The Achievement Award Series: Gwendolen Carter
When asked what first sparked her interest in Africa, political scientist and 1962 AAUW Achievement Award recipient Gwendolen Carter stated, “That’s very simple; I went.” Born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1906, Carter suffered from polio as a child, which left her without the use of her legs. However, she did not allow the debilitating effects of the disease to control how she lived her life. While many women of her generation focused on getting married and raising children early on, Carter prioritized her academic interests. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Toronto, Carter went on to receive her master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1943, Carter became a professor of political science at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. “I think that there is a special role for women scholars in our society,” said Carter, reflecting on the importance of women’s presence in academia. “They have, at their best, a sensitivity, combined with a sharpness of perception that is distinctive.”
Until her first visit to Africa in 1948, Carter’s work primarily focused on European state governance. But during her time in Africa, which coincided with the independence of many African nations from European rule, Carter became fascinated with how, as she described it, the “new African states seek unity and economic development in the face of marked ethnic and linguistic divisions.”
During her subsequent visits to the continent, Carter observed and completed research projects about how citizens of the newly formed nations were eager to break down barriers between African states while also maintaining their unique national identities. Additionally, Carter led student tours of Africa to introduce the younger generation to the political dynamics of the complex African states and ignite the same passion in others as she had for the places and people there.
Instead of limiting the scope of her teachings to a couple of classes, Carter, along with Melville Herskovits — a professor of African affairs at Northwestern University in Chicago — pioneered the first African studies program in the United States at Northwestern University in 1948. Today, this field of study has evolved from being active on just one campus to being a thriving program that’s offered at more than 300 colleges and universities across the country.
In response to being chosen as the 1962 AAUW Achievement Award recipient, Carter remarked, “When one is more aware, as I am, of what one has not achieved, than of what one has achieved, it is a humbling as well as a moving experience to be signaled out for an award such as this.”
This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Jordan Brunson.
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