Univ. of Delaware, Molly Chappell
Before her death, Mae Carter had been comfortably retired in California, but she stood as a formidable force for equal rights during her years at UD.
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Meet Ms. Mae Carter

In the days when UD's women struggled, she stood tall enough to lift them all as one

[Editor's note: Mae Carter passed away on Dec. 13, 2020 at age 99, just over a year after the death of her husband, Bob. In her memory, we are republishing this profile of her from the August 2018 issue of University of Delaware Magazine]

Way back in the early ’70s, during the days when campus rumbled with the seismic stirrings of feminist unrest, the last thing any frazzled administrator wanted to get was a lunch invitation from Ms. Mae Carter.

Her sweetly proffered suggestion of a sit-down chat at the old Blue & Gold Club typically meant Mae had more on her mind than a pastrami on rye, and that any mealtime pleasantries would promptly give way to rhetorical swordplay and figurative arm-twisting.

Make no mistake, Mae Riedy Carter was in it to win it for the women of UD. She had to be, at that time and in this place.

Still, nearly 50 years after her feminist crusade began—and as Carter approaches her 100th birthday—her old campus colleagues remain astonished at how this cultured, educated and comfortably situated California transplant managed to ruffle nearly every gender-based bias that the male-dominated UD culture had instilled over two centuries. 

“She was kind of a lone voice for women on campus way back in the day,” says Jessica Schiffman, a retired Women & Gender Studies professor and co-founder of the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

They recall her exploits today with an awe approaching disbelief: Mae going straight to the president to tell him about a problem she saw—and the solution she envisioned. Mae calmly noting the scarceness of her particular gender around the Board of Trustees’ big table. 

“She knew where all the bodies were buried, and she knew where to exert leverage when she thought colleges weren’t making enough efforts to hire women. She was very cagey,” says Margaret D. Stetz, the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies. 

They still marvel—at all she did, and how she endured. In a frenzy of intra-institutional activism that might seem improbable outside of the early ’70s zeitgeist, Carter managed to first open educational doors for struggling single mothers, then worked to reveal—and begin to resolve—gaping inequities between male and female faculty. 

“She would just quietly go about her business, pushing all the while, being very polite, very low-key, but never giving up,” Stetz adds. “She can definitely tell it like it is, and she will. If you get her on the subject of politics, you do feel the scorching wind of fiery opinion.”

With wits and gumption and a wily charm, Mae Carter ultimately would help lift UD into the forefront of the then-nascent field of “Women’s Studies,” which today enjoys broad acceptance, but in those times was openly mocked by some male faculty who hoped she would fail. “They said it to our face,” remembers Anne Boylan, professor emerita of history.

No, back then, and for decades before, the female students, staffers, professors—especially the vastly outnumbered women professors—were expected to quietly yield power to men, politely endure the bedroom innuendo and the bottom-patting, and be satisfied that a meager portion of glory, grants and jobs came their way. 

Then Mae Carter arrived. And ways that matter now to every woman on campus, UD hasn’t been the same since.

The California girl heads East 

The woman that Mae Carter would become was shaped by the girl she had been: Born, raised and educated in the progressive-minded town of Berkeley, California, she would aspire to a higher education, but recognize that it would be limited to a bachelor’s degree in Home Economics, UC Berkeley Class of ’43. “That’s what women had to do in those days. It could be either home economics or teaching,” says Carter, now living in Michigan with husband Bob, just shy of 100 himself. 

As society expected, she would quit her job as a pre-school teacher when her children were born, turning her energy toward PTA crusades. And as expected, she would follow Bob when he was relocated to Delaware in 1956. Once here, however, she began to wriggle free from conformist notions: She craved something with substance; she needed to make a difference; she could not endure the suburban ennui of the “ladies who lunch.”

“I was not interested in the same things the other wives were interested in. You can only play so much bridge,” says Carter, who soon would join the local chapter of the American Association of University Women and commit herself to giving Newark a public library worthy of itself. “The library then wasn’t open very much, maybe three days a week, and it was in the lower levels of a school administration building. It was dark and gloomy, and the books were all donated. We needed to do something.”

So, in classic Carter-esque manner, something was done. 

It was a formula she would follow the rest of her Newark years: Gather the facts, determine who held the power, then strategically use those facts to convince those powerful people–preferably over sandwiches—that her views were unassailable. By 1966, with the help of like-minded allies Carmen Nelson, Marge Purcell and, Miriam Willis (dubbed “The Bookends” for their passion) had managed to push for the creation a free-standing city library in a former church, then lobby for foundation and corporate donations to expand it further.

“She was very good at connecting people with one another,” Stetz says. “She was great at getting people together. She’s very social and sociable in her instincts.”

It was around this time, with her daughters off in college and the library being built, that she heard about a job opening at UD in a division called University Extension, which had grant money earmarked for educating women. She started tentatively, working part time at first, counseling women—including just-divorced mothers—who suddenly found themselves at the precipice of hopelessness.

Those days would change her destiny.

“Some women would come in and say, ‘My husband has left me, and I have two children and I’m 55 years old. I have never worked, and I have to support myself. He even took the insurance,’” Carter recalls. “It was hard, because those women had done everything society had told them to do. They played tennis, they played bridge, they were active in the church, they went to luncheons, they did all that, but that didn’t help them get a job, so we had to be creative in our thinking.”

It was an experience that would solidify her notions of women’s resilience, and the effectiveness of sisterly support. She saw them thrive in group sessions, and encouraged them to focus on skills they acquired as a homemaker—even if it was keeping the books for the bridge club or church. In time, she would successfully push for the creation of support programs and courses tailored to their needs, first on the Newark campus, and then all around the state.

“I’ll tell you, after seeing those women who were left with nothing, it made me a real feminist,” Carter says. “It really did.”

“Because no one else could” 

It was a masterful moment, but even bigger moments beckoned. It seemed that circumstances were aligning; the cross-currents of political will and public opinion were sliding into sync. In 1971, then-UD President E. Arthur Trabant looked at his ceaselessly restless campus and dreamed of instilling some sense of common purpose, something that would unite instead of divide, notes UD historian Carol Hoffecker.

Trabant saw the inequities imposed on female students at his supposedly “co-educational” university—such as the rules forbidding them from smoking or staying out past curfew. He realized that they craved more educational role models than the few female professors UD employed, mostly in Home Economics and Education. He mandated change, and in 1973, Mae Carter would become his prime change agent, as chair of the newly created Commission on the Status of Women, reporting directly to him.

“The staff people had a lot of complaints,” she recalls. “There was a two-tier level of benefits, including vacation days and sick days and health insurance. They were not allowed to eat in the faculty dining room. The women were upset there was no place on campus for them to have lunch.”

Soon, an avalanche of grim statistics would emerge from the Commission—full-time, tenured or tenure-track female professors were a rare breed indeed in those days, and would reach 12 percent of faculty only in 1993 (by 2016, it stood at 27 percent). Student Health had no gynecological services available, and women yearned for campus safety measures and parental leave policies. Pay inequities were rampant—until Carter laid out the facts and prompted changes in pay structure.

Her direct line to the president’s office meant such disparities would be seen by powerful eyes—but not everyone in power was ready to listen. That’s when Carter would wage her quiet, pointedly polite sort of war—going to Faculty Senate meetings, then just listening in silence, knowing that the men in power knew who she was, and what she wanted.

“I didn’t ever speak, I just sat there. It got to the point that it was very effective. I was just ‘assisting’ them,” Carter says with a smile.

“She had a way of doing what needed to be done by facilitating,” Boylan says. “You never heard Mae raise her voice, ever.”

“She would not take no for an answer,” adds Monika Shafi, a professor of German and former chair of Women & Gender Studies. “She is fearless. There was a tremendous sense of, ‘Let’s move forward.’”

Before too long, Carter’s reach widened even further—to the issue of sexual harassment, which had been pointedly ignored by male faculty, and to implementing pro-woman policies as head of the Office of Women’s Affairs. She tracked grants that might be useful to female professors, suspecting that department chairs were shunting them to the men. And she began the first steps toward what may have been her most enduring achievement—establishing Women’s Studies as a legitimate field.

For years, the smattering of courses aimed at women had been limited to continuing education, and male faculty saw no reason for them to go further, despite a clear demand. “You have to understand, the students enrolled in these courses, and they wanted them, and they would say it changed their life. Well, you’re not going to give up if it changed their lives,” Carter says.

So for the better part of the 1970s, as special assistant to the Provost for Women’s Affairs, Carter and her allies waged a back-and-forth, up-then-down struggle to hire professors, convince administrators, achieve legitimacy for Women’s Studies. It was a time when few other universities were doing the same, and little research existed to give scholarly credence for establishing an entire department. 

“When I started here, you had to be an activist to survive,” says Margaret Anderson, a retired UD sociology professor who chaired Women’s Studies for four years. “It wasn’t like you had the choice to solely focus on your career, because you had to make a place for yourself in an institution that wasn’t necessarily amenable to your interests, to your lifestyle, to who you were.”

It was, in fact, a time when female faculty who committed themselves to such a field were risking tenure suicide.

“I was doing it because nobody else could do it,” says Carter, who tapped into her network of prominent female acquaintances to speak on campus as a way of building legitimacy. “It was too dangerous for female faculty, but I didn’t care, because I didn’t have to work if I didn’t want to, and I believed in it. So I did it. But I didn’t do it alone.”

And she didn’t do it entirely through force of will. Fortunate to have a supportive husband and solid financial means, the Carters would also give generously so that full-time female professors could be hired, so research could be done, and so Women’s Studies would thrive. She and Bob supported the Mae Carter scholarship, so students also could achieve their dreams. “She put the muscle and the money behind it to make it a department,” says retired Prof. Mary Richards, a former dean of Arts & Science. “And she kept the issue of women’s advancement on the burner at the University of Delaware even after she retired.”

Today, even with all the accolades generated by such selflessness—the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women, the UD Medal of Distinction, Who’s Who in the World—she can’t help but marvel, not so much at her own deeds, but at the power of all women everywhere to prevail.

And she’s especially glad she opened the door for so many who will carry on the cause—loudly, proudly and into the future. “She’s not thinking about herself. She’s thinking about the greater good,” says Richards. “That’s Mae.” 

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