Marilyn Webb comes full circle to complete PhD degree

Decades after facing sexual harassment as a UChicago graduate student, feminist writer reclaims her academic goal

Marilyn Webb is an acclaimed journalist and author, a talented professor, and a leading feminist activist. This June, at 76 years old, she will walk across a stage at the University of Chicago and add another credential to her resume: a Ph.D. in education.

The long-delayed recognition represents Webb’s success in countering the sexual harassment she experienced at UChicago in the 1960s, derailing her doctoral studies for half a century. After working with the University over the past year, she completed her dissertation and opened a new chapter in her life.

Webb hopes that her story can serve as inspiration not only to younger women in academia, but to her own children and grandchildren—a reminder that “life doesn’t stop when you age.”

“In an era of the #MeToo movement, things finally changed enough in the world for the University to be able to make this right,” Webb said. “Actually, the University of Chicago is taking historic action and is really in the vanguard of universities across the nation in making these vital corrections. From a feminist perspective, I am both grateful and view this as the start of a national trend that’s about time.”

In 1966, prior to national Head Start, Webb was a UChicago doctoral student in educational psychology, studying two nearby preschools where she also served as director. She had founded one parent-run school, and the other was part of Saul Alinsky’s The Woodlawn Organization. After finishing her coursework and passing her preliminary examinations, she tried to find faculty to serve on her dissertation committee.

Webb said she faced sexual harassment from the two professors she approached—both of whom suggested a physical relationship in exchange for serving on her committee. At the time, Webb only knew of two women on the University’s faculty, neither of whom specialized in her work on early childhood education.

Webb took her master’s degree and set out on a different path, making an impact as a leader of second-wave feminism—a move that she now realizes was connected to her experience of harassment. “I think that’s what propelled me into founding such a movement, although in retrospect I wasn’t as conscious of it at the time as I am now,” Webb said.

Webb’s thriving career included founding off our backs, a feminist periodical that ran for nearly four decades. In 1970 she founded the Women’s Studies Program at Goddard College—the first such program in the nation. She later worked as editor in chief of Psychology Today and was an editor and writer for newspapers and national magazines, including New York, Harper’s Bazaar, Women’s Day and Ladies Home Journal.

In 1997 she wrote The Good Death, a widely acclaimed book on end-of-life care, which was nominated by the publisher for a Pulitzer Prize and was a basis for Bill Moyers’ PBS series on death and dying. After teaching at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York, she was recruited to start a journalism program at Knox College, where she is now Distinguished Professor Emerita of Journalism.

One of the courses Webb taught at Columbia was the history of progressive journalism, including muckrakers Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Upton Sinclair, all of whom were published at the turn of the last century in McClure’s Magazine. It turned out that Knox College was where S. S. McClure and his colleagues came from; when Webb was asked to start an investigative journalism program there in their tradition, she jumped at the chance.

Still, she never forgot why she left UChicago.

“I did not want to be thinking on my deathbed that that was why I never got my degree,” Webb said. “It was something I had to prove to myself.”

Last year, on her 75th birthday, Webb decided to send her story via email to leaders at the University. Recognizing that her story involved deeply inappropriate behavior toward a student, the Office of the Provost coordinated with the Division of the Social Sciences, where a faculty committee reviewed her case. The University’s Title IX Coordinator also contacted Webb to offer support.

“The perseverance and resilience that Marilyn Webb has shown through this process is remarkable,” Vice Provost Jason Merchant said. “The University regrets that she experienced deeply inappropriate behavior that contributed to this long delay in completing her degree.”

Although Webb had long ago completed her doctoral coursework, she needed to defend a dissertation to receive a Ph.D. Faculty members saw potential in Webb’s suggestion that she adapt the work behind her 1997 book, The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life. Researched and written over six years, the 500-page book represented a thorough examination of the ways in which Americans faced and grappled with death. For several years after publication, Webb visited conferences and symposia around the country, speaking about how a “good” death depends on societal structures as well as the actions of individuals.

Over the past year, Webb worked with a faculty committee comprised of Prof. Kathleen Cagney, whose work on social inequality examines aging populations; Assoc. Prof. Omar McRoberts, a sociologist who is overseeing an ethnographic project on cultures of death and dying in black congregations; and Assoc. Prof. Kristen Schilt, a sociologist of gender and culture who had read The Good Death years earlier.

“I greatly admire Marilyn’s perseverance in pursuing and completing her dissertation given the barriers she's faced,” said Amanda Woodward, dean of the Division of Social Sciences. “I’m also thankful that she has finally been able to have the experience of working with a faculty committee to advise and inform her dissertation. That intellectual rapport and engaged dialogue is at the core of the university’s mission.”

Since Webb had written the book for a popular audience, the committee asked her to familiarize herself with sociological literature, and to create a theoretical framework through which to interpret her earlier research.

“She undertook a crash course in qualitative sociological methods and theory, all in less than a year,” Schilt said.

Schilt, who directs UChicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, said the depth and variety of the experiences that Webb captured in her book made it a natural fit for sociology.

“Death is one of the social processes that gets understudied,” Schilt said. “If you’re working with people who are about to die, it’s a very jarring experience. I don’t know that everybody has the ability to be constantly present the way that Marilyn was. Really, she’s an amazing sociologist.”

Webb said she had tried to return to UChicago once before, in the 1970s, and was turned away. Teaching at Knox College gradually convinced her to try again. While there, Webb saw other women join the Knox faculty and administration, taking advantages of opportunities that didn’t exist at the start of her own career.

“I thought, ‘Well, if it’s not now, it’s never,’” Webb said. “I did it as a gift to myself.”

Spurred by her committee, Webb is now planning to write more magazine pieces connected to her research. She also hopes to develop her dissertation into a new edition of The Good Death, one that accounts for medical advances, the opioid crisis and the passage of aid-in-dying legislation.

Before reembarking on her doctoral studies, Webb had been asked to collect her papers on feminism, and the diaries and journals of her life, for Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library to help document her key role in second-wave feminism. That work will now include the solution UChicago has provided to a key event in her past.

“I guess I’m not done,” Webb said. “I’m going to have more of a career, and that women’s history library will have documentation of the successful finale to a critical saga.”