Barbara Gates discussed her intellectual journey during a University of Delaware Association of Retired Faculty gathering on April 7.

Intellectual journey

Barbara Gates recalls how fellowship led to career as teacher and researcher


10:25 a.m., April 15, 2016--From a childhood which included living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house to a more than three decades-long career as a respected teacher and author, Barbara Gates has always enjoyed a love affair with words and the natural world.

Gates, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emerita of English and women’s studies, shared her story during a My Intellectual Journey talk to members of the University of Delaware Association of Retired Faculty held Tuesday, April 7, in the Courtyard Newark-University of Delaware campus hotel.

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“Approaching one’s own life is really a strange thing,” Gates said. “I’ve been trying to find a pathway to do this, and I was thinking of my dad, who was a newspaper guy.” 

Her father started work very early most days, and he was home early, too, Gates recalled, and after work he would take her around where they lived and also to the zoo, where he would tell her the names of the animals they saw.

“That experience was the pathway to my life,” Gates said. “I love words and that feeling has stayed with me all my life.” 

Gates, who recalled learning to read via the Dick and Jane series, attended a three-room schoolhouse when the family moved to the greater Chicago area. 

“The best part of that year was living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” Gates said. “It was not Falling Water, but there was a big forest on one side of the house, a forest in the back, and on one side there was a stream.”

Given the freedom to play where she liked, Gates enjoyed wading in that stream and picking up crawfish to see if there were eggs crawling around under their tails.

“Of all these thing, nature was deeply ingrained in that house,” Gates recalled. “I cried very hard when we left there.” 

Introduced to the works of William Shakespeare while a high school student, Gates had the opportunity to read the great works of literature during what might now be called an honors program English class.

“The class was world literature, and we studied many authors, including Goethe and Dumas,” Gates said. “I loved it.” 

At the same school, pupils went around with a report card and each teacher entered a grade. Gates said she received a mark of 100 from the teacher of her world literature class.

“Next, I went to the Latin teacher, who saw the grade and looked at me and said, ‘There is no 100 for any grade in the humanities,’” Gates said. “The reason, the Latin teacher explained, is that everybody looks at things in different ways. It was something I never forgot.”

Switching from journalism to an English and history major, Gates graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Northwestern University in 1958 and a received a master’s degree from UD in 1961. 

During this same time, Gates worked at radio station WTUX-AM in Wilmington, while her husband worked at DuPont. 

Taking advantage of a Danforth Fellowship, Gates earned a doctorate in 1971 from Bryn Mawr College, the same year she arrived as an assistant professor of English at UD. 

“I got through graduate school in four years. I took my kids to nursery school, worked like crazy for three hours, picked them up again, went home, did all the housework and the grocery shopping and made dinner for everybody,” Gates said. “About 7:30 to 8, the kids went to bed and I hit the books till about 12:30, got up the next day and did it again — for four years.”

Looking for a job, Gates was fortunate enough to get interviews at UD and the University of Pennsylvania. 

“Charles Bohner was chair of the English department at that time,” Gates said. “He wrote down a job offer and said it was good for one week. I said I would have to think about it. I did, and I took it.” 

About two months after starting at UD, Gates was approached by Bohner to consider teaching a course in women’s studies. 

“By accepting this, I met some wonderful people with whom I am still friends today,” Gates said. “One of these persons was Sally Bould (professor emerita of sociology), and we taught a course on Bleak House in London.”

The 1992 recipient of the E. Arthur Trabant Award for Promoting Equity at UD, Gates also served as director of women’s studies at UD and was director of the London Program of the University of Delaware.

Books by Gates include Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories, published by Princeton University Press, 1988; Critical Essays on Charlotte Bronte, published by G.K. Hall in 1989; and Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

“The University of Delaware was a great place to work,” Gates said. “I have many people to thank for that.” 

Article by Jerry Rhodes

Photo by Wenbo Fan

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