Jean O'Barr taught her first class at Duke in 1969, when women's studies was just beginning to be recognized as an academic discipline. Four decades later, the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture honored the career and contributions of O'Barr, who retired from full-time teaching in 2008. The Bingham Center's fourth biennial symposium—titled "What Does It Mean to Be an Educated Woman?"—featured a keynote address by Lisa Yun Lee Ph.D. '99, director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago; a benefit dinner in honor of O'Barr; and plenary sessions on activism, scholarship, and pedagogy.
"I think Jean would say the subject of this year's symposium is one of the central questions of her career and a question that you inevitably encounter when you're documenting women's studies," says Laura Micham, director of the Bingham Center. O'Barr has helped shape Duke's own intellectual landscape: She served as the first director of the Continuing Education program for more than a decade before founding the Women's Studies Program. Despite her retirement last year, she continues to teach the senior seminar for the Baldwin Scholars program each fall.
The unusually large number of Duke alumni in attendance—former colleagues and associates—also provides testimony to the influence of O'Barr, who personally selected the plenary speakers. Each panelist was asked to reflect upon the links among his or her Duke education, career choices, and accomplishments, Micham notes, but all took the time to temporarily break from the subject at hand.
"What Jean didn't want was for any of these folk to pay tribute to her in the course of the panels, but they did," she says. "She's just such a life changer for those who have been in her midst."
The speakers' professional accomplishments are testimony to O'Barr's leadership and women's education at Duke. Participants included Katherine E. Tennyson '81, chief probate judge for Oregon's 4th Judicial District; Nancy Hogshead-Makar '86, Olympic gold-medal winner and professor at Florida Coastal School of Law; and Andrea Barnwell A.M. '99, Ph.D. '01, director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.
Among those attending were professor emeritus Anne Firor Scott, the first female chair of the history department; feminist and author Sallie Bingham, who endowed the center that bears her name; five women who served as president of Duke's student government, Margaret Taylor Smith '47, Jan Nolting Carter '88, Connie Ellen Pearcy '91, Tonya Robinson '92, and Lisa Zeidner Marcus '00; and current president Awa Nur '10.