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MARGARET ANNE O’CONNOR

1944-2021

Margaret Anne O’Connor, known to friends and colleagues as Maggie, served as a faculty member at UNC-CH for thirty-one years (1971-2002), teaching a wide range of courses in the departments of English, American Studies, and Women’s Studies and contributing in important ways to the research and service missions of the University and the profession. Much of what she accomplished and inspired professionally flowed from her ability to make friends and to connect people with each other.  Before the term networking became common, she supported and encouraged students, colleagues, scholars from abroad, and new acquaintances by giving them opportunities to present and discuss their ideas with others, both in informal social settings and through more formal institutional and professional policies and structures that she helped to create.

O’Connor joined the faculty in 1971, having just completed a dissertation on Willa Cather and the short story at the University of California-Davis under the direction of the eminent Cather scholar James Woodress, who, with his wife Roberta, remained O’Connor’s mentor and close friend throughout her career and into retirement.

In the fall of 1971 the Department of English had no tenured women faculty and only one woman in a faculty line leading to tenure. From the first, O’Connor began building community, particularly among women faculty and graduate students in the humanities and social sciences.  She helped professionalize the fledgling Women’s Caucus of the English Department and in her second semester on the faculty offered the University’s first course on “Women in Literature,” which was authorized only as a special topics course and taught in a residence hall. It took several years for her to get the course approved as a regular and recurring part of the curriculum.  At the same time O’Connor was active in attempts to organize women throughout the University and was a founding member of the Association of Women Faculty, which advocated for the hiring and promotion of women scholars and for the expansion of the curriculum to include the study of women’s perspectives and contributions. O’Connor attended meetings and appeared before numerous committees explaining the intellectual viability of, at first, a university-wide introductory course in Women’s Studies and, later, an entire curriculum centering on the study of women.  Thanks in large part to O’Connor’s efforts to unite support from both men and women across campus, in 1980 the Women’s Studies Program was established.  She remained a staunch supporter of women throughout her Carolina years and served on many programs and search committees, as well as on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Affirmative Action and the advisory board of the Duke-UNC Center for Research on Women. In 1993 she received the Mary Turner Lane Award from the Association of Women Faculty and Professionals for “outstanding contributions to the lives of women at UNC-CH.”

O’Connor was likewise a catalyst for feminism within the profession of college English teaching.  At the convention of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association in 1972, she noticed how few women were on the program and started a petition on the spot that led to the founding of the Women’s Caucus of SAMLA the following year. O’Connor actively built that organization and served as its president and later became first vice president of the Women’s Caucus of the Modern Language Association.  In 1982 she was an invited seminar participant in a two-week Yale University conference on “Reconstructing American Literature.”

In the days when the study of film was new to English departments everywhere and literary scholars had no formal training in the area, Kimball King and Howard Harper designed and taught a highly popular and enduring course in film criticism.  O’Connor joined them as a regular teacher of the course, with a particular interest in Alfred Hitchcock, becoming a founding member of the editorial board and contributor to the Hitchcock Annual. She used to joke that teaching the film course occasioned her greatest claim to fame, as Michael Jordan was one of the 150 students enrolled in her course during his first year at Carolina.

O’Connor’s desire to bring people together and her generosity were evident in her many professional activities.  When the English Department decided that a course in developmental writing was needed, she volunteered to be part of the planning committee and taught the course annually in its first years. For a number of years she was a Reader for the Educational Testing Service, rating essays for the Advanced Placement Examination in English and for the composition portion of the College Board examination.  Noticing that ETS invited few readers from the South, she offered to help identify qualified readers from the region and thus extended this important opportunity for service to many Carolina PhDs and others in her southern professional circles.  She was also one of the first literary scholars invited by the North Carolina Humanities Council to lead book discussions at public libraries throughout the state.  She instigated the awarding of the University’s Distinguish Alumni Award to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and served as his faculty host for his visit to campus.  She was a member of the Administrative Board of the School of Journalism.

She spent two years living in Germany and teaching American literature and culture, first at the Johannes-Gutenberg-Universitaet in Mainz and then as a Senior Fulbright-Hayes professor at Albert-Ludwigs-Universitaet in Freiburg.  Her years in Germany as well as the example of Jim and Roberta Woodress made her particularly welcoming to foreign scholars visiting the University.  She invited them to her home, gave them rides, took them to movies, and helped them make useful professional contacts. Her summer travels abroad would usually include a visit to one of them in England, France, Italy, Germany, Romania, or Japan.

O’Connor’s scholarship focused on women writers and film.  She gave scores of presentations on films and on such writers as Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickenson, Octavia Butler, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Her  audiences varied from literary scholars at international conferences to patrons of libraries in rural North Carolina to local church groups. Her publications include numerous reviews and entries in reference works.  She was Guest Editor of a special issue on women writers for American Literary Realism and a special issue on Willa Cather for Women’s Studies. Her edition with notes of “Coming Aphrodite” and Other Stories was published by Penguin in 1992.  Her hefty Willa Cather: the Critical Reception, published by Cambridge University Press in 2001, was the culmination of decades of collecting contemporary reviews of Cather’s works published in newspapers, journals, and magazines throughout the world, most of O’Connor’s work done well before digital searches and data bases were available.

In her retirement, O’Connor traveled frequently, enjoying the ease of river and ocean trips and playing bridge on board when shore excursions seemed too physically demanding.  For fifteen years she was an active resident of the retirement community of Mount San Antonio Gardens in Pomona, California.  There she organized film and lecture series, played bridge, practiced her German at German Table in the dining hall, and took full advantage of the Gardens’ musical and cultural opportunities.  Just ten days before her sudden death, she presented a recently prepared lecture on Lolita and censorship. She was a member of nearby St. Ambrose Episcopal Church parish and sang in the choir.

Professor Margaret Anne O’Connor’s reflections about her first fifteen years at the University of North Carolina, and particularly of the challenges facing women, are preserved as Interview L-0031 in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, accessible online at UNC-CH Libraries.

 

Connie Eble

January 2022