Glenda Gilmore, PhD, History Professor at Yale University
Current Status: Professor of History at Yale University
Author of Gender and Jim Crow : Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920
Q: Tell me a little about your background.
A: Well, I was an undergraduate from 1966 to 1970. When I graduated, I didn't give much thought to a career. I got married quickly because I thought my fiance was going to Vietnam. It turns out he was sent to Parris Island instead. From 1970 to 1973, I taught public school in a 90% black high school in the Sea Islands of South Carolina.
Q: What did you do after that?
A: I moved to North Carolina, worked in business for 15 years with two publicly held companies, [one of them being] a retail drug store chain. I was an affirmative action officer, convincing white male drug store managers that they should hire females and African Americans. It was an uphill battle.
Q: From an early age, you seem to have had a prevailing interest in race and gender.
A: Well, I grew up in the South. When I went to teach, my students were all black. I was confused about the history of racial inequality, but I was determined to do something about it. And I thought I could do something about it in business. I felt that way up until the early 1980s. Then the political climate shifted [during the Reagan era]. There were many judicial reversals and it was hard to see if I was making any progress [in promoting racial equality] or if [my headway] was linear.
~ Q: Why did you think it might be linear?
A: We were making real progress at the retail chain where I was an affirmative action officer. Then the retail drug company was bought by a large corporation. The managers weren't as interested in hiring minority candidates, so I decided to look elsewhere. But by the time I left, there tons of women and African Americans in at all stages of the company.
Q: Did you ever encounter problems of sexual harassment?
A: I can honestly say that I never encountered sexual harassment. [Then again,] it would have been awfully stupid of anyone to sexually harass the affirmative action person! I did encounter sexism, which was limiting and debilitating. Senior vice presidents calling me "honey" and that sort of thing.
Q: What was your next career venture?
A: I had my own company for awhile-a personnel company. [At that time] I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with not being able to control my own destiny. I was angry about having to face a structure that would, frankly, outlast me. I wanted to escape the rigidity.
I knew from a very young age that I had to be financially responsible for myself-and I was. I supported myself through college. I never had a joint bank account. At the same time, I always hedged my bets. I always looked at the worst case scenario, and if I couldn't live with it, I wouldn't go through with the plan. I'm cautious in many ways.
Fortunately, my business worked out: it bought me time and security to do the things I really wanted to do. I was 36 at the time that I decided to go back to school. I was only able to do so because I had scaled back my lifestyle. But many women can't do that, which is why they have trouble changing or starting careers.
~ Q: What was it like going back to school?
A: I started part time-step by step. At that time I had no idea I would end up with a PhD; and if you had told me I was going to eventually teach at Yale, I would have laughed. All I knew was that I was interested in history, and specifically, the history of women and African Americans.
From the beginning, I loved studying history. It was fun. It was like falling in love.