150 Years of Women in the English Department

150 Years of Women at the Berkeley English Department

2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Regents’ Resolution that “young ladies be admitted into the University on equal terms in all respects with young men.” The resolution was passed just two years after the university’s founding, and English has proved to be a popular major among women in every generation.

The English Department has been the home of many of the university’s most acclaimed women: in 1905, the first female faculty member (Lucy Sprague) was appointed in English, and in 2017, a member of the English Department faculty (Carol Christ) became the first female Chancellor. As a part of the campus-wide celebration of 150 years of Women at Berkeley, this page will profile individual English Department students, alumnae, and faculty. We will begin with profiles written by undergraduate researchers, which feature both past and present people. The student researchers chose some who are already famous and others who can help us retrieve fascinating but forgotten chapters of English Department history.

We’ll be adding to this list as the year progresses, so check back for more on Berkeley English women.

Lucy Sprague: First Woman on the Berkeley Faculty (1906-1912)

By Amanda Styles

Among the many female faculty members of the English department throughout its history, Lucy Sprague Mitchell stands out as the one who never focused her studies in English. She majored in philosophy during her undergraduate...

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Forgotten Chapters of Department History:  #1 Ella Young’s Lectureship

by Kamila Kaminska-Palarczyk

The first woman to hold an endowed lectureship in the English Department was a celebrity. She entered the department through the Celtic Studies program, the first degree-granting program of its kind in the country,...

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Professor Catherine Flynn reflects on Ella Young and the history of Irish Studies

by Catherine Flynn

Ella Young was a complex character and central to the building up of Celtic Studies at Berkeley. During her ten years as James D. Phelan Lecturer in Irish Myth and Lore, she gave lectures at Columbia, Smith, Vassar and Mills. As...

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Josephine Miles: Poet and First Tenured Professor in English

Josephine Miles

By Emma Campbell, Kahyun Koh, and Anya Vertanessian

Born in Chicago on June 11th, 1911, Josephine Miles was an acclaimed poet, professor, literary critic, and a vital part of the Berkeley community. In 1947, she became the first...

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Forgotten Chapters of Department History: #2 Professor Dorothee Finkelstein

by Natalie Stone

Although adversity is often considered a routine condition of human life, rarely does it forge an academic and personal strength as resolute as that of Professor Dorothee Finkelstein, the second woman to be tenured in the English...

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Alumna and writer Kim Chernin remembers Dorothee Finkelstein

by Kim Chernin

The perennial question about memory: how much should we trust it? I’ve been asked to write about my favorite English teacher at Berkeley in the early 1960s, but after fifty-six years I know my memory might play tricks, might even...

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Joan Didion: A Unique Sensibility in a Time of Gender Conformity

By Julia Cunningham

Joan Didion, a writer who first garnered great attention and praise for her literary essays about American subcultures of the 1960s, is one of many acclaimed authors to have started their careers at Berkeley. Sprinkled among...

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An Interview with Poet and Professor Lyn Hejinian

The Interview

Students Emma Campbell, Kahyun Koh, and Anya Vertanessian asked Lyn Hejinian a series of questions about her career and life in the English Department.

  1. Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in poetry? How would you describe...

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The Zambian-American Perspective: an Interview with Namwali Serpell

By Lucia Salazar and Francesca Hodges

Professor Namwali Serpell’s debut novel, The Old Drift (2019), demonstrates her prowess as a fiction writer. It was an immediate success: a New York Times bestseller and recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize...

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