminism was released. It has been a pleasure to chart my feminist origins to my days in Chapel Hill, and to have this essay coincide with the publication of a book that celebrates those times and places.


Submitted February 2016