The 1970s gave way to significant transformations for women in the workplace, in the academy and in the home. By 1974, Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” crackled the airwaves, groundbreaking publications like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Ms. Magazine, started appearing on bookshelves and newsstands defining a new age of feminism and the Supreme Court, for the very first time, considered an Equal Pay Act. When Dean Emerita and Emerita Professor of Psychology Eugenia “Genie” Gerdes arrived in Lewisburg that year with a Ph.D. from Duke University, the world was swirling with change, and she was in the thick of it.
“That was a very important time period,” says Gerdes. “Higher education was just then being affected by affirmative action, and the number of women faculty members was increasing dramatically.” Faculty and students began discovering the new topics in women’s studies together.
In addition to teaching courses in social psychology, Gerdes developed a course called, “Psychology of Women,” one of the first women’s studies classes taught at Bucknell. Her own research found a dual focus in the hiring discrimination women faced in the workplace and the stress that women in traditionally male professions — medicine, law, business — experienced on a daily basis. Most of her research in these areas was conducted in collaboration with Bucknell undergraduates and masters’ students, many of whom Gerdes says went on to careers in psychology and related fields.
With her interest in conditions for working women, Gerdes and her husband, John, were among a group of faculty who founded the Sunflower Child Care center on campus in 1978. “We are proud to see it is still in operation,” she says.
Trained as a social psychologist, Gerdes says that she has used psychology in every University position she held, including in 1990 when she became the first female dean of arts and sciences at Bucknell. Prior to this time, she served as the associate dean of faculty, where she co-chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee and chaired a Post-hiring Affirmative Action Committee. “My interests in fairness and in seeing people be able to reach their potential without undue barriers had been the foundation of my research program and were reasons for serving on these committees,” she says. “They also were important reasons for my interest in becoming dean.”
Reflecting on nearly four decades of service to the University, Gerdes says, “I was fortunate to become dean when the administration was leading Bucknell to consider the education our students needed to be successful in the 21st century.” In collaboration with other faculty members and administrators, she contributed by creating the Common Learning Agenda, which was a major curricular change, adding 50 new faculty positions to reduce the student-faculty ratio, and developing new and important interdisciplinary majors and minors, which has made the University more competitive with peer institutions.
In 2006, Gerdes says she returned to the classroom to ”return to the more contemplative life of a faculty member.” There she was able to parlay her research ideas and administrative experience into new courses. She developed a capstone course, “Women and Leadership,” that dealt with barriers that still exist for women, as well as exploring “women’s advantages in newly appreciated collaborative styles of leadership.”
Gerdes also developed two other courses, “Leadership and Liberal Arts Education” and “Money, Jobs and Higher Education,” which focused on not only the thorny issues of the commercialization of education but also the financial pressures students and their families face when pursuing higher education. She intends to continue her research in these areas post-retirement.
In her roles as a researcher, teacher and administrator, Gerdes always expressed a commitment to equity and helping individuals achieve their full potential. She says, “I also have sought out and enjoyed opportunities to work in collaborative situations where people bring different backgrounds, talents and styles to a problem, truly making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”