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The Museum Wives Group: MVZ's hidden power structure for almost three decades

MVZ People

The recorded history of institutions is generally captured in terms of its formal structure, official leadership, and salvaged documents. Generally lost in this process is the rich fabric of real personalities and informal gatherings that actually engender, energize, and enrich that history. One such group, important in the history of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, is the Museum wives social group which existed from about 1945 to 1974. I was reminded of this organization as the Museum has undertaken a series of oral histories to prepare for its centennial celebration in 2008. As there are no known written documents concerning the Museum wives group, I contacted all of the former members who are still alive (and living in the San Francisco Bay area) in order to record any and all surviving memories. Karen Klitz also loaned me a 90 minute audio cassette containing an interview that she and Barbara Stein made with Virginia Miller and Ward Russell on 13 October 1995. This tape contained several minutes of discussion of the Museum wives group.

The following individuals contributed written or oral comments which are summarized in this document; most also provided feedback on an early draft of the manuscript. I am grateful to them for their interest and contributions.
Gerta Barlow, Anne Christman, Beverly Johnson, Naomi Lidicker, Carol Patton, Anita Pearson, Anna-rose Stebbins, Marvalee Wake.

In the years immediately following World War II, the Museum moved actively to recruit new faculty, its ranks having been depleted by the death of Joseph Grinnell and the resignation of E. Raymond Hall. This was an exciting and optimistic time for the Museum. The new cadre was composed of six faculty (Alden H. Miller, Director, and Seth B. Benson from the pre-war period, and new recruits A. Starker Leopold, Oliver P. Pearson, Frank A. Pitelka, and Robert C. Stebbins) plus Ward C. Russell (Museum preparator and also a student of Grinnell). This was, moreover, an era when the professionals in academia were almost all males.

According to my two informants who were present at this time (Pearson and Stebbins), the wives of these staff members became acquainted through occasional dinner parties, but wanted to develop a greater feeling of camaraderie. They felt they were insufficiently informed about major plans, such as Museum field trips, who was going to be away at various times, and other news of general interest. So, they decided to form the Museum wives social group so that they could become better acquainted, and exchange information both about the Museum and whatever else interested them. They met for lunch once a month, rotating the location among their homes. Each member brought her own sandwich with the hostess supplying dessert and drinks (non-alcoholic). It turned out to be a friendly and relaxing event composed of friends who could trust each other with advice about everything from shopping tips, sewing skills, good recipes, and bringing up children to keeping informed about the Museum. Young children were sometimes brought along and deposited in a back bedroom for a nap. Anita emphasizes in her comments the informal nature of the group; any concept of leadership was elusive, and even the notion of “members” implies more formality than was the case. According to Virginia Miller (tape), at each meeting one member of the group simply volunteered to host the next meeting.

None of the living participants had a clear recollection about when the meetings began or whether or not there was a particular person who took the leadership in organizing the group initially. Virginia says without hesitation that the group was started by Frances Russell sometime in the 1945 to ‘46 period. She remembered clearly that when Pearsons arrived in 1947, Anita was welcomed as the new recruit with many questions about how to survive in the area. At this stage the group was composed of: Emma Benson, Elizabeth (Betty) Leopold, Virginia Miller, Anita Pearson, Dorothy Pitelka, Frances Russell, and Anna-rose Stebbins. Dorothy Pitelka rarely attended the lunches as she was completing her PhD thesis at the time, and later was occupied with research duties at the Cancer Research (Genetics) Laboratory; still later (from 1972) she also held the position of Adjunct Professor of Zoology. Anita and Anna-rose recall that Hilda Grinnell attended by special invitation on several occasions. They were thereby able to glean some insights into her life with the great Director, including how she begged him unsuccessfully to allow her to accompany him on Museum field trips. She was, after all, a trained biologist. On one occasion Betty S. Davis attended. She also had a PhD degree from the Zoology Department, and was the wife of John Davis, Director for many years (beginning in 1960) of the Hastings Natural History Reservation in Carmel Valley.

Virgina Miller recalled a very special meeting held in 1954 that was organized and hosted by Frances Russell. In that year Alden Miller was to attend an international conference in Basel, Switzerland. It was planned that Virginia and children would meet Alden in Basel at the end of the conference. This was a major undertaking at the time, and they carefully saved their money to make it possible (Virginia reports that her children would not even let her spend 10 cents on a Saturday Evening Post). At this particular wives’ meeting, the husbands were also invited and the group collectively presented the Millers with a box of “goodies” to take on their trip. Subsequently, Virginia drove to Quebec with their two daughters; their son was to be married the following year, and did not go along, Another woman and her two children went with them as far as Chicago. Virginia remembers picnicking along the way to reduce expenses. Once in Quebec, they boarded a ship for Europe to begin a six-week adventure.

At some point early in the group’s existence, it acquired the nickname of “Museum Pieces.” No one can remember who originated this moniker or when, but it was there before the late 1950's. Suspects nominated were Virginia Miller and Seth Benson. In any case, the name stuck at least to the mid-60's. It is of more than passing interest, because it is my feeling that it was a very clever invention. The possible allusion to a game such as chess provides a deliciously ambiguous metaphor. On the one hand, it could be superficially denigrating as if the wives were mere pawns in the game of life and in the Museum operations in particular. At a deeper level, the wives could be viewed as behind the scenes strategic players and even tactical manipulators. Perhaps it was the husbands who were the pawns. In any case, it must have had a subconscious appeal in those final stages of male domination in the academic life of the Museum.

Starting in 1957, there were new additions to the Museum’s staff, and their wives were invited to participate. Naomi Lidicker arrived in 1957 (husband: William Z.). Like Dorothy Pitelka, she was not able to attend all of the lunch meetings as she was professionally employed on campus with the Cancer Research (Genetics) Laboratory. Beverly Johnson joined about 1960 (husband: Ned K.), and stayed until about 1967; during part of this period she worked as a legal secretary. Starting in 1965, Anne Christman joined the group for a short time (husband: Gene M., staff illustrator). Gerta Barlow (husband: George W.) does not recall (in 2005) attending meetings of the group, but several others remembered that she participated several times at least. Peter L. Ames joined the Museum faculty for a few years (1965 to 1968), but no one could remember if his wife Nancy participated in the group. Then in 1969, both Carol Patton (husband: James L.) and Marvalee Wake (husband: David B.) became members. Carol was studying to become a speech therapist and at the same time held various jobs, while Marvalee was a faculty member in the Department of Instruction in Biology. Five years later Marvalee became a regular faculty member in the Department of Zoology; she also served as a Dean (1972 to 1978), was Chair of Zoology, and later Chair of Integrative Biology, and holds an appointment as Research Morphologist in the Museum.

When Alden Miller died in October 1965, Virginia Miller moved to southern California (1966), and Starker Leopold transferred his program to the College of Natural Resources. The wives’ group was severely impacted, and for awhile meetings were somewhat erratic. The group survived, however, and when Pearson became Director of the Museum (1966), Anita assumed responsibility for organizing the meetings, and once again it thrived. Then, in 1971, David Wake took over the Museum Director’s job from Paynie Pearson, and Marvalee took on the job of arranging the group’s meetings. She reported that meetings were increasingly difficult to schedule. Eventually, perhaps it was 1974, she quit trying and the group ceased to exist.

There were obviously a number of reasons for the group’s demise. Most apparent was the fact that an increasing number of the members had professional positions, and simply lacked the flexibility in their schedules to participate fully. A corollary of this was that the group became more heterogeneous in age, professional orientation, and their needs for independent social interaction and information exchange. Fundamentally, the male-dominated academic environment, the context in which the group originated, was no longer such a compelling issue, at least on the personal level. Moreover, problems revolving around raising children were either in the past, or largely not relevant to the new group of young professionals. Marvalee saw two divisive developments. One was disagreement over whether chit-chat and gossip were adequate incentives for busy people to disrupt their work day. The second issue was that some wanted to expand the group to include women biologists beyond the Museum boundaries, that is, to others in the Zoology Department or even other academic units. This would have changed the nature of the group fundamentally to a friendship of professional women with common interests in biology. Of course, others remained loyal to the original Museum-oriented concept.

Groups form to fill felt needs. Things change, and groups must then adapt to these changes or disband. The Museum wives group can be judged in hindsight as a significant success while it lasted. Certainly, my informants expressed fond memories of their participation. In the end, they had the wisdom to quit when circumstances changed, and before the group was overwhelmed by debilitating forces.

William Z. Lidicker, Jr.
April 2006
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