- Pioneer in field of Women’s Studies
- Developed and taught the first academic course for one of the first University Women’s Studies programs in the country
- Worked tirelessly on committee to formulate a Women’s Studies major
- Speaker and Consultant for HeadStart Teacher Training programs in Lawrence
- Speaker and Consultant to the Shawnee County Battered Women’s Task Force
Muriel Johnson, University of Kansas professor, was a pioneer in the field of Women’s Studies. She developed and taught the first academic course on the subject for one of the first University Women’s Studies programs in the country. Active inside the University structure as well in the outside community, she worked tirelessly to promote women and the idea that their history was worthy of academic study.
Dr. Johnson began her work in developing women’s academic programs in the Fall of 1959, when she developed a course entitled “Women in Contemporary Culture.” This course was offered for the first time in the Spring 1960 semester. As Dr. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell explained, placing this course in the context of the beginnings of the women’s movement helps to illustrate just how unprecedented the course was. The course preceded the President’s Commission on the Status of Women named by President Kennedy after Esther Peterson, head of the Women’s Bureau in the Labor Department, published her historic report, American Women, in 1963. Betty Friedan’s seminal work Feminine Mystique was also not published until 1963. Dr. Johnson was years ahead of nearly everyone else in recognizing the problems women uniquely faced and in realizing the lives of women needed to be studied by scholars and discussed in classes.
After many of the February Sisters took her class and were enlightened even further, they went on to press the KU Administration to further promote women and women’s issues. After the first course was approved, the Administration formed a committee to develop one of the first Women’s Studies programs in the United States. Dr. Johnson worked tirelessly on that committee to formulate a Women’s Studies major, which was approved by the Board of Regents in 1977.
Dr. Johnson’s research and teaching interests focused on a broad range of women’s issues. She continually focused her energy on cross-cultural issues involving women in Third World countries, and particularly Black urban culture. She also extensively investigated the aging process, and how that process affects women in the United States and cross-culturally. She taught many courses on these subjects which were cross-listed with the Women’s Studies Programs. One student described her effective instruction: “Something I found helpful and beneficial to our class was her open honesty and self-disclosure about her own experiences in life. Those insights and reflections added a dimension to our class that can sometimes be missing in a large university.”
As Carol Coburn describes, Dr. Johnson was active in promoting change at the University, but her efforts extended far outside that system to the Lawrence and Topeka communities. She served as a consultant and speaker for HeadStart Teacher Training programs in Lawrence. In Topeka, she extensively devoted time as a speaker and consultant to the Shawnee County Battered Women’s Task Force; this work included a media presentation on battered women shown on all three Topeka television stations and to fifty civic organizations.
Dr. Johnson was most definitely ahead of her time, and we can thank her for contributing so much to the rich history of recognizing and studying women at the University of Kansas.