One could argue that baseball was the driving force behind Mary Armstrong’s decision to pursue a career in academia.
She never played in the major leagues, or even the minors for that matter, but she did throw a mean curve ball for her high school’s softball team in Cooperstown, N.Y., where the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorates the glory of America’s national pastime. It’s also where Armstrong, associate professor of English and women’s and gender studies, scored her first summer job.
While her friends worked as waitresses and bused tables at downtown cafes, Armstrong was encouraged by her father to take another path, one that didn’t involve juggling a stack of plates and glassware.
“Why don’t you walk into the Baseball Hall of Fame library and say, ‘I’m an A student. Would you hire me for the summer?’” she remembers her father suggesting. “He believed in empowering people.”
She took his advice and at the age of 17 was hired as the Hall of Fame’s first female research assistant in the National Baseball Archive. She was responsible for distilling and dispensing scores, statistics, career records, and rosters – the mathematical bones of baseball that can be quantified and examined in a way that eating a hot dog with your dad at Yankee Stadium on a warm summer night cannot.
“People would call drunk from bars, while writing books, and on Hollywood movie sets,” she says. They wanted to know how many stitches were in a baseball (216), whether Hank Aaron played for any team other than the Braves (Milwaukee Brewers), and what year Mickey Mantle was inducted into the Hall of Fame (1974).
It was the pre-Internet days of the 1980s, so if she didn’t know the answer she’d look it up, even for the callers who asked to be transferred to a man, fearful her gender might preclude immunity to the indelicacy of baseball … or math.
“I learned that I love research,” says Armstrong. She also learned a thing or two about leadership that summer of ’83 after her boss supported her efforts to continue fielding calls. “He said, ‘We’re not going to treat you differently.’”
She took this noble declaration to heart and, after graduating from Holy Cross, earned a Ph.D. in English and a graduate certificate in women’s studies from Duke University in 1995. In 2000, she joined the faculty at California Polytechnic State University where she taught Victorian literature, publishing several essays on Victorian literature and feminist theory and serving as the first chair of Cal Poly’s new Women’s and Gender Studies Department.
After nine years at Cal Poly and a Distinguished Teaching Award under her belt, Armstrong decided it was time to move on and began looking for opportunities at small liberal arts colleges. When a position opened at Lafayette College in 2009, Armstrong applied and became the first interdisciplinary hire at Lafayette as well as its first permanent “joint” appointment, as her position is shared between English and women’s and gender studies, the latter of which she leads as program chair. The College enacted the policy creating interdisciplinary hires in spring 2009.
In her new role, Armstrong teaches “Literary Women” and “Victorian Literature,” as well as “Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies,” “Sexuality Studies,” and “Feminist Theory.”
“I am not out to brainwash them,” she says. “They are so used to an anti-feminist agenda. They think women’s studies is about making people think a certain way, but it’s about making people think better.”
Before that can happen, Armstrong often has to divest students of firmly held prejudices by dousing them with cold, hard facts. Women are still paid on average 78 cents for every dollar earned by men and the gap is even wider for women of color. That’s not Armstrong speaking; that’s the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The poverty rate is also higher for women as is the likelihood of sexual assault.
“A lot of people come in thinking that all the work has been done,” she says. “There’s less work that needs to be done now, but it’s difficult to put your finger on what it is. It’s covert and subtle and woven into the fabric of everyday life. It’s hard to get to the core of what’s really going on.”
Ten students are majoring in women’s and gender studies and four of them are men. True to its name, the program not only deals with inequalities facing women but also uses gender as a central framework for inquiry and analysis.
In a recent class, students reviewed a documentary about an African American gay man and the struggles he faced during the ’90s. For the next 90 minutes, the class discussed homophobia, bisexuality, and the old double standard when it comes to multiple sex partners. But the talk wasn’t sexy. It was thoughtful and at times heartfelt, the analysis based on a variety of readings – some scholarly, some from the popular press -that Armstrong had assigned. The blackboard bore the brunt of students’ engagement, as Armstrong documented the highlights in powdery chalk.
“It’s very discussion based,” Beatriz De Jesus ’12 (Woodside, N.Y.), who is double majoring in government and law and women’s and gender studies. “And you’re forced to think outside the box because not only is Professor Armstrong challenging you, but other students at well.”
Armstrong is impressed by the caliber of students in her classes. “Lafayette students have open minds,” she says. “They’re really curious and they take gender seriously.”
And that’s good, because recognized or not, gender is part of most every equation from politics to economics to the court system.
“I want my students to understand that gender matters,” she says. “It’s a system, not an individual experience. It’s a system and they are in it. It’s going to affect their lives on a personal level and is a variable in everything they do. Here’s my mantra: ‘If you don’t get gender, it’s going to get you.’”