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UMass Chan celebrates Women’s History Month

UMass Amherst professor delivers lecture on ‘forgotten’ women

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, PhD

UMass Chan Medical School celebrated Women’s History Month by inviting Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, PhD, the Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography and professor of English at UMass Amherst, to deliver the lecture, “Forgotten Lives: Who They Were and Why They’re Important.”

The event was co-sponsored by the UMass Chan Women’s Faculty Committee under the Office of Faculty Affairs, the Professional Women’s Committee and the Diversity and Inclusion Office.

Dr. Gerzina launched her conversation by asking, “How can we understand the present and future without understanding and coming to terms with the past and the people who occupied it?”

Among several stories of forgotten women, Gerzina recounted the story of Sarah E. Farro, a Black woman and novelist who wrote the novel True Love, which was printed, distributed and publicized in the 19th century. Gerzina speculated that since Farro wrote about characters who were not Black, her work fell into obscurity because of modern expectations surrounding race.

“There’s a lot to learn from this forgotten woman and her forgotten novel,” said Gerzina. “The answer to neglect may lie in our assumptions about African American writers that they inevitably write about race; that for Black 19th century writers, there would be references to slavery and to struggle or that their access to literacy must have been limited.”

Gerzina, whose mother was a genealogist, encountered her own hurdles while tracing her own family history. While reviewing the family history of Benjamin Doolittle, a minister who owned slaves in the 18th century, she discovered that the sister of Doolittle’s wife was one of her direct ancestors.

“With this new discovery, everything changed. Forgotten or lost documents appeared after being hidden for 20 to 50 years. People couldn’t get their heads around the fact that I was descended not from the African Americans in the story, but from the white families,” she said.

She likened the surprising discovery of her white ancestors as, “being invited to somebody’s house for dinner, sitting down at the table and finding out you’re in the wrong house.”

“Sharing these stories is essential to paving the way for women to achieve their full potential,” added Marlina Duncan, EdD, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, as she concluded the lecture. “I urge us to reflect on the extent to which we honor, lift up and leverage diverse women to the fullness of their capabilities.”

Gerzina is an internationally acclaimed scholar known for her work in British literary and cultural studies. Last month, she delivered the Distinguished Faculty Lecture series at UMass Amherst and was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest honor the campus awards faculty.