“You were made of the stuff that makes legends”: The life and legacy of Ellen H. Johnson

Document 1: Survey of Potential Faculty and Administrative Contributions to a Program of Women’s Studies | Document 2: Interview with Richard Spear | Document 3: Letter from Deborah | Document 4: An Open Letter to Ellen | Bibliography

Document 1: Survey of Potential Faculty and Administrative Contributions to a Program of Women’s Studies

Author: Ellen Johnson and Ad Hoc Committee on Women’s Studies

Date: 05 December 1972

Title: “Survey of Potential Faculty and Administrative Contributions to a Program of Women’s Studies”

Location: Box #2, Record Group 30, Ellen Johnson Papers, Series: III Committees, Status of Women, 1971-73, n.d.

Document Type: Partially Typed, Partially Handwritten

Transcribed by Louise Wurzelbacher



On 5 December 1972, “The Survey of Potential Faculty and Administrative Contributions to a Program of Women’s Studies” was sent out to all faculty members by Zara Wilkenfeld, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, on behalf of the Ad Hoc Committee on Women’s Studies. The goal of the survey was to gauge the interest of faculty members in teaching courses in the new  Women’s Studies curricular initiative. Although Johnson did not display interest in teaching a course specifically in Women’s Studies, she contributed greatly to the study and work of women artists.

As demonstrated through her response to this survey, Johnson’s devotion to her students and dedication to making art accessible to all in a high quality educational environment is astonishing. Ellen Johnson’s role as a female educator in art history, and her interest in the question of the place for women in the art world, established her as a scholar exploring feminist art questions. She was integral in bringing women to the forefront of the arts education in Oberlin as well the larger art community.


Original                       Both                    Transcription



Faculty Survey pt1
Faculty Survey pt2
Faculty Survey pt3
Faculty Survey pt4


[Note: The original survey questions are in italics, and Ellen Johnson’s responses are in regular, roman text.]

Survey of Potential Faculty and Administrative Contributions

to a program of Women’s Studies

Name        Ellen Johnson

Position PROF. of ART

  1. Do you think there is a sufficient body of research or other information available to form the basis for a course in Women’s Studies in your field?


        Yes        [1]                Comment:



        If yes, would you be willing to offer such a course,

        in your department?                        Yes                No        X

        in a Women’s Studies Program?        Yes                No        X

        in a cross-listed program?                Yes                No        X

[written in right margin:] I would certainly be “willing” to offer such a course, but I have more teaching to do than I can.[2] 

2.         Have you, at any time, collected information which would be useful to a Women’s Studies Program?

        Yes        X        No

        If yes, what has been or is the nature of this research?


        Present research                        DITTO

        Future research contemplated                DITTO

        Would you be willing to make this information available to a Women’s Studies Program?

                By teaching a course yourself?                        Yes                No

                By teaching a course with others?                        Yes                No

                By making the information available to others         Yes        X        No

who would teach these courses?


3.         Are you presently offering a course (either Exco[3] or college) that could be cross-listed in a Women’s Studies Program?

Yes        No X        Comment

If yes, what is the title and number of this course?

Have you ever offered such a course here or elsewhere?        X

If yes, please elaborate:

(last year I helped a little bit in the Exco women in art course, behind the scenes, by getting the women artists to come here, etc.)

4.         In any of your courses, are there students presently working on research papers or projects dealing with women?

        Yes        X        No        Comment: Research papers in art since 1945:

        If yes, would you list the topics of these papers/projects. (use back of survey if you need to)

        Two papers on The Image of Women in contemporary art

        One on Marilyn Monroe in cont. visual art[4]

        “        “ Diane Arbus[5]

        * I think there will be others coming in

        [written in left margin]: [illegible] on “Pop Attitudes & women”

Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents, Bronx, New York, photograph by Diane Arbus
1999-3, Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents, Bronx, New York, Artist: Arbus, Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

5.         In your opinion, is there a demand for a course pertaining to women’s studies in your field?

        No, none at all

        Probably some interested if the course were offered                X

        Yes, there would be a high level of interest in such a course

        Comment         I think the interest would be quite high – considerable


        Do you think the course would appeal only to women, or to both women and men?        

Only women                Both women and men        X

Comment          Last year we had 4 visiting women artists[6], 2 days each, & many men attended the session. I find many men students seriously interested in feminist problems.

6.         Have students ever indicated interest in your offering such a course?

        Yes                No        X        but probably because they know I wouldn’t have time

7.         Have students ever brought up the contributions or roles of women during class discussions?

        No, never

        On a few occasions        X

        Many times

        In discussions outside the class?

        No, never

        On a few occasions        X (often)

8.        If you do not have the interest or the time to offer a course in Women’s Studies, do you know of anyone else who does, either in your discipline or in another discipline?

        A member of the college teaching faculty.


        Field of study

        A member of the college administration.         


        Field of Study

        [written in right hand margin] I know people who have the interest, but I don’t know anyone who has the time and training.[7] But see note at end.

9.        If married, would your spouse be interested in teaching a course in Women’s Studies?



        Telephone No.

        Field of Study

10.        Do you know any other individual (either in Oberlin or elsewhere) who might be interested in teaching a Women’s Studies course, or part of a course, at Oberlin?

        Please specify:        please see below

Thank you very much for your help. If you have any other suggestions we have not considered please note them in the space below or on the back of this questionnaire. Please send the completed questionnaire as soon as possible to:

Ad Hoc Committee on Women’s Studies

c/o Zara Wilkenfeld

Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

Oberlin College


We have invited Linda Nochlin-Pommer[8] to conduct the Baldwin Seminar[9] on Women in art, a subject on which she is writing a book[10] & on which she teaches a course at Vassar & Hunter.[11] She cannot come this year next semester, but wants to sometime. I wrote her yesterday to try to engage her definitely for next year. The Baldwin Seminar is for 2 weeks, 1 hours credit, intense course of study by a distinguished visitor.

In my view, it is essential that any course on Women in art be a top-level, substantial course which makes a real contribution to our knowledge & understanding of art and its relation to the culture which produced it. It could be a great course, — or it could be flimsy “timely” fad-type, depending upon the teachers’ professional experience & capacities.

        (over please)

I hope very much that we can get Linda Nochlin for the Baldwin [Seminar] next year. But that could be only a one-time occasion.[12] 

Another A possibility  for something more regular:

I am confident that Thalia Peterson,[13] who is a first-rate [illegible] teacher, could work up such a course, given the time to do so. But I have no idea that she would be available, nor that the college could make it sufficiently are attractive to her that she would be willing to take the time from her present Wooster job. But it is certainly worth exploring.

You know of Athena Spear’s[14] many activities in the area of contemporary women artists.

[Proofed with Della Kurzer-Zlotnick May 2, 2016]


[1] Indicates Johnson’s response as “yes.” Her notation will continue like this throughout the document.

[2]  As noted in the introduction, Johnson had many obligations to the art history field nationally and at Oberlin College, and had little time to accept additional responsibility. [LINK]

[3] Experimental College is a department of Oberlin College that sponsors courses for credit taught by students, administrators, faculty or townspeople that are not available in traditional areas of study (Oberlin Exco,“About,” Oberlin College, Source, 2 May 2016).

[4] Andy Warhol painted Marilyn Monroe after her death, in many iterations. His fascination concerned the commodification and reproducibility of celebrity icons. To see the image, visit: Andy Warhol, “Untitled From Marilyn Monroe” (1967), Museum of Modern Art, Source, accessed 27 June 2016.

[5] Diane Arbus (1923-71) an American photographer known for photographing marginalized people as her subjects in the 1950s and 60s (Tessa DeCarlo, “A Fresh Look at Diane Arbus,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2004, Source, 2 May 2016).  

[6] Unknown, specifically who these women artists were.

[7] Demonstrates Johnson’s commitment to excellence in education, at the end of the survey Johnson indicates how important she thinks it is to have a “first-rate teacher” and expresses her concerns for the course becoming a “flimsy ‘timely’ fad-type” course with the wrong instruction.

[8] Linda Nochlin (b. 1931) is a distinguished scholar and most recently a Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Art. She specializes in nineteenth-century art, specifically Realism.  She is an important advocate for promoting Women Artists and has received honors and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In 1971(the year before this survey was filled out), Nochlin received international attention because of her article, “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?” (Lee Sorensen, “Nochlin, Linda,” Dictionary of Art Historians,  Source, 2 May 2016).

[9] Sponsored by the Art Department’s Baldwin Seminar lecture fund. The Baldwin Seminar is a two week seminar with talks by a visiting Professor who is prominent in the art community  (Oberlin College News Service, “Guest expert to conduct Art History Seminar at Oberlin College March 7-16,” Oberlin College, 21 Feb. 2001, Source, 2 May 2016).  

[10] Likely Women, Art and power and Other Essays, by Linda Nochlin, published in 1988.

[11] Taught at Vassar between 1952 and 1980 and was a visiting Professor at Hunter (Elizabeth Randolf, “Pioneering Art Historian Linda Nochlin ‘51 Honored for Distinguished Achievement,” The Alumnae /i Quarterly, Vassar College, Source, 2 May 2016).

[12] Linda Nochlin did give a Baldwin Series on “Women and Art in the 19th and 20th Centuries” in March 1974 (Cynthia Elek, “Oberlin prints accompany Baldwin Seminar,” Oberlin Review 1 March 1973, Source , accessed 21 June 2016).

[13] Thalia Peterson was  a lecturer at Oberlin from 1960 to 1968, before she left to take a job at the College of Wooster.  (Oberlin College online, “Noted Art Professor, Author dies,” Oberlin College, June 22, 2001, Source, 2 May 2016). She was tenured at Wooster in 1976, and became a full professor there.   She was originally barred from teaching at Oberlin because of the nepotism rule, since she was married to English Professor Carl Peterson (Oberlin College online.“Noted Art Professor, Author dies.” Oberlin College, June 22, 2001, Source, 2 May 2016).

[14] Athena Tacha sculptor, was the wife of Richard Spear, who is a renowned art historian and colleague of Ellen Johnson, known for his research on Italian baroque art, economy art history. More information about Spear can be found in Document Two , an interview he conducted with Ellen Johnson.