Interview with Pat Herminghouse


Interview with Pat Herminghouse


Congresses; Germanists; Feminism


Beth Muellner's interview of Pat Herminghouse at Banff Conference Center, Alberta Canada, October 2016


Muellner, Beth




Beth Ann Muellner, digitized










Muellner: So, okay! So, why don’t we start with you just telling us name, affiliation, where you’re from, how many years you were in WiG, when you joined WiG, how you first heard about it.

Herminghouse: Okay, I am Pat Herminghouse. Here it goes… and I am Fuchs professor emerita of German Studies, University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. And I have lived in the U.S. all my life, and I joined WiG when we established WiG. I was sort of there at the starting moment in 1974 and it was a reaction to a situation that had occurred at a conference in which I had given a paper and it was criticized by a very prominent member of the profession as not being "Germanistik," and then it was… it just at the point where, I think, also our male colleagues were becoming aware of some of the factors behind feminism and had realized that they could no longer ask their wives to prepare food and organize everything for every occasion. So, as someone who didn’t have a wife, I got involved with being responsible for getting some of that organized and the women were standing around talking about how we were so shocked at this moment and realized that there was a bigger attendance at the conference than had been expected as a Washington U conference on the first one, I think, on the G.D.R. and suddenly realized that not one of us spoke during that discussion. You know, we all sat silently and said this has got to stop and we were so agitated in that conversation, we realized that all the chairs were gone and taken. And, so, we were in a little side room in this building that we used for things like hosting conference events, and we all wound up on the floor, Luise would say, “Ganz am Boden.”

Muellner: Oh my gosh.

Herminghouse: And, at that point… we had… somebody had a pad of yellow paper and we passed it around, we all signed our names on it and said, “Okay we’re going to stay in touch and make sure that things happen.” And so, I think I was the one that organized, it wasn’t a big organization, we asked for meeting space at the Midwest MLA and then at the big MLA. And at that point, things really took off in much broader circle of people and that we would do something and, I don’t remember how it was that we wound up with Gisela Bahr at Ohio, Miami of Ohio, who offered us… to get a facility for us there and we wound up with this Miami University facility, kind of retreat center in the woods, and that would have been 1975 or 6. We’ll have to come back on that.

Muellner: Okay.

Herminghouse: And it was completely basic, you know, we had bunkrooms and we brought food and cooked our own spaghetti and we’re all there, there are many, many pictures now that are available of that first event, people who are now actually retirement age there with their small babies. So, that was my first contact, is to see how that moved along.

Muellner: Yeah. And, so, what was the name of the paper that you gave at that initial conference that provoked such a response?

Herminghouse: It was actually a paper that nowadays would probably never get on a program. But it was something about, I think it had zippier title, but it was about the images of women presented in G.D.R. literature.

Muellner: Oh, okay.

Herminghouse: You know, and, the women who were the crane operators and… Christa Wolf with her story of working in the railroad car factory. So, there were just these kind of images, but it was all talking about… not about… wasn’t it a theoretical level? The type of theory was very big we had Robert Weimann there who major theoretician in Comp. Lit. So, it was an untheoretical paper, it was just sort of the first baby steps. It wasn’t the first paper I’d ever done, but it was early on.

Muellner: It just got a really negative response.

Herminghouse: Well… I think, yeah. Nobody criticized the specifics of it, it was rather that, “Is this what feminists have turned theoretical Germanistik into?” I think that was the tenor of the concern. You know that we would be backing off of our high theory. Which I don’t think happened in the long run. But the first baby steps were that way.

Muellner: Right, right. And, so, what was that first conference, then, in Ohio like? Besides you… sitting around and cooking together and what kinds of things did you talk about?

Herminghouse: Oh, we had a program. I don’t know if we can recover that program.

Muellner: It’s possible that we have it.

Herminghouse: But, it would be in the newsletter. The… what happened that was so good is after that… the women at the University of Wisconsin took on doing the newsletter. It was modeled on the G.D.R. newsletter that I had started just about a year before. So, we were all doing it; type or cut or paste and photocopy.

Muellner: So, in some of these photos that we have…

Herminghouse: That’s the 1970…

Recording cuts off before starting again

Muellner: Alright, okay… so we kind of talked about when and how WiG began for you. So, do you want to talk about your career before WiG?

Herminghouse: Well, at that point I was an assistant professor and I had two…

Muellner: Okay hang on one second…

Recording stops before resuming

Muellner: It’s working. Okay, so, now of course I have to go back in here.

Whoopsie. So… what was my question? Describe…?

Herminghouse: When and how WiG began for me, first WiG, we kind of collapsed those two.

Muellner: We talked about that.

Herminghouse: Yeah. My career before WiG. You know, I was an assistant professor with two young preschool children at that time and I was, in some ways, rescued by a senior colleague who actually then had advised my dissertation after the first advisor, who had been a little bit uncomfortable for me, left and… my dissertation advisor – I was hired in the department I was trained in, which is a little bit unusual.

Muellner: OK. And where was this?

Herminghouse: Washington University. And, so, I was just kind of holding things together and our children had seizures or disorders at the time, and she saw what was happening and, without asking me, went to the provost, and arranged half-time leave for as long as I needed up to 10 years or something like that. So, I was already on that half-time leave when all of this came about, and what it meant was I taught half a load and did a load and a half of administration, but that’s the way those arrangements go, but it did make a big difference for me. So, I had ten years assistant professor before I came up for tenure. And that was at the university then, women saw that I had that, we started to organize and, just typical, it’s not WiG, but it’s part of the story of women in academe. We had a very prominent, very promising young assistant professor, single woman, in the English department and we were trying to find out what kinds of arrangements are made outside of this thing that I had handed to me on a silver platter and there was nothing really. She went to the chair of her department, and she was a year or two short of tenure, and asked him, you know, what the policy was in case of a pregnancy. And he said, “I would expect any woman in that condition to resign.” You know, whereas my department saw me through two pregnancies. So… there was a difference.

Muellner: That is interesting.

Herminghouse: Yeah. And, so, that was the kind of thing that was in the air and women kind of trying to figure out in a time of… you know early on these whole questions of tenure/promotion wasn’t that tough and the job market went really south in 1975. And, so, there was this feeling of “things are changing, we don’t really understand what’s going to happen. How do we, you know, stay on our feet through all of this?” Some of the early panels were that way, too.

Muellner: Okay. So, the job market went south in ’75, what was that?

Herminghouse: I just… I remember MLA was in San Francisco and you’d see people just standing in the hallways crying because interviews were cancelled, and it was just a really sad, sad event.

Muellner: A low point.

Herminghouse: Well, there were other low points but for those of us in those early years, that was the first of several to come.

Muellner: So, how many women were in the department when you started?

Herminghouse: There was one, the senior woman, and… Don help me, any other women in the department when I started?

Don: Was that when June was…

H: She was after I was hired.

D: Right.

H: Lucile was after I started, Peter Hohendahl came later.

D: Yeah. I can’t think of any others.

H: The other medieval... Gerhild…

D: Gerhild wasn’t there yet.

H: So, outside of this one senior woman, I was the only one.

M: Out of how many, then?

H: Oh, dear. Probably eight to ten, maybe?

M: Okay.

H: Something like that.

Herminghouse and Don go on to list names of those in her department when she started

H: But then the department really grew. I mean, I think starting the G.D.R. studies and the concentrated effort to build a graduate program really brought results. And we had a lot of German exchange students. So, I mean I had seminars where I’d have maybe eight or nine exchange students and one or two Americans.

M: Wow, that’s interesting. So, and then you stayed at Wash U?

H: Until I was invited to go to Rochester to chair a department there.

M: And then you stayed there until the end. And how many years was that, then, total?

H: It was 15 years at Rochester. I took an early retirement buyout in 19…

D: ’83?

H: No, buyout at Rochester… ’97 I think. I was still in my 50s.

M: Okay. So, then talking a little bit more about WiG. So, what role did WiG play in your career?

H: I think it got me out and moving. I think that’s probably the main thing. That before then I didn’t know that many people in other departments, I didn’t go to very many conferences… one of my colleagues poked me a few times and said, “Hey here’s an opportunity, you ought to do that.” But I really wasn’t outward-looking. And I think that contact with, you know, women from all over the country made such a difference in just… being out and able to take on things.

M: And so, then, the next question is what role did you play in WiG?

H: Well, for those first few years, when I really had to ask for, you know, certain things we wanted, I called myself national organizer, but we had no governing body. I mean, we were happily anarchic, and I could remember when the first attempts were made to say, “Okay, now.” I think we had a steering committee first, and the steering committee governed. And then the feeling was, “No, there had to be a point person.” And I remember many WiG members felt we were letting go of our, you know, anarchic tradition there in going the ways of the establishment. It’s worked out wonderfully, but at the time I think there was a lot of anxiety about going to a president with, you know, with singular powers.

M: Right.

H: I don’t know how much power the president has, I’ve never been president of WiG so…

M: Well, yeah… I think we’ve kind of tried to stay faithful to the initial idea of it as just being, you know, a kind of a leader in, in image, sort of, you know? Sort of idea of the president.

H: Yeah, there has to be a point person.

M: But the steering committee really still runs the show. That’s very much the case. So, did you feel like being in WiG gave you a sense of, you know, ways that you could better plug into the profession more widely, back in your own institution? So, when you said before that you really kind of, you know, stayed unto yourself when you were at your own department and so did joining WiG help you get a sense of how you can be active more broadly in the profession? Like, looking at what other women did?

H: In the profession, yes. I think in my home institution I already was.

M: Okay.

H: I was one of the co-founders of the Women’s Studies program there and so I was active there.

M: Okay, well, that’s important!

H: Yeah!

M: So that, then, that experience, then, probably helped inform what you were doing at WiG too.

H: Right. And I think, you know, in a certain way it was supported at Washington U at that time, and so I was able to partner somehow with the history department and I was able to hire a… what did we call those… special appointment in the history department. I think they were called adjuncts. Visiting assistant professor, I think she was who, with me, then devised some early women’s studies courses.

M: So, do you think Washington University was unique?

H: No, I think that things like this were starting in other places, but none of us at these other places knew about it until we started to get together and find out, you know, what could and could not be done.

M: Right.

H: And, I think there were also differences in structure because already by ’74, I think, I had taught – or ’75 I guess – I taught my first G.D.R. Lit class and I remember Gisela Bahr, who helped us so much, saying to me almost with tears in her eyes when at WiG we were talking about what kinds of courses can we teach. I said, “Well, I’ve been doing this course on woman writers and one on G.D.R. Lit.” and she said, “Well, how did you ever get that through?” and I said, “Well, I just wrote up a description and we put it in the course listings.” And she was at a state institution, and here she was, full professor, and she’d have to go through like, three levels of approval and was quite sure she’d never get it through.

M: Wow, so the difference between a private and a…

H: Private and state, I think there was some difference there.

M: Interesting.

H: Yeah, and Washington U it was always a very liberal institution.

M: So, and then moving to Rochester you had similar kinds of…

H: It was… no, it was starting there at a much different level.

M: So, you had to kind of reinvent the wheel a little bit there.

H: Yeah, I was there, again, one of the co-founders… at the institute… and I was involved with the establishment of that.

M: And so, were you invited to be chair in Rochester because of sort of some of the progressive work that you had been doing at Washington do you think? Did it have something to do with feminism?

H: No, I think that 1983 I think was the year that I was up for promotion for full professor and the people who were writing for me were also aware of other unhappinesses there, and so, and there was someone who was an assistant dean at Rochester, it was [unclear] who had been at Harvard, and she had started working on G.D.R. Lit as well and so when they decided to find, she just sort of put my name in the hopper and beyond that they, I guess, had written to some people, “can you make suggestions?” And, I happen to have copy of a couple of the letters that people who wrote for my promotion just basically reformulated that letter and sent it to Rochester. So, it just… it was just outright an offer. You know, I don’t think things like that are legal anymore.

M: Right, probably not.

H: And I was hired to Washington U the same way. I came home from teaching at the University of Missouri, St. Louis and in the mailbox was a letter offering me assistant professorship, director of undergraduate programs.

M: Wow.

H: And I got the job at the University of Missouri because we lived near there and I walked up there in painting clothes to see what the place was all about – it was new – and wandered in the building of foreign languages where I encountered the department chair who was a very leftist Cuban and he was very unhappy with the German program and said, “You know,” wrote me a job offer right on the spot.

M: Wow.

H: I mean those days are over, but he was… he called the department of... So, he hired me.

M: That’s interesting. So how did you get involved in German to begin with?

H: Oh.

M: That’s a whole other story.

H: It’s a whole other story.

M: Okay, do we not want to go there?

H: Well, I was a math major in college, and I did the junior year in Germany, and I took some German courses there. I thought they were pretty awful. But I did some math courses, but when I came back in my senior year the chair of the math department was a legendary, kind man when I told him that I was thinking of going on in pure math. Those were the days when department chairs called one another and said, “Hey I’ve got a fellowship available, you know, ...” And he just said to me, “That’s not a field for a woman.”

M: Wow.

H: And, meanwhile, I had sort of met the love of my life and so I thought, “Okay. I’ll get back to Europe.” So, I applied to, for Fulbright and I got to get back to Germany and I was just there, and it was all this serendipity stuff, so I applied for Austria. Still, then that point I refashioned myself as wanting to be a German teacher in schools and instead I wound up…

M: At the university.

H: Yeah. And so, from Europe I was applying for graduate programs and not knowing much. I just I knew where I was liking to go and so I just thought, I went fishing, all along thinking I’d still have to teach school. And, knowing nothing I got a very snide letter from, I think it was Princeton said, “If you don’t know that we’re an all-male university you really don’t need to be applying here.”

M: Nice.

H: Yeah. So, anyway so I went, and I did my graduate work at Washington U as well and then got hired. I had the year… I taught part-time at the Catholic women’s college just across the road and then I taught at the University of Missouri and there was that first year at Missouri. I think it was November that I found this letter in my mailbox saying, “How about coming back and teaching here.”

M: Things are different now.

H: They sure are.

M: And so, I know that you were yearbook editor at WiG. So, could you talk a little bit about that? Were you involved in the… when did the yearbook start?

H: The yearbook started, that was Jeanine Clausen and… who was with her…

D: Sara Friedrichsmeyer was a co-editor.

H: She was on very early, right. And then, so I don’t remember what year I came on. But Sara just very pointedly recruited me as editor.

M: Friedrichsmeyer?

H: Sara Friedrichsmeyer. As co-editor and then, when Sara wanted to step down, we very aggressively recruited Susanne Zantop. And then when Susanne and I, I was hired, I think I was recruiting Ruth-Ellen Joeres. But, you know, it was that kind of just actively recruiting someone. And they ultimately applied, I think, but it wasn’t like it is now where you have job specs. That came… I don’t remember when.

M: Okay. So, and so, you were not on the steering committee? Or you were on the steering committee?

H: I don’t remember.

M: Okay. Well, we can look that up too. But, what about…

H: I don’t think so.

M: If you were, you were saying that, you know, that all those things kind of developed over time so, you know. You were definitely a part of the organization, the democratic voice in the mix for sure. But what about now maybe an anecdote? Do you have a memorable moment at WiG or of WiG or?

H: Let’s come back to that. Let me think about that a little.

M: We can come back to that. Well, okay so then the next question is some of the hardest discussions or debates that came up at WiG.

H: I think early in the… either in the later in the ‘70s or early in the ‘80s, you know, we began to think about and were in hard debates… we were called… people called us on the fact that our Jewish members felt that we were, they were simply invisible. They felt talked over, that they didn’t… they weren’t accepted for who they were but rather for who we thought they were. And it became, it was very painful discussions that went on over several years. You know, we all kind of had to realize that we had sort of ignored all of this and no sooner had we sort of begin to work out our relationship to that, that the lesbian members called us on the fact that we had done exactly the same thing with them. You know, they were there, and we all knew that, I had a couple of my grad students were there, but it wasn’t a topic. And then finally that also became something that we had to come to terms with and accept identities, and you know we're now to minorities, I think there was lull there before we really realized what we were – we’re still a very white organization. And so, that was that came then next. But I think when that first comes out and certainly within the last couple of years where our whiteness was the issue. But they came sequentially, and I think it was probably a natural…

M: Progression.

H: Progression, yeah.

M: And it seems like the issue around graduate students, like there’s some, there are always some tensions with, you know, graduate students not feeling, you know, included and there was a lot of work, maybe when I kind of started out I felt like there was a lot of work to include graduate students and to make sure they felt welcome and those kinds of things.

H: Yeah, well, you know I’ve had quite a bit of experience with the GSA it was exactly the same thing there. And only it was a little bit different, I think, with GSA it was more a feeling that if it became recognized as a student organization internationally it would make, would not play as big leagues with the international, but it didn’t happen. But there were some big fights. But at that point the graduate students in WiG I think were well integrated.

M: Yeah, and now we’re starting to talk about including undergrads.

H: Really?

M: Well, a little bit. Just because things are shifting, you know? I mean there’s not as many graduate programs producing graduate students, there’s a lot of money given at, a lot of us are at smaller institutions with only undergrads and so there’s a lot of support from our institutions for us to work with undergraduates, you know, so it kind of feels like it’s, you know, trickling down in a way and, you know, and there are a lot of great graduate students who are doing interesting work. So, you know, could be interesting.

H: You know, one of the things that ragged me a lot in WiG was the kind of, and actually I had a couple of people say that to me, once they got tenure, they didn’t need WiG anymore. And so, we had a decent amount of attrition at that level. Once you were, you know, were in safe then attendance dropped, participation.

M: That’s interesting. That could still be a little bit of an issue.

H: Well, you know, I think it’s something that we really need to think about that, you know, you don’t just turn your back on whatever it was that got you.

M: Nurtured you.

H: Yeah, and so that really used to get me very angry.

M: Yeah, I can see that. That’s an issue. So, I think… do you have a favorite cabaret moment?

H: I don’t think it’s a moment. And it’s a tradition I think we may have lost some of, though its gone… there were a series of years there where people like Hester Baer, Lisa Roetzel took on, and who was it that always used to be… the woman from the NPR radio program…

D: Nina Tittenburg.

H: Yes!

M: That’s right!

D: I assume that’s not her real name.

M: No, its not, who used to do that? Was that Jeanette Clausen?

D: I think it was Jeanine Blackwell.

M: Jeanine Blackwell! I always confuse Jeanine and Jeanette. Jeanine Blackwell was it?

H: I think so I’m not sure.

M: Or Jeanette Clausen? Wasn’t it Jeanette Clausen?

D: It could have been. One of the two.

M: I think it was her… or I remember when I first heard her coming, wasn’t Wendy Aarons the one who always performed like George Bush? She came out with a cowboy hat once. Yeah.

H: There was… so those were my favorites and some of those seeing in those… I still like it now but, in those years,, I always used to look forward to how these stock characters would transform into something in the moment for the cabaret.

M: Right, yeah. And so, we’re kind of at our last question unless you can come up with your anecdote. But we can also, I can also ask you another time about that. You can think about it, we can come back to it. The last question is, “what are the three words that come to mind when you think of WiG?”

H: Supportive.

D: That would have been my word was nurturing, supportive, and remarkable or sensation.

H: Daring. Enduring.

M: Great! Okay, thanks so much Pat. This was wonderful.

H: Because it really has gone on now for, what? Forty years?

M: Yeah, hoping to keep up the momentum.

H: You know in that it was very much a product of its time, and those times have changed.

M: They have.

H: But, there has been this enduring…

M: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that I noticed looking through Sara’s box is how so many of those papers and conversations, you know, through letters really are similar to what we’re talking about now. They may have… the topics may have changed slightly…

H: I always wanted to get that access to that file just to look. Because remember those things were, you know, they were backstories and I know the backstories, but I couldn’t… and I was looking… I specifically gave someone, and I’m not sure it was Sara, the list – I think I might still have a photocopy of it but not the original document – of the women at that Washington U conference, the signed yellow paper.

M: That would be awesome to have that paper.

H: It was just, you know, yellow legal pad passed around and names went on and not very many of those people are still with WiG because Wisconsin brought a number of graduate students. So, we had Evi Beck was there and who else… some of the ones that aren’t really with WiG anymore. Nancy Vedder-Shults I think was there. And so, there was already that core, and the fact that, you know, our grad students, the Washington grad students were very active, the Wisconsin grad students, and when the Miami conference happened, you know, we took a couple carloads, I had a station wagon, Leslie Adelson had a yellow… an orange… oh, what is it… VW car?

D: Orange Rabbit?

H: Rabbit, yeah.

End of recording



Muellner, Beth, “Interview with Pat Herminghouse,” Women in German Herstory Project, accessed September 26, 2023,