The History of WICB: The Later Years

Note: This is the second of two articles about the history of WICB. The first article, “The History of WICB: The Founding and Early Years,” appeared in the August 1996 issue of the ASCB Newsletter (Vol. 19, No. 8).

The women who founded WICB in 1971 and kept it going through the 1970s had been in the Yale Department of Biology together. Virginia Walbot, currently a Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University, and Mary Clutter, currently Assistant Director of Biological Sciences at the National Science Foundation, founded WICB and continued as the editors of the WICB Newsletter for the first four or five years. WICB had no officers at that time, but the editor of the newsletter served as the leader and organizer of the group.The next editor of the WICB Newsletter, from 1976 to 1978, was Susan Goldhor, who was then Dean of Natural Sciences at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and had previously been a Visiting Scholar at Yale. Goldhor is now President of the Center for Applied Regional Studies in Cambridge. As Dean of Hampshire College, Goldhor was doing a lot of interviewing and hiring. She noticed that more women than men were making serious mistakes in the job application and interview process. To address the problem she wrote a handbook entitled “How to Get a Job”; Walbot and Clutter helped, too. WICB began selling the handbook for $1 per copy, and Goldhor says it sold over 1,000 copies. The sale of the handbook supported the WICB meetings and the publication of the WICB Newsletter. WICB’s funding problems of the early 1970s were over. When asked about her term as editor of the WICB Newsletter, Goldhor recalled reprinting sexist advertisements in the newsletter and asking readers to write to the responsible company to complain. According to Goldhor, WICB became “bigger and quite popular” during the years in which she served as editor.

Through the 1970s, WICB continued to meet at the ASCB annual meetings. Elizabeth Harris, currently the Director of the Chlamydomonas Genetics Center at Duke University, recollects taking over as editor of the WICB Newsletter at the 1978 ASCB Annual Meeting. Harris was then a postdoc at Duke University and had previously been a graduate student with Walbot at Yale. Harris remembers that around 1980 there was an ASCB annual meeting that had no scheduled women speakers. In response, WICB organized dinners at the annual meetings at which women gave scientific talks to demonstrate that there were women scientists doing good work who were worthy of speaking. These dinners were in addition to the regular WICB programs. Harris was editor of the WICB Newsletter for about three years, after which the WICB Newsletter was no longer published; there was no WICB function at the 1982 ASCB Annual Meeting.

But the next year they regrouped, and WICB was revived by new leaders. The 1983 WICB meeting was organized by Jane Peterson, currently Program Director of Genomic Sequencing at the National Center for Human Genome Research, and Kathryn Vogel, currently a Professor of Biology at the University of New Mexico, with the assistance of Dorothea Wilson, then-ASCB Executive Director. Peterson thought it was important for WICB to continue since, as a program administrator at NSF, she had been trying to increase the number of women speakers at scientific meetings. In the report of the 1983 meeting, which appeared in the January, 1984, ASCB Newsletter (Vol. 6, No. 1), Vogel explained that the “lack of a [WICB] function during the 1982 Annual Meeting was not an active decision but occurred simply because W[I]CB had insufficient organizational structure to assure continuity of planning for the group.” To rectify this situation, a procedure to elect officers was established which ensured the continuation of WICB through the years. Those who were in attendance at the 1983 WICB meeting elected a Chair and Vice Chair. At each annual meeting, the vice chair would become chair, and a new vice chair would be elected. The names of all the WICB chairs are listed in the box above left.

The first elected WICB Chair, Ellen Dirksen, currently Professor of Neurobiology at UCLA, wrote the following about women in science and the role of WICB in the September, 19&4 ASCB Newsletter (Vol.6, No.4).

There is little question that this is an important period for women who have chosen careers in the sciences. Until recently, only extraordinary (in the fullest sense of that word) women were willing to accept the difficulties they knew awaited them as a consequence of their decision. It is not that we were not capable, but we were not always willing to make the either-or choice necessary for survival in science.

It is now beginning to be possible, for the first time in history, for relatively large numbers of women to consider freely a future in science without feeling that the choice is an extraordinary one. And yet we still need, for those of us in the process, a sense of community. For this reason, the decision was made to establish a more formal role for the WICB,

Many of us are, perhaps, the only women in our departments, or the only tenured women in our colleges. We thus look forward to renewing our friendships with other women at our Annual Meetings for support, encouragement, and fellowship.

There has been a WICB function at every ASCB annual meeting from 1983 to the present. The WICB function consisted of a business meeting followed by a speaker or panel presentation and then a group discussion. The program titles and the speakers are listed below. The attendance of some of the WICB meetings was reported in newsletters: approximately 150 attended the 1983 meeting, 250 in 1984, 300 in 1985, and 900 in 1991, described in the newsletter as “a record turnout.”

Beginning at the meeting in 1986 and continuing to the present, the annual WICB meeting included the presentation of the Junior and Senior Career Recognition Awards [see page 1 for the announcement of this year’s winners]. The Junior recipient is selected on the basis of her significant potential for scientific contribution. The Senior recipient is selected on the basis of scientific achievement and a strong commitment to the fostering of women in science. A history of the WICB Career Awards appeared in the April, 1996, ASCB Newsletter (Vol. 19, No. 4).

In place of the ASCB Annual Meeting in 1988, a joint meeting was held in conjunction with the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) in San Francisco in January 1989. WICB and the ASBMB Committee for Equal Opportunities for Women co-sponsored a panel discussion. Due to the joint meeting, no WICB business was discussed, no WICB Career Awards were given, and no election was held. Thus, Mina Bissell and Jane Peterson, the 1988 Chair and Vice Chair, respectively, continued their terms for a second year.

Although WICB started out as a fringe group considered radical by some, over time WICB became more accepted in the ASCB. Beginning in 1984, the ASCB Newsletter published WICB program announcements and reports. Around the same time, WICB began receiving funds from ASCB to help support their meetings. Over the years, WICB and its officers were greatly helped by Dorothea Wilson and Rosemary Simpson; Simpson was Executive Assistant of the ASCB. WICB gave Wilson and Simpson special awards in 1990, in lieu of the Senior Career Award, “for their continued efforts in support of WICB,” as reported by Jane Peterson in the May 1991 ASCB Newsletter (Vol. 14, No. 3).

However, there were women in the ASCB who did not appreciate WICB. Jane Peterson remembers receiving letters from such women in the late 1980s. Some women were concerned that they would be labeled as “women’s libbers” if they associated with WICB. Some expressed dissatisfaction with the WICB Career Awards. They thought the award could be a blemish on the recipient’s record since it was given by women to women. Both Mina Bissell and Susan Gerbi recall being warned that if they became Chair of WICB, they might be labeled as radicals and might not be chosen for future positions. It should be noted, however, that soon after serving as WICB Chair, Gerbi, currently the Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University, was elected ASCB President. Bissell is currently Director of the Life Sciences Division at Berkeley National Laboratory and 1996 ASCB President-elect. Another past WICB Chair who was later elected ASCB President is Ursula Goodenough, currently a Professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

But in 1988, then-Chair Mina Bissell was prompted by these concerns to appoint an Advisory Committee to consider the following issues: whether there was still a need for a Women in Cell Biology group, whether the Career Recognition Awards should continue, and whether WICB should become a standing committee of the ASCB. Bissell reported the conclusions of the committee in the July, 1988, ASCB Newsletter (Vol. 11, No. 2). The committee agreed that WICB “performs a useful function and yes, there is still a need for a Women in Cell Biology group.” It concluded that “WICB would be better off as a ‘Special Interest Group’ since we do want to be able to elect our officials [as opposed to their being appointed by Society leadership as are other committee chairs].” Finally, the committee decided to continue to give the Career Awards, but to discontinue the small monetary prizes which had been funded through contributions from corporations and private individuals. From then on, WICB continued to have a steering committee to provide the chair and vice chair with guidance..

WICB Chairs: 1984 to the present

1984 Ellen Dirksen
1985 Nina Allen
1986 Kathryn Vogel
1987 Patricia Calarco
1988-89 Mina Bissell
1990 Jane Peterson
1991 Susan Gerbi
1992 Mary Lou King
1993 Ursula Goodenough
1994 to present Sue Shafer

In 1992, the issue of WICB becoming an ASCB standing committee was raised again. Susan Gerbi suggested that WICB should become a standing committee “to give our budget requests legitimacy and for continuity of support from ASCB.” Then-Vice Chair Ursula Goodenough wrote about the issue and its implications in the July/August 1992 ASCB Newsletter (Vol. 15, No. 5). The major implication was that, as a standing committee, WICB would no longer be able to elect its own chair, because the ASCB President appoints the chairs of all standing committees. Susan Gerbi, 1991 WICB Chair, remembers that some were afraid that WICB would lose its autonomy and that its officers and programs would be dictated by the Society, but a compromise was reached that was satisfactory to everyone, allowing the committee to recommend a chair to the ASCB Council for approval and leaving the option of election of Committee members. At the 1992 ASCB Annual Meeting in Denver, the Women in Cell Biology voted to become the Women in Cell Biology Committee of the ASCB.

Current WICB Chair W. Sue Shafer, Associate Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at NIH, was selected by Committee members as the first Chair of the WICB Committee. The current committee members are listed in the front of the 1996 ASCB Directory of Members. The WICB chair and committee members serve three-year terms. Committee members are no longer elected, but are appointed by the Chair as with other ASCB standing committees.

Shafer reported on one of the first activities of WICB as a standing committee in the April 1994 ASCB Newsletter (Vol. 17, No. 4). That was to solicit ASCB members’ ideas “as to the role you want WICB to play in the Society, the projects you believe it should consider, and the activities it could begin which would be most important.” The item most requested by members was some kind of mentoring program. In response, the committee settled on the idea of a career luncheon at the 1995 Annual Meeting, featuring tables with discussions on various topics. The 1995 luncheon was so successful that the 1996 career luncheon will follow the same format.

ASCB members are encouraged to do their part to continue the tradition of WICB by attending the WICB annual meetings at which the career award presentations are made. The 1996 WICB Meeting will be held on Monday, December 9, from 6:30 to 7:30 pm. The annual career luncheons are another opportunity to show support; the 1996 Career luncheon co-sponsored by the WICB and Education Committees is entitled “What to Do with Your Graduate Degree” and will be held on Monday, December 9, from 12:30 to 2:30 pm. Nominate people for the annual WICB Career Recognition Awards. Read the WICB column regularly. Finally, please feel free to contact me or any of the committee members with your ideas, suggestions, and concerns.

WICB Programs: 1983 to the present

  • 1983 San Antonio; Presentations by Six Women at Various Points in their Careers- Karen Hitchcock, Patricia Calarco, Alice Fulton, Jane Peterson, Sue Badman, Mildred Acevedo
  • 1984 Kansas City; The author discusses her book Women in Science-Portraits from a World in Transition, Vivian Gornick
  • 1985 Atlanta; Perspectives of Three Women Cell Biologists, Marilyn Farquhar, Joanna Olmsted, Susan Brawley
  • 1986 Washington, D.C.; The Development of Self Esteem and Self Acceptance in Women, Vonda Long
  • 1987 St. Louis; A talk about the funding situation, Mary Clutter
  • 1989, January San Francisco; Criteria for Successful Careers, Mary Clutter, S. Murray, E. Neer, Joe Gall
  • 1989, November Houston; Dual Career Families, Janet Oliver, Paul Schlessinger, Alice Fulton
  • 1990 San Diego; An Inside View of Grantsmanship, Mary Lou Pardue, Tom Pollard, Anthony Dempsey
  • 1991 Boston; Visibility of Women in Science, Susan Gerbi, Caroline Damsky, Florence Haseltine
  • 1992 Denver; The Politics of Publishing, Don Cleveland, Joe Gall, Zena Werb
  • 1993 New Orleans; Navigating Rocky Shoals: Personality Stereotypes in Scientific Professions, Ursula Goodenough, Trina Schroer, Lucille Shapiro
  • 1994 San Francisco; Beyond Survival: A Women’s Professional Problem Solving Group*, Beth Burnside, Ellen Daniell, Carol Gross, Christine Guthrie, Judith Klinman, Mimi Koehl, Suzanne McKee, Helen Wittmer
  • 1995 Washington, D.C.; Career Issues in Cell Biology

* An audiotape of this program is available for $10 from the ASCB National Office.

About the Author:

WICB Section Editor