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Janet Spector

Family Photo, Star Tribune

Prof. Janet Spector, pioneering scholar at U

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • October 2, 2011 - 12:15 PM

Janet Spector began her 25-year career at the University of Minnesota in 1973, a tumultuous time in academia. History, sociology and other disciplines were cracking open their doors to women's long-left-out perspectives, and female scholars were standing up for their work against considerable pushback.

With a fine blend of energetic curiosity, intellectual firepower and personal charm, Spector not only contributed significantly to the field of American archaeology, but also helped pave the way for other female scholars, according to colleagues and friends.

The pioneering associate professor emerita, who retired from the U in 1998, died of breast cancer Sept. 13 at her home in Albuquerque, N.M. She was 66.

Spector combined "a keen intellect that always got right to the heart of the matter" with "an amazing reservoir of good will," said Mary Jo Kane, a professor in the U's College of Education and Human Development. "She had enormous integrity in all aspects of her life, professional and personal."

Spector, an associate professor in the U's Anthropology Department,  was among the first archaeologists to consult with native people about the use and meaning of objects coming out of the ground, said Riv-Ellen Prell, a professor in the U's American Studies Department.

In Spector's 1993 book "What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village," published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, she told of how, as a child, curiosity about the lives of others led her to rummage in neighbors' trash cans. She imagines what the awl's handler might have used it for and what that said about Dakota life in the 1830s, finding "in physical remains ways to talk about relationships between men and women and the place of women in ancient cultures," Prell said.

Spector was born in Madison, Wis., and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, according to her longtime friend Barbara Noble. While researching ancient seeds, work that led to her master's degree in 1970, she took a break from grad school to work in the feminist and antiwar movements.

Sara Evans, now a U regents professor emerita, arrived at the U in 1976 and joined Spector on a committee overseeing fledgling women's studies. "Janet was a charismatic and dynamic, warm and welcoming figure," she said. "We had lots of debates in those early years about what we were doing. She was crystal clear -- we were looking at everything through the eyes of women, a perspective not embedded in any of our disciplines. Janet was one of the people who understood early on that we are engaged in an intellectual revolution."

Spector became one of the founders of what is now the U's Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, serving as its chair from 1981 to 1984, Noble said. In 1986, she received the U's highest teaching honor, the Horace Morse-Amoco Award. In 1988, she became special assistant to the vice president for academic affairs, and in 1992 was promoted to assistant provost, a role in which she chaired the U's Commission on Women.

"She was outstanding in every part of academic life, a fine and very original and creative scholar, a truly gifted teacher and visionary leader, who ignited a spark in us to bring about change," Prell said.

"Janet was a lot of fun, very thoughtful and kind," said Kathleen O'Malley, an Albuquerque psychotherapist who was her partner of nine years. "She provided a very steady presence for me and others. ... If you were in need, she was there to help."

In addition to O'Malley, her survivors include a brother, Robert Spector, of Madison. Private services will be held Oct. 9 in Minnesota and Oct. 14 in New Mexico.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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