This interview was conducted with Ruth Cserr on behalf of her mother Helen FitzGerald Cserr who was a professor of biomedical sciences at Brown University and who was one of four plaintiffs in the Louise Lamphere vs Brown University sex discrimination lawsuit.
Ruth begins the interview by sharing some personal background including her education and life as an only child. She goes on to discuss Helen’s educational and career background as well as Helen’s first years as a lecturer at Brown in the early 1970s. Ruth explains noticing the prevalence of sex discrimination in the sciences and yet her mother’s rapid ascent to a tenure track position. Juxtaposed to that, Ruth recalls her father receiving the phone call from her mother’s department chair with news that Helen was denied tenure. Ruth illustrates the trauma her mother and her family felt from this news, and her mother’s decision to join Louise Lamphere, Claude Carey, and Patricia Russian, in a class action lawsuit against Brown. Ruth notes that prior to the case, her mother had not experienced sex discrimination in the workplace and did not identify as a feminist.
Ruth goes on to discuss the time Helen put into dealing with the case and listening to depositions, as well as the reasons that emerged as to why Helen was denied tenure. Ruth remembers feeling very supported by her classmates and teachers at the Lincoln School during this process. She adds that this case stripped her mother of any comradery from those in her department and made her question her abilities. Ruth emphasizes that Helen’s support came from her family and personal friends. She also recalls finding out that the case was settled out of court and awarded Helen retroactive tenure. She laments that those in power who made discriminatory decisions were never reprimanded for their actions.
Next, Ruth explains how her mother took ill while on a sabbatical trip and in an unfortunate irony for a scholar who researched brain science, discovered that she had a brain tumor. She talks about how difficult this was for her mother as it was incurable and affected Helen’s speaking abilities. Ruth goes on to explain that Helen’s activism in the case drove Ruth to be a political activist in her adult life. She shares details of her undergraduate education during Ronald Regan’s second term as well as her campaigns for political office in New Hampshire.
Ruth concludes the interview by urging everyone to remember that sex discrimination was ubiquitous and that Helen’s actions with Louise Lamphere were extraordinary.
Alumnae Hall Room 205, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island