When Dr. Francene Kirk talks about her upcoming multimedia research project focused on the societal messages women receive about what it means to be female, mainly in the years before 1972, you can hear the passion in her voice.
Kirk, Professor of Communication and Theatre in the School of Fine Arts at Fairmont State University, was awarded the Abelina Suarez Professorship in April 2013. Kirk, who came to Fairmont State University in 2000, teaches communication, puppetry, children’s theatre, creative drama and theatre education. She was previously honored for her work in Theatre Education by the City of Fairmont Arts and Humanities Commission. In 2008, she received the William A. Boram Award for Teaching Excellence.
The Abelina Suarez Professorship, the University’s highest faculty honor, includes an annual monetary prize to fund a research project of the recipient’s choice over a five-year period. Kirk’s project will contain interviews of women who went to high school before 1972 and where they received the information about their life and career choices.
“In my classes, my students will do the interviews and record them based on the class. In my acting classes, the interview assignment may result in a monologue. In my communications class, it could be a podcast. Five years down the road, I will have a project with all types of media. As a researcher, I don’t know what we will learn. What I know as a theatre artist is that the story will emerge. As a communications specialist, I know that themes will become apparent. This project is very important to me,” she said.
The Abelina Suarez Professorship recognizes extended and continued excellence by a member of the FSU faculty. A bequest by the estate of Abelina Suarez established the University’s first named professorship. Abelina Suarez, who was born in 1910 in Spain but grew up in Anmoore, W.Va., was the first woman to graduate from Ohio University in a field called German chemistry. She was a math and science teacher in Harrison County for more than 30 years. She attended Fairmont State Teachers College in the 1940s and also earned a master’s degree in education from West Virginia University. Through her generosity and foresight, Suarez designated a portion of her estate to support educational opportunities at Fairmont State. 2013 marks the third award of the professorship: the first recipient in 2002 was Dr. Judy P. Byers, Abelina Suarez Professor, Senior Level, of English and Folklore Studies, and the second in 2007 was Connie S. Moore, Abelina Suarez Professor, Senior Level, of Nursing.
Like the other two Suarez Professors before her, Kirk will carry the title in perpetuity and will present to the campus community a special lecture about her research project at the end of five years.
“When I was getting married, I asked my mother what she would have done with her life if she hadn’t married my father,” Kirk said. “She had not gone to college, and she did work as a secretary, but she told me she didn’t have the options I had. I thought she meant that she didn’t have the option to go to college. That wasn’t it. When she graduated from high school in 1959, women were teachers, nurses, secretaries or housewives. She didn’t have any other way of thinking. The culture she lived in didn’t give her the capacity to live any other kind of life.”
Kirk later discovered that he mother did, in fact, have the opportunity to go to college and had received a scholarship; however, her parents did not permit her to attend college.
“I asked my grandmother why my mother wasn’t allowed to go to college. She told me, ‘What if she quit college to get married? We would have been forced to pay back all that money.’ So, I asked her, ‘How much do you think you would have had to pay back?’ My grandmother had no idea. I said to her, ‘What if I told you it would have been $50 to $75 per semester?’ She was aghast. She had no frame of reference at all,” Kirk said.
Later, in a children’s drama class with all female students, Kirk says the topic of gender roles in literature came up.
“One student said, ‘I wish that we could go back to the gender roles of the 1950s.’ I asked her, ‘So, you would be happy with not being able to get a credit card in your name?’ She did not know that women had those types of restrictions in those days. All she wanted was to be able to stay home and raise her children,” Kirk said. “Deciding not to work outside of the home is a choice and not one available for many women in the 1950s culture.”
From the book, “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” by Gail Collins, a feature writer for the New York Times, Kirk learned about the progress of women from being silent partners behind the scenes to Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008.
She added that many people today believe that Title IX is amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act that allowed women to play sports. When it was enacted in 1972, it noted that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
“This meant that more women could attend graduate school, not just play sports. Before then, a woman could have the highest grades and still be denied entrance to medical school,” Kirk said.
Kirk earned her B.A. from Glenville State College and her master’s degree from West Virginia University. She received her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with content emphases in Theatre and English in 1998 from WVU.
When she was in graduate school, she read the book “The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” by Naomi Wolf.
“It was about how culture uses beauty to separate younger women from older women, calling older women hags and crones. Younger women don’t want to be associated with those negative terms. It causes them to lose the capacity to have the kind of mentor information from older women,” she said.
“I want my students to talk to adults. I want them to talk to their grandmothers or even to their grandfathers so that they will have a greater appreciation for the older generations.”
Kirk’s research also will follow the career choices of women today.
“Because women have so many choices today, they are overwhelmed with those options. They are confused, and the multitude of choices is almost as complicated as when my mother made them in the late 1950s,” she said.
Finding women to interview should not be a problem for Kirk and her students.
“I put out a call on Facebook and got replies from 35 women who want to be interviewed. One of the women I contacted grew up in Pocahontas County and now lives in Tennessee. She was a secretary in the White House for 30 years. Another woman is a storyteller who has a one-woman show. She said she was a typical 1950s housewife until she read ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ It changed her life. I want to have a variety and a diversity of women, although many of them will come from West Virginia,” she said.
A few years ago, Kirk conducted an undergraduate project with her students, interviewing those who lived in the area at the time of the Farmington Mine Disaster. The students wrote a play, bringing together all aspects of theatre—learning, research, playwriting, acting, production.
“My students told me they learned so much about plays, working as a group, and human behavior. I believe the same things will happen with my Suarez project,” she said.
Kirk said there was never any question that she wanted to be a teacher.
“My father was a teacher, and I started teaching when I was 22 years old. I spent one year at Hundred High School as an English, Theatre and Speech teacher. I had all the ninth graders, all the 11th graders for English—there were only two English teachers in the school—had theatre and speech and ran a study hall.”
She spent the next 15 years in Preston County schools, starting at the middle school and continuing teaching at the high school. She had English, Theatre and Communications classes, but the theatre classes grew so large that she was able to teach theater all day, every day.
“I really liked being a high school teacher,” she said. “People say to me that I must enjoy teaching college more than teaching high school, but I always say it’s just a different experience.”
After receiving her doctorate, Kirk spent two years as director of the state’s Fine Arts curriculum for the West Virginia Department of Education.
“I enjoyed the work, but it wasn’t teaching and didn’t satisfy me,” she said. “I firmly believe that we should have highly qualified high school teachers. Fairmont State University is unique in that we have a methods specialist for every content area of teaching. There are content specialists for each subject—math, English, every field of education. I am teaching methods classes in theatre and communication. I am able to help those studying education to become highly qualified in those fields. It’s important to me to be able to do that.”