Northwestern women’s studies pathbreaker died Sunday

Sammy Caiola

Arlene Daniels, former sociology professor and founder of what is now Northwestern’s gender studies program and the Women’s Center, passed away Sunday in her California home at age 81, friends said. Colleagues remember her as a pioneer in women’s issues at NU and said she leaves behind a legacy of equity and progress.

Daniels came to NU in 1975 after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley and briefly teaching in its department of speech, according to her biography in the University Archives. Shortly after arriving at NU, she took over the existing Program on Women and by 1980 had split it into two spheres: the women’s studies program for academic purposes and the Women’s Center for support, said Rae Moses, a professor emeritus in linguistics who worked with Daniels when she first arrived.

Moses said she was one of only two tenured female professors in the early ‘70s. When she started as the only female in the linguistics department, she was asked to make coffee – and did. When Daniels arrived and founded the Organization of Women’s Faculty to help female faculty members raise their stature in the academic world, it “brought out the feminism in everyone,” Moses said.

“Arlene just roped us all in,” she said. “If you were female, and you were on the faculty, you needed to talk with Arlene. She had that kind of magnetic personality that was essential in getting a very early program going.”

In addition to her work in sociology and women’s rights, Daniels is also remembered for her elaborately decorated hats, friends said. Cristina Traina, a religious studies professor who was a fellow at what was then the Women’s Residential College with Daniels in the early ‘90s, said the large, colorful hats were a tribute to Bella Abzug, a women’s rights beacon from the 1960s.

“It was just part of her persona,” Traina said. “It was a way of embracing traditionally proper ladies’ dress, even though Arlene Daniels wasn’t a traditional, proper lady.”

Daniels served as the director of the Women’s Studies program from 1992 to 1994, during which time she worked from an office on the top floor of the Women’s Center at 2000 Sheridan Road. Njoki Kamau, associate director of the Women’s Center, said Daniels had a “booming voice” and could always be heard from the lower floor, where Kamau and her staff were housed at the time.

In 2000, the women’s studies program was renamed the gender studies program, according to its website, which Moses said was a topic of much debate. Kambau said women have a much larger presence on campus than they did 30 years ago and this success is, at least in part, the result of Daniels’ determination.

“She was a woman who said what she thought,” Kambau said. “She was obviously very self-confident. She had a lot of courage, like a warrior woman.”

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