Areas of Study

Women’s Contribution to the Growth and Development of DPN

Deaf women played an important part in the 1988 Deaf President Now (DPN) movement, but many were not recognized for their work. As part of the DPN 25th Anniversary, Gallaudet First Lady Vicki Hurwitz moderated a March 26 panel of deaf women: Dr. Jane Norman, ’68, Jackie Roth, ’76 & G’83, and Dr. Mary Keane, ’85 & Ph.D. ’12, who worked behind the scenes promoting DPN.

Dr. Octavian Robinson, ”02 & G-’04, adjunct professor of history at Gallaudet and a staff member at Maryland School for the Deaf, opened the event with an introduction about the history of women’s access to education.

“Generally, society was not willing to accept women into higher education,” said Robinson, for fear that it would cause them to lose interest in their traditional domestic roles. By the end of the Civil War, however, the philosophy of educating women became more progressive, and more colleges were admitting women.

At about the same time–1864–Gallaudet College opened, initially admitting men and women, but changed its policy two years later to accept men only. This policy was disbanded in 1886 when Gallaudet once again admitted women on a “trial” basis. “In 1889, Edward Miner Gallaudet said women are here to stay,” Robinson said. Alto Lowman was the first deaf woman to graduate from Gallaudet in 1892, followed by Agatha Tiegel Hanson with a four-year degree in 1893. “We know that women are here to stay forever at Gallaudet and on Kendall Green,” Robinson said.

Mrs. Hurwitz established the world’s first “Deaf Women’s Studies” course at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) as part of her master’s degree project in 1993. She taught the course for 12 years–nine as professional staff and instructor at NTID, then three as a retiree while she was director of the Outreach Center at Rochester School for the Deaf. She opened the panel discussion by asking the panelists where they were during DPN week, their roles, and their thoughts about the movement.

“When I look at old pictures of the ‘We still have a dream’ banner that protesters carried during the 1988 protest, I realized we do have a dream and we share that with black people. Most of the people carrying the banner were white. What is your dream? How do we define our dream?” said Norman, who directed the public relations effort during DPN, and is now director and curator of the Gallaudet University Museum. Yet, throughout the DPN movement, she observed sexism, audism, and racism. “Near the end of DPN I couldn’t get the men’s attention at the DPN Council, so I just stood on the table” to force them to listen to me,” Norman said.

However, Norman applauded the “Seven Ducks,” the men who worked behind-the-scenes planning the DPN rally and protest, for having the foresight to know that one of the student leaders needed to be a woman. “They knew that it didn’t look right if the leaders were all white males, so they picked one female (Bridgetta Bourne-Firl) who believed that it was important to have women as president,” Norman said. “Bourne-Firl was very articulate and stood strong in her belief and felt it was the right time for women.” Norman also praised government professor emerita Mary Malzkuhn, calling her the ‘Mother of DPN’ and noted that all the student leaders had taken her class in government.

Keane, who was active as a volunteer doing various projects to support the effort for DPN, added that Dr. Roslyn Rosen was the only woman who held high administrative jobs at Gallaudet in those days. Rosen’s positions included dean of the College for Continuing Education from 1981 to 1993 and vice president for Academic Affairs, the University’s chief academic officer, from 1993 to 1999. Today, however, there are many women who have prominent positions at the University.

Women proved to be highly successful in attracting the media to the DPN movement and, in particular, to the students. “The media did not want to hear from the professors. They wanted to hear from the students because they knew that students are the voice of tomorrow and the voice of the community,” said Roth, then a team member of the media team, working with the four student leaders. “We got international attention. We made a lot of front pages. We were not the ‘silent minority’ at that moment.” Norman added, “The media loved the students. They loved the (DPN) story. They believed in us. We had one collective identity and a common denominator as deaf people. Together, we gave a voice to our identity.”

Keane commented that her most memorable moment of DPN was when the four student leaders appeared on “Nightline” with Ted Koppel. “It was a powerful moment,” she said. “The whole world was watching.”

The panelists agreed that today opportunities are far greater for women, and DPN played a role in these advances. “I felt empowered after DPN,” Keane remarked. “With the power of our collective identity and the power of the media, we learned a new way to communicate with the world,” Norman said, but added that “Issues with sexism, audism, and racism still exist today.” “We have come a long way,” Roth said. “Men are no longer the only breadwinners. We are becoming more verbal with our thoughts. Women are not sitting back passively any longer.” Women today have fewer limitations with employment opportunities, and deaf women are stronger today compared to the 1980s, Roth said. On the other hand, Norman commented that “we have a long way to go, especially in the deaf community.”

Mrs. Hurwitz has been asked to teach her “Deaf Women’s Studies” course at Gallaudet, but the duties of being the first lady of the University haven’t allowed her sufficient time. “However, I still do presentations on deaf women’s ‘herstory,’ First Ladies of Gallaudet, and also House One,” she said.

The First Lady closed the panel discussion with this statement: “Most of my (deaf women’s studies) students were female, but the role models for these students were their mothers,” Hurwitz said. “But we now have so many deaf women role models. Times for women’s issues, thoughts, beliefs, clothes, and everything else have certainly evolved over the years. More deaf women today than in 1988 have gone into professional fields. … There’s no field that a deaf woman can’t aspire to be in!”

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