A case of intellectual spousal abuse & setting the record straight

This is just the sort of thing I worry about when I see students looking starry-eyed at father figures that are teaching their classes.  From the NY Times:

Dorothy Jane Mills was supposed to feel honored last Monday when the Society for American Baseball Research included her husband, Dr. Harold Seymour, in the inaugural class of the organization’s new de facto Hall of Fame. She was supposed to feel thankful that her assistance with Seymour’s seminal three-volume history of baseball, published sequentially from 1960 through 1990, would be acknowledged during his induction.

But Mills felt neither honored nor thankful. Instead, resentment that had percolated within her for 50 years — over how she had, in fact, co-written those books but received no credit — boiled over into heated discussions of historical record, academic honesty and what can best be described as intellectual spousal abuse.

The controversy ended Wednesday with the organization, known as SABR (pronounced say-ber), telling Mills that she would be honored equally with Seymour. But only after she had relived a time in her life she can forgive even less than forget.

How did this happen?

“Everyone assumed that he had done all that work by himself — that’s what he wanted them to assume, but we were equal partners,” said Mills, 81, working on her 26th book at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. “All these things were done jointly. He just couldn’t share credit. And I didn’t say anything at the time, because at the time, wives just didn’t do that.”

At another point she says she felt comfortable with her role, a statement somewhat at odds with the idea that resentment percolated for 50 years.

One thing that is worth wondering about is how often this sort of thing has happened.  And does it continue today?

13 thoughts on “A case of intellectual spousal abuse & setting the record straight

  1. That’s horrible for Mills, but I don’t understand what it has to do with “students looking starry-eyed at the father figures who are teaching their classes”. Could you explain?

  2. Good question, RB. I assume, based in part on my own experience, that it is hard to get an accurate picture of people in positions of authority over one, who have with lots or credentials, etc. I suspect that we can also find we’re very glad to be helpful to these august people, and make unusual sacrifices for them. I thought there was some sign such considerations were working in Mills case from the following quote:

    Dorothy Zander [Mills] grew up in Cleveland during the 1930s and ’40s wanting to become a writer, and while an English major at Fenn College — now Cleveland State University — worked for The Cleveland News as a copy boy. (“Not a copy girl, a copy boy,” she repeated curtly.) She volunteered to help her American history professor, Harold Seymour, type his lectures; she found they needed more than typing, and told him so.

    They fell in love and married, and she became his primary research assistant for his Cornell doctoral dissertation on baseball history — reading through old newspapers at The Sporting News offices in St. Louis and scrolling through microfilm at the New York Public Library.

    It appears that she volunteered to be his secretary without a salary pretty early on, it seems. Even in those days women didn’t just volunteer to turn over their free time to just anyone’s work. So she may well have had an idealized view of him.

    Is this still going on? I worry that it is, and read occasionally about young women falling in love with the father figures in college, though of course such things can be misinterpreted.

  3. According to her own website, her professor was married and immediately after his divorce from his wife, he married Dorothy Zander (now Mills). I can’t figure out whether this Harold guy was a prick (she does not sound like she had a loving relationship with him, but then again, she sounded like she knew what she wanted at a young age, and went after it), or she was just a little less overbearing than he was. She has campaigned, it seems since his death in 1992 to get credit for writing his third book and others, I would have to know more about her father figure issues and how he may have used her and her potential to assist in his research. If she respected him at all, she would have done it for love and not even wanted or demanded credit over the years. She needs to stop going by his name, she is remarried for God’s sakes and she only appears, imo, to be using his name when it is to her advantage. That’s just b.s., imo.

  4. Amy, I realized on reading your comment that I should have been much more careful, not least because I don’t really buy into much of the theoretical structures that tend typically to provide a background to “father figure.” He was for starters a dominant male from her point of view. And perhaps she did hit on him, in a very 50’s fashion. There is still the question of why she found him worth such effort and sacrifice, and I suspect it was because of a kind of idealizing that we can do – or used to do – with accomplished people who have power over us, as professors do.

    I’m not sure of your comment that if she respected him, she should have done it for love and not demanded recognition. It’s not a good idea to allow people to plagarize one’s work, however much one loves them.

    I might also say that I can feel some empathy for her with her claim that she just did what wives did and wouldn’t complain at the time. It might even be at the start that getting her name on a book did not signified much of a womanly accomplishment.

  5. I often read the acknowledgements sections of books with an eye for this. Some come close to giving co-authorship credit in the acknowledgements but with no actual coauthorship on the cover of the book. “To Mildred who not only took care of the children, cooked meals and kept house while I worked on this book but also typed all of the drafts of the manuscript, corrected large numbers of all sorts of errors, argued with me through the night about some of the ideas in the book, and redrafted sections where she thought I needed her help. Without her help and guidance this book would have never been possible.”

  6. One thing that is worth wondering about is how often this sort of thing has happened. And does it continue today?

    Anecdotally, my boyfriend is a professor (not my professor, just “a” professor =) ) and he is scrupulous in giving me creadit even in casual conversation about his research that we may have chatted about and I made a comment he found useful. He doesn’t cite me in his papers, but then I don’t do that amount of work for him – we just talk and share in a general couples way, and he still sees fit to make sure his ego is never ever fed at my expense.

    My ex husband on the other hand used to tell my jokes (unattributed) sings songs I’ve written (claiming authorship), repeat my opinions (as authoritatively his own)… You get the picture. He wasn’t an academic, just a bloke, but importantly, he was also an abuser.

    Abusers will use whatever leverage they can get over their victims. If they happen to be academics or artists and their victims happen to be in a similar discipline, then intellectual theft is often the tool of choice: Rodin and Camille Claudel come to mind, as well as the Mahlers. This is not to say that I can authoritatively diagnose the relationship between Mills & Seymour as abusive, because I can’t. All I’m saying is that this is a totally separate question from gazing starry eyed at male authority figures, because luckily for us quite a lot of those are actually nice men and not potential abusers! =)

  7. The Lady, nice issues! My sense from your comments is that your boyfriend probably gets a lot from you, and it’s terrific that he can fully recognize that publicly.

    You do raise a question that I hadn’t really done into – the character of the professors. I do think that there is or has been a tendency for some young women to idealize older male professors, supposing that the profs don’t make their less desirable characteristics knowable in advance. But that makes one vulnerable, and the proportion of “users” does not have to be very high for that to be a worrying situation.

  8. I would have to read Mrs. Mills’s book A WOMAN’S WORK to see what friends if any, DURINGthe marriage to Seymour allegedly knew about all this. I just found it highly suspect she wouldn’t even share this with friends when he had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. You would have to know the lady to come up with a better idea of who is who and what is what. That he was a prick, is no doubt. She immediately found love within 10 months of having become a widow;good for her. I just t hink that there was intent on both sides of the aisle here and although I empathize with her, this sounded more like a vendetta against someone she never cared about, just my opinion, I may be wrong. I have had a chance to meet her and her story, to me, is fascinating. I think it merits looking into and uncovering every truth. Since we only know her side, let’s hear it all. Can’t wait~! :-)

  9. JJ, thanks for clarifying. I see your point about how charisma + authority gives people a kind of power that they might abuse if they’re unscrupulous.

    I… read occasionally about young women falling in love with the father figures in college, though of course such things can be misinterpreted.

    It somehow bugs me that when describing relationships between female students and male professors, people are so quick to conflate admiration, romantic interest, and willingness to edit the professor’s manuscript without pay or credit (and probably fetch them coffee while doing it). I realize that the students who are most vulnerable to exploitation probably conflate those things too. If I’m right, then the conflated descriptions are descriptively accurate but pragmatically worrisome insofar as they spread a harmful kind of confusion.

  10. RB, Yikes: I reread your comments and now I’m going to redo this comment, because I don’t think you were saying we are conflating them.

    Let me just reiterate that it’s important that we do not think that all relations between profs and students are suspect and exploitative.

    I just realized that’s an interesting simlarity to what I was concerned with an a recent movie.

    The film “The Education” explores this theme in a non-academic context. Blinded by a somewhat older man’s seeming upper class signals, a young woman gets involved in a pretty seamy side of early 60’s London life and just discards the promising future she was set for. In addition, her parents are also taken in, and, as apparently the author of the story (it was heavily biographical) says, practically sold her to him.

  11. JJ, I missed the original reply, but no, I don’t think you were making the conflation I was complaining about. (I was actually thinking of some icky conversations I had with fellow undergrads, as an undergrad, and probably generalizing way too quickly from my anecdata!) Sorry for not being clearer as to what I was talking about.

    The film “The Education” explores this theme in a non-academic context.

    I saw that film; I thought it captured that particular relationship dynamic very well. (It was also one of those movies that made me want to rudely stand up and yell advice at the characters.)

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