When Mary Gordon arrived at Santa Clara University in 1975 as a professor of history, the faculty at the formerly all-male, Jesuit school still had so few women you could count them on one hand.
Gordon felt that, like prayer, education required two hands devoutly clasped together — raising the school’s fortunes on high. By 1980, she had created the first women’s studies program at one of California’s most patriarchal institutions, transforming it to a more inclusive, world-lass university in the process.
Gordon died on Christmas Eve, surrounded by her family,including her daughters, Alexandra and Eve Gordon. She was 89. She will be buried Jan. 9, following a private memorial service.
When she agreed to take on the task of building a women’s program from scratch, Gordon extracted a promise from Father William Rewak, then the university’s president, to make hiring faculty for the new women’s studies program a priority. "That’s the other thing Mary did that was unbelievably important in the history of Santa Clara University," said Barbara Molony, who later succeeded Gordon as director of the program. "That then brought in a whole cohort of women. Within a decade, we were having women faculty dinners that filled up an entire hall."
Gordon pushed against barriers to women throughout her career. She became the first tenured woman in the history department, the first woman in Arts and Sciences to receive an endowed chair, and the first woman faculty member to serve on the Board of Trustees. "The Santa Clara she left when she retired was a very different place from the school that hired her," said Steven Gelber, Gordon’s colleague in the history department, "and she was an important force in bringing about that change."
Janet Napolitano ’79, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, and now the president of the University of California, was one of Gordon’s earliest students. "There weren’t many women professors at Santa Clara in those days, and she served as an important role model for me," Napolitano said in a statement. "She challenged me to do my best work and to approach the study of history with analytic rigor and an appreciation of divergent points of view. I carry those values with me to this day."
Born in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia, Gordon was one of only two women in her graduating class at the University of Sydney. She spent part of World War II decoding messages in Australia’s nascent intelligence service and was offered a job there after graduation. She turned it down, figuring that she would never be allowed to rise above a secretarial position.
Instead, she accepted a fellowship to Radcliffe College — then the women’s adjunct to Harvard — and in 1952 received her Master’s in history. During her first week in Cambridge, legendary Harvard historian Samuel Elliot Morison assigned a reading that could only be found at a library closed to women. When Gordon asked him how she was supposed to get the material, Morison responded, "That’s your problem." She had better luck with her adviser, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the influential American historian and social critic who remained a friend for the rest of his life.
After moving to California, she plunged into the state’s gaudy history, editing and publishing a diary that recounted the unusual exploits of a wagon train that preceded her own journey to the Golden State. Joan Didion later referred extensively to Gordon’s book, Overland to California with the Pioneer Line, in her own 2003 historical memoir, Where I Was From.
Gordon arrived at Santa Clara during the first blush of the feminist movement, but her style was collaborative, not confrontational. "People knew that she meant business," Molony said, "but her style was bubbly." Since her retirement in 1992, the university has awarded the Mary Gordon Essay Prize for excellence in feminist scholarship.
"In a profession where too many of us are content to hunker down in the safety of our book-lined and tenure-protected offices," Gelber said, "she helped move the history department from being the next step in the cosseted world of parochial education to becoming a place where students were intellectually challenged and faculty were expected to produce as well as teach."
She spent her final years living in a cottage behind the Santa Monica home of her daughter, actress Eve Gordon. With death imminent, her family gathered by Mary Gordon’s bedside and sang "Silent Night." As the carol ended, she drew her final breath and died.