The First Twenty-Five Years

Since most WIF members discovered the organization in the 1990s, after our affiliation with the MLA, it seemed useful to search out some information on the early years. In what follows, even those of us involved with WIF before the 1990s have much to learn — or to remember. If anyone can fill in more details, especially concerning the 1980s, please contact Annabelle Rea, who will see that a more complete version of this WIF history gets posted on the web site.
[Mid-December 2002: No further information has been received, but any input remains welcome.]

Thanks to the good memory of WIF Nominating Committee Chair and Undergraduate Essay Co-Chair, Lucy Schwartz, and to detective work in a regional telephone directory by Cynthia Hahn, we tracked down Lucy Morros, WIF founder and later Co-Chair with Jean Hardy Robinson. Lucy Morros has written the following summary of the years 1977-1980.

« Women in French »: Inspired by Women in German in 1977

With a PhD in French from Washington University in St. Louis, Lucy Schmitz Morros was invited by Women in German to their 1977 conference at Miami of Ohio. There she spoke about Madame de Staël and the impact of German thought and culture on her thinking about women. The intensity of the discussions about literature and the relationships of the women in German inspired Lucy to proclaim, in dramatic French style, that she would seek to found a similar national group for women in French. The integrated nature of the intellectual work, the collective strength of the group, and the communication structure of Women in German were of great interest. She was sure that women in French would be attracted to developing a similar organization.

Women in French: Created at and Formally Connected to the MLA in 1978

An energetic group of some dozens of women in French met at the MLA in 1978 to discuss the project of establishing Women in French. The general consensus was that the creation of Women in French would:

  • draw attention to the academic work of women in French
  • provide a structure that would support women’s networking and collaboration in French studies
  • help women secure employment in the difficult academic marketplace produced by a recession
  • connect women intellectually and socially, and
  • promote women’s growth and impact within higher education settings by welcoming women’s leadership in departments, divisions, and the university hierarchy

Connection to the MLA

The Women’s Caucus for the MLA was drawing women from each of the disciplines to its sessions at national and regional conferences. Although the focus was on women writers in English, the sense of discovery that characterized many sessions encouraged the inclusion of works in translation. Women in French was initially a sub-committee of the Women’s Caucus for the MLA. Jean Hardy Robinson, with a PhD in French from the University of Kansas at Lawrence, and Lucy Schmitz Morros, with a PhD in French from Washington University in St. Louis, became Co-Chairs of Women in French, from 1978-1980.

Principal Work Accomplished During the First Years of WIF

The early years of WIF were focused on getting to know who we were and sharing our research topics. Our activity included:

  • publishing the first National Women in French Directory in 1979
  • developing Women in French sections within larger national conference structures
  • implementing WIF sections at the MLA conferences in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco
  • implementing a WIF section at the National Women’s Studies Association conferences at the Univeristy of Indiana and the University of Kansas at Lawrence, and
  • supporting Christiane Makward’s Bulletin de Recherches Féministes Francophones (BREFF) by encouraging members to give subscriptions to their campus libraries, as well as subscribing themselves

Lucy Schmitz Morros served as President of Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois, from 1988 to 2000. Before that, she was Vice-President of the American University of Paris and Dean of the College of Westbrook College in Portland, Maine. Currently Vice-President for Higher Education Services in the corporate world of Wight and Company in Chicago, where she was thrilled to learn that the important work of Women in French continues today.

Jean Hardy Robinson is a consultant to colleges and other nonprofit organizations, affiliated with Growth Design Corporation. Her career began in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has included program development in humanistic studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, international treasury management consulting at the former Continental Bank, and a position as Vice-President for College Relations and Marketing at IES, an international education consortium. Common threads in this career path are a belief in collaboration and fascination with organizations and cultures. WIF speaks to those values. »

During the 1980s, Christiane Makward continued to edit her invaluable BREFF, which she had founded in 1975. In 1980, she had approximately 200 subscribers to the trimestrial publication, which she continued to produce, essentially singlehandedly, until 1983. In the same decade, in 1984, Ginette Adamson began the celebrated « Continental, Latin-American and Francophone Women Writers » conferences at Wichita State University. The thirteen conferences introduced participants to many invited writers, including Evelyne Accad, Calixthe Beyala, Nicole Brossard, Chantal Chawaf, Paule Constant, Michèle Lalonde, Monique LaRue, Madeleine Monette, France Théoret, and Regina Yaou N’Doufou. Four volumes of conference proceedings, available from the University Press of America, attest to the significance of those annual meetings.

Details on WIF activity in the 1980s remain somewhat sketchy. We do know that Lucy Schwartz served as Chair in 1983 and was responsible for the drafting of the first WIF Bylaws during that year. Pierrette Daly took over as Chair from 1986-1989; Lynn Penrod continued in 1989-1990. In 1986, Lucy Schwartz created the WIF Newsletter, which she continued to edit until 1989. WIF sponsored Special Sessions at MLA meetings, including one chaired by Lucy Schwartz in 1983, « French Female Poetry: Finding a Feminine Voice. » Emily Guignon served faithfully as Treasurer for many years during that period. In 1989-1990, WIF Chair Lynn Penrod and Secretary Adele King drafted an application for Allied Organization status with the MLA. This first request, however, was rejected because the bylaws stated that WIF was a « division » of the Women’s Caucus of the MLA, already recognized as an Allied Organization. Success came in 1991, after the uncoupling of WIF from the Women’s Caucus, WIF’s official declaration as an independent association via the bylaws, and a renewed application to the MLA.

As an Allied Organization, WIF held its first Business Meeting at the 1991 MLA in San Francisco, celebrating its new status — and perhaps seducing more new members! — with a free continental breakfast offered to attendees. By February of 1992, WIF membership had reached 300, doubling within a few months. Six months later, it had climbed to well over 400. Mary Anne Garnett assumed the editorship of the Newsletter in 1991 and continued for five years, setting the high standards that succeeding editors (Joëlle Vitiello, Catherine Slawy-Sutton, Juliette Rogers, Judy Schaneman, and Marianne Golding) have maintained. By 1992, each issue of the Newsletter contained an annotated bibliography — you will soon receive the Marie-Christine Koop/Catherine Montfort-edited volume of bibliographical essays contributed by many of the participants over the past ten years. Regular WIF sessions, two each year, began with the 1992 Annual Meeting of the MLA. WIF also obtained allied status with all of the regional MLAs that have such a category. With Nicole Meyer taking the lead, the Midwest MLA was the first to recognize the association in this way.

Annabelle Rea, WIF Chair from 1990-1995, edited the first volume of WIF Studies in the summer of 1993, with the help of Janis Glasgow and Mary Test, before turning the publication over to newly-elected Vice-Chair, Colette Trout. Colette formed the first Editorial Board, selecting Adele King, Marie-Pierre Le Hir, and Mary Rice-DeFosse to assist her. With the Board, she set forth the criteria for peer evaluation of blind submissions and put into place the important Graduate Essay Award voted by the membership. Colette and her board worked particularly hard to provide feedback to those who submitted articles for consideration, especially with their very supportive mentoring of graduate students. Through the work of the editorial team, submissions to WIF Studies grew, allowing greater selectivity in articles, increased competitiveness for the graduate award, and new rubrics, such as reviews. When Colette became Chair of WIF in December 1995 and Adele King assumed the editorship of WIF Studies, the position now so ably filled by Frédérique Chevillot, Colette remained for three years as Managing Editor. Many members of WIF, as Editorial Board members or authors, have contributed to the success of this fine journal of which we can all be very proud.

During the 1990s, many others dedicated their time to WIF activities: Catherine Montfort created the WIF Listserv, Kathryn Murphy-Judy, the first WIF web site, Joëlle Vitiello edited the second Membership Directory, Christine Lac the third, and Barbara Klaw took on the difficult task of keeping track of members as Treasurer, a position she filled, heroically, for five years. The Undergraduate Essay Prize was established in 1994, with Sylvie Rockmore and Lucy Schwartz as Co-Chairs. Colette Trout pursued WIF’s application for tax-exempt status through to successful completion.

Beyond its own publications, WIF sponsored Janis Pallister’s important volume, French-Speaking Women Film Directors: A Guide (Fairleigh Dickinson, 1997 — with Ruth Hottell, she is now hard at work on a much-expanded volume II). French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, edited by Eva Sartori and Dorothy Zimmerman (Greenwood, 1991; Nebraska [Bison], 1994) was largely the work of WIF contributors, as was the Feminist Encyclopedia of French Literature, edited by Eva Sartori (Greenwood, 1999). Christiane Makward and Madeleine Cottenet-Hage’s Dictionnaire littéraire des femmes de langue française, de Marie de France à Marie NDiaye (Karthala, 1996) also contains numerous contributions by WIF members, as does Jane Eldridge Miller’s Who’s Who in Contemporary Women’s Writing (Routledge, 2001).

Little needs to be said at this point about more recent WIF history because most members are quite aware of developments in the past few years — greater collaboration with WIF-UK; connections with sister publications in France, such as Lunes and Nouvelles Questions Féministes; internships with the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand; the tremendous growth of WIF participation in conferences organized by the regional MLAs, the CIEF, the AATF, and so forth. A highlight of recent years, of course, was the First International Women in French conference organized by Dana Strand and Joëlle Vitiello at Carleton and Macalester Colleges in April 2000 (selected papers from that conference will appear this year in the pages of WIF Studies). Many others, whose names have not been recorded here, have contributed to WIF’s success; we are all grateful for their collaboration. As I write, this organization founded twenty-five years ago and currently led by Chair Catherine Montfort and Vice-Chair Mary Rice-DeFosse, has approximately 400 members (350 paid members, with over 100 « expired » who, we hope, will re-establish their good standing) and many fascinating projects for the future, including the Second International WIF Conference, held at Scripps College from April 22-24, 2004.

Annabelle Rea, WIF Chair, 1990-1995