Jean Fox O'Barr


Honorary Degree (2002)
Doctor of Humane Letters
Location: Bloomington
Presenter: Myles Neil Brand


Many women in academia consider Jean Fox O'Barr to be at the center of a change in attitude toward the study of women. "Jean was not only central to the effort to institutionalize women's studies research, but she also became the leading light in
establishing women's studies as a legitimate scholarly and pedagogical pursuit in academe," says Jean C. Robinson, dean for women's affairs at Indiana University Bloomington.

In 2000 O'Barr was named University Distinguished Service Professor at Duke University, and consistent with her record of groundbreaking achievements, she was the first woman in the school's history to receive this title. In the same year the Jean Fox O'Barr Professorship in Women's Studies at Duke was established by the Lee/Ewing Foundation in recognition of her impact on the study of women.

Her career path was still uncertain in 1964, when she left Indiana University with a B.A. in political science, but, after graduating with honors, O'Barr won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship and eventually earned both an M.A and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in political science. Her graduate work at Northwestern took her to Tanzania to study its early democracy and led her to earn a certificate in African studies, a new discipline at the time. One of O'Barr's influential works in African studies is Africa in the Disciplines: Contributions of the Study of Africa to the Humanities and Social Sciences, edited with Robert Bates and Valentin Mudimbe. In all, she has written, edited, and contributed to nearly 100 books, articles, and reviews in her 32-year career.

When she left Northwestern in 1970, O'Barr moved to North Carolina to begin her teaching career at Duke University. Her first class was the first of its kind at an American university-a class on women in the Third World. Just two years later, she was chosen by the Women's College alumnae to head the university's new Continuing Education Program. The program was established to keep higher education open to women while the men's and women's colleges at Duke merged into the modern university. In her time as director, she transformed a program that focused exclusively on women into one that includes women and men and offers credit and noncredit programs. Her efforts at Duke were nationally recognized, and in 1978 the magazine Change named her among One Hundred Outstanding Young Leaders in Education.

Accepting an offer from the dean of Trinity College at Duke, O'Barr became the chair of the newly created Women's Studies Program in 1983. The program soon became a place for the serious study and support of women. The year after becoming the head of the program, O'Barr was a subject in the study of 25 influential female leaders of the women's movement by the Ford and Exxon Education Foundation. During the past two decades O'Barr has overseen an extensive fundraising effort for the program, securing millions of dollars in endowments.

In 1985 the program faculty won the opportunity to edit Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, an internationally known feminist journal. "The journal, under the leadership of Jean O'Barr, was known to be highly selective and hugely significant in determining the direction of women's studies in disciplines from political science to literature, from film studies to history of science," says Robinson. When the journal left Duke five years later, it consisted of a collection of influential volumes representing the cutting edge of feminist scholarship. Robyn Wiegman, Margaret Taylor Smith Director of Women's Studies at Duke University, says that O'Barr "often refers to the work of editing Signs as her 'postdoc' in feminist studies."

At the same time her administrative accomplishments were being rewarded, O'Barr's dedication to students and her talent in the classroom were recognized with the Richard Lublin Award for Excellence in Teaching.