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Women's studies pioneer 'Woman of the Year'

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October 8, 1997

By Laurent Pernot

Margaret Strobel, professor of women's studies, was named 1997 Woman of the Year by the Chancellor's Committee on the Status of Women.

But her colleagues will tell you she's a Woman of the Year for "any and every year."

That's what Judith Gardiner, professor of English and women's studies, said in nominating Strobel for the award.

"Peg has been the most active, most vigorous of committee members in behalf of women at this university for nearly two decades," Gardiner wrote.

"She remains a role model for me and other well-established faculty as well as for generations of our students."

Strobel was the first director of women's studies and a co-chair of the committee on the status of women.But for years, she refused to be nominated for the annual award, saying such work shouldn't mean automatic recognition.

"I thought there were a lot of other women who have contributed to UIC," she said. "Maybe not in such visible ways, but just as important."

Alice Dan, director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender (a byproduct of women's studies) saw that attitude as another reason to honor Strobel.

"This modesty and support for others has characterized Peg's entire career," she wrote.

"There has never been a time since she arrived that she has not contributed her time, both on and off the job, to serving women."

Such widespread agreement about Strobel's achievements should come as no surprise for a woman who is credited as a consensus-builder.

"The more you can get people to agree with a decision and feel they were a part of how it was made, the better the decision is and the less people will try to undermine it," she said. "I find those decisions congenial."

One faculty member who nominated Strobel for the award, wrote that "even when decisions went against a person, she (or he) felt that she had been at least heard."

That approach stems in part from Strobel's work in Kenya, India and Nigeria, where she studied in the 1960s and '70s.

Because she had "never been east of East Lansing" -- she was born in North Dakota, lived in a Minneapolis suburb as a teenager and got her B.A. from Michigan State -- Strobel had to learn "to understand other people's way of looking at the world."

"I studied women with whom I disagreed in many ways," she said. "They didn't have a political sense of what, back then, I would have called their oppression.

"The struggle was to try to understand these women and their own realities without inserting my own political agenda in my writing."

She said she wants her students to learn that lesson."I do try to have them reserve making judgments until they understand the situation and its complexities," she said. "Understanding people coming from another place is as important as anything else.

"I would encourage our students to take advantage of opportunities to travel and study abroad."

In the early days of women's studies, not everyone adopted an open-minded attitude toward a new field some considered threatening or unnecessary.

"It was hard to imagine people committed to scholarship on the one hand, who on the other hand were using that scholarship in terms of a cause," she said.

But women's studies scholars have earned respect through nationally recognized scholarship; they are no longer considered teachers whose ideology taints their work, she said.

"Sometimes you're so far ahead, you appear out of step," she said.

Strobel stays focused on the future. She is among campus members working to develop a masters' program in women's health that will include women's studies, nursing, public health, humanities and medicine.

"As health care is changing, our campus is well positioned to train people in women's health not just from a medical approach, but also by including everything we've learned in the humanities and women's studies," she said.

That kind of project exemplifies what women's studies has done to bring many disciplines together.

And, for that, wrote Sandra Lee Bartky, professor of philosophy, Strobel "is, in my book at least, UIC's 'Woman of the Decade.'"

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