Education

Iowa's 'Van Allen of the Humanities' recounts women's rights career

Even at 80, she vows to march if necessary to preserve democracy

University of Iowa professor emeritus Linda Kerber poses for a photo Oct. 27 at her home in Iowa City. Kerber has was se
University of Iowa professor emeritus Linda Kerber poses for a photo Oct. 27 at her home in Iowa City. Kerber has was selected as the first-ever UI faculty member to deliver the American Council of Learned Societies Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture. Kerber is known for her writing on the history of citizenship, gender and authority. Her book. “No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship.” won the Littleton-Griswold Prize for the best book on U.S. legal history. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — A branch on a family tree of feminists, albeit unassuming ones, University of Iowa professor emeritus Linda Kerber has established herself as the “Van Allen of the Humanities,” comparable to UI’s famed astronomer James Van Allen.

As the May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts & Sciences, history professor and lecturer in the UI College of Law, Kerber, 80, has been president of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and of the American Studies Association.

She was an American history professor at Oxford University and an elected member of numerous esteemed groups, including the Society of American Historians and American Antiquarian Society. She is in the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame and recipient of Barnard College’s Distinguished Alumna Award.

President Barack Obama in 2011 appointed her to the Permanent Committee for the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise, charged with keeping a history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

She’s authored books, articles and essays; held visiting appointments, fellowships and degrees from respected institutions; and recently delivered the Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture for the American Council of Learned Societies.

Along the way, Kerber found herself a beneficiary of the wisdom and generosity of legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who befriended her and occasionally made space in her busy schedule to meet with Kerber.

But Kerber’s trailblazing story begins with her grandmother, mother and even her husband’s mother, who served as inspirations and pioneers in their own rights, dating to the late 1890s.

Her maternal grandmother was impoverished in Eastern Europe and emigrated out of desperation.

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“My mother’s mother was a young widow with a baby and no way to support herself,” Kerber told The Gazette, explaining her grandmother’s decision to leave her son behind with family so she could first establish herself in America with a relative here. “She didn’t feel she had any other options.”

She met the man who would become Kerber’s grandfather, and they had other children — in addition to her first son, who she eventually brought over — the youngest of which was Kerber’s mother.

In many immigrant families, she said, older children had to start working right away. But younger ones were educated longer, meaning Kerber’s mother got to go to teacher-training school. Her husband’s mother, meanwhile, was even more desperately poor but got to attend Hunter College in New York tuition-free, allowing her the opportunities a four-year bachelor’s degree provides.

With their savings from her teaching and his camera store, Kerber’s mother and father managed to send their daughter to Barnard College, a private women’s liberal arts college in New York City — a short commute from where she grew up in Brooklyn.

Kerber married after college and continued her education in American and then European studies at New York University, where her husband, Richard Kerber, was in medical school.

Although “we had great distaste for the Vietnam War,” Richard served in the conflict in 1967-1968, when Linda earned her doctorate in history from Columbia University.

“He emerged with a bronze star, which he never talked about, he never talked about the dangers,” Linda Kerber said. “He told me every letter home was a lie. And only after he died did I learn that the Bronze Star is only given for valor under enemy fire, and that he had been in grave danger.”

It was her husband who brought her to Iowa in 1971 via spousal hire — which were uncommon at the time.

A niche in history

Richard Kerber was a researcher and clinician and worked in the UI cardiology program. But he made it clear he was not going to come here without his wife.

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“Spousal appointments, partner appointments, were very rare then,” Kerber said. “But Iowa was very forward looking.”

Plus, she said, “We know nobody comes to Iowa for the weather.”

So they looked for a fit for her in history. “And, actually, they needed somebody,” Kerber said. “So they welcomed me. They were very happy to hire a woman. Sandy Boyd was the president, and he was delighted. I was very welcome here.”

And it was with that support that Kerber carved out a groundbreaking career studying the history and impact of citizenship, gender and authority — splitting her expertise between Iowa’s history department and College of Law, where she lectured on things like women and family constitutional law.

She established herself as a uniquely educated expert in the field through her unabashed research and personal experiences — like the time she called up Ginsburg for help on her book, “No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship.”

The 1998 book for which she was awarded the Littleton-Griswold Prize for best book on U.S. legal history and the Joan Kelly Prize for best book on women’s history included a chapter on citizens’ obligation to serve on a jury.

“For much of American history, women were not called to juries,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a random assortment of neighbors from the area in which the crime has been committed.”

But women, although eligible, were rarely seated. And, Kerber said, arguments for why varied but included the notion that “men do not like to be judged by women.”

“Men were horrified that a woman could send a man to the electric chair,” she said. “So the issue of women jury service became, by the early 60s, a hot issue.”

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In a relevant case, Ginsburg wrote a “really powerful” friend-of-the-court brief, Kerber said.

“And because of that brief, I wanted to interview her for my chapter,” she said.

Ginsburg, then a judge on the Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals, obliged.

“I wrote to her, she wrote back,” Kerber said. “I told her when I could be in Washington, and I came down, and we had a wonderful, a very interesting interview.”

Kerber used that material for her book and continued following Ginsburg’s work and magnifying legacy as she established her own.

‘Breaks my heart’

So when Ginsburg died earlier this year, Kerber was crushed. Not only for the national loss but for the political implications — and what the potential timing of her death could mean for the constancy of her historical impact.

“It’s so, so very sad,” Kerber said. “She had this generosity of spirit, which meant that even somebody like me,” who she bonded with over seven or eight conversations — not to mention all the staff with whom she established deep relationships — felt meaningfully connected.

“It breaks my heart,” Kerber said of the prospect a new court appointment who could derail Ginsburg’s work.

On the flip side, Kerber said, she’s been inspired by the fierce female voices that have emerged this election season and vowed to be one of them — even in her older age — if the nation’s democracy she fought define and protect seems in peril.

Speaking specifically of the transition of presidential power, Kerber said, “I am I am 80 years old. I have underlying conditions. I did not go out in the marches in the streets after George Floyd, feeling badly about it. But I will go out, if we have to do that, to make the majority will known.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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