Distinguished Professor Emerita Marilyn Webb plans to receive her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago this summer, 52 years after finishing her classes and exams. Webb never finished her dissertation because she faced sexual harassment from two faculty members.
Webb had approached the faculty members to see if they would be on her dissertation committee. The dissertation is the final step in receiving a Ph.D. and is defended in front of a committee. Rather than discussing her work, they harassed her.
“He told me that he would be on my committee if he could come over to my apartment and give me baths,” Webb said. “… I told him no, I’d really prefer not and he really preferred not to be on my dissertation committee.”
The next faculty member she asked said the harassment was “quid pro quo.” The two other women in Webb’s class quit for similar reasons.
In 1967, there were only two women professors Webb could have approached to be on her committee: Hannah Arendt and Bernice Neugarten. Both were nationally prominent academics who Webb said would not have been interested in her work comparing the outcomes of students from two different preschools in Chicago.
So, she left the school and moved to Washington, D.C. There, she became active in the early days of second wave feminism and founded one of the first women’s liberation periodicals, off our backs.
“I had a life. I got a master’s degree in journalism and I became a journalist,” she said.
She also founded a Washington feminist group that took part in abortion counseling before Roe v. Wade, organizing clerical and telephone workers and demonstrations. She ended up sitting in on one of the Senate hearings on the new birth control pill.
“It was all men in this committee and all men reporting back and we just got outraged and stood up and said, ‘Where are the women on this committee? Have you asked anybody about how it feels to be on these pills? Have you looked at the safety of these pills?’ And it ended up to be a really big event,” she said.
After off our back she became a journalist and editor at various other publications, mostly focused on women’s issues.
“I wanted to put stories in there that would be more intelligent, stories for women in the changing time,” she said.
She eventually became the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, founded the women’s studies program at Goddard College and taught journalism at Columbia University. She also published a book on Americans’ relationship with death titled “The Good Death” in 1999.
Professor Robin Metz invited her to Knox to talk to his class on death and dying. While she was in Galesburg, he started convincing her to start a formal journalism program at Knox. His main selling point was S.S. McClure, a journalist who graduated from Knox in 1882 and helped start The Knox Student.
“You have to understand how great McClure was in my view,” Webb said. “Robin targeted the perfect person because I was teaching about progressive-era journalism.”
McClure’s Magazine was a major publication which published journalists like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens as well as writers like Willa Cather, Jack London and Mark Twain. McClure and his co-founder John Sanborn Phillips had met at Knox.
“[McClure’s Magazine] was really responsible for all the progressive-era legislation that happened, like child labor laws and food safety laws and laws against corporations,” Webb said. “It published all major journalists at the time. In fact, it changed journalism from yellow journalism to really investigative reporting.”
So, when she learned about the McClure connection, she wanted to create a program that honored the legacy he had left. She joined Knox for the 2001-2002 school year and the journalism minor was created in 2002-2003.
Webb and Instructor Emeritus of Journalism and Anthropology and Sociology David Amor co-founded the journalism program at Knox. Webb came for one term a year and focused on the nuts-and-bolts reporting classes, while Amor taught the more theoretical courses. They also served as co-advisors for TKS until 2009.
“Marilyn fell in love, I think, both with Knox and with Galesburg because it’s of a scale where you can make a difference,” Amor said.
Webb ran for mayor in 2009, originally because she was unhappy with the field of candidates but she really got into it once she started, Amor said.
Webb and Amor drew from the inspiration of McClure and progressive journalism in encouraging their students to produce in-depth coverage of Galesburg.
One notable project the students produced was a series on the closing of the Galesburg Maytag plant published by the Register-Mail. The series won an award from the Illinois Press Association.
“The basic idea of the 270 [Newswriting and Reporting] course is that if you want to be a reporter in Galesburg, you have to understand how the city works,” Amor said.
Assistant Professor and Chair of Journalism Jim Dyer joined Knox to continue the journalism department after Webb and Amor retired. Webb continues to be an important influence in how he runs the journalism department.
“I never really got to teach with her but she’s been sort of my mentor … whenever I need help or need some historical facts or someone to bend an ear to talk to me about politics, about getting x, y and z done at Knox for the journalism department, she’s the first one I call,” Dyer said.
Webb retired from Knox in 2013. She had not forgotten never getting her Ph.D.
“I kept being angry about it for the next 50 years,” she said.
After she retired, Webb saw more and more women coming forward about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment from men in positions of power. The language they used had not existed when Webb was in school for her Ph.D.
“There were no words at that time for sexual harassment and … no Title IX, no way to report it. … There was no culture that there is now,” Webb said. “You had nobody to report it to and even if you did, they wouldn’t believe you and there was no word for it.”
Seeing the #MeToo movement inspired Webb to take action to right the wrong she had faced. So, she reached out to the president of the University of Chicago. The president asked the provost who asked the dean of social sciences if she would be interested in possibly awarding Webb a Ph.D.
“I said I was robbed and I wanted to use the book that I wrote, ‘The Good Death’ … I wanted to use that book for my dissertation and I told them I wanted my Ph.D.,” Webb said.
The dean put together a committee and they agreed to let Webb use her book as the basis for a dissertation. Webb attributes the change in culture at the school not just to the development of language and systems to address sexual harassment but also the presence of women in the administration.
Webb’s new committee consists of two feminist faculty members and an African American faculty member who all have studied death and dying in society. They asked her to write a theoretical framework from her book because it was written for a popular audience.
She finished the theoretical framework earlier this month and will defend it on April 19 in Chicago. From there, she plans to graduate with her Ph.D. on June 15 at the age of 75.
“I can’t believe it’s happening, it’s just so … they wanted to make things right and I’ve never heard of another university doing this,” she said. “They wanted to make things right and correct old wrongs that were done to women.”
The other Knox journalism professors are also glad to see Webb getting her Ph.D. after she was wronged 52 years ago.
“I couldn’t be happier for her, and not only is that a boon for her but it’s also a boon for the University of Chicago to recognize that and fix that after all these years,” Dyer said.
Besides just being excited to finally get her PhD, Webb is especially glad to see the University acknowledge their past fault and to have been willing to fix it.
“I’m just truly thrilled they’re redressing old wrongs,” she said.