Dorothy Bruce Weske: Academia and Motherhood in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Dorothy Bruce Weske: Academia and Motherhood in the Mid-Twentieth Century

In 1934, in her mid-thirties and single, Dorothy Bruce defended her dissertation at Radcliffe College on thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Convocations, a name given to a category of English church councils. In 1937, her work, Convocation of the Clergy: A Study of its Antecedents and its Rise with Special Emphasis upon its Growth and Activities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, was published.1 This period of her life was not only prolific professionally but personally. During this three-year gap, she married John Weske, a native of Germany, moved from Massachusetts to Ohio with him, and gave birth to their son. Eventually, she taught at a local university and then various private schools as they moved around the country.2

There were only two reviews of Weske’s opus, and both were by American scholars of medieval history. The first review, which appeared in the American Historical Review in 1938, was by William Lunt, a professor at Haverford and well known by his contemporaries in medieval European history for his painstaking analysis on medieval papal finances. He refers to Weske as “Dr. Weske” and “Mrs. Weske,” and allows that there are some issues in her work, but praises her scholarship as thorough, necessary, and an excellent contribution to the field.3

The other, published in 1940 in Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America, was written by E.B. Graves, a medievalist at Hamilton College. Graves refers to Weske only as “Mrs. Weske,” and her reliance on outdated calendars and typos in her footnotes left the reviewer despairing that Weske’s work “does not construct a sound groundwork on which other studies may be based.”4 The overall message of the second review was that the book could have been great, but did not live up to its potential.

How many scholars have dismissed Weske’s monograph because of Graves’s review, even though Lunt, another medievalist, recognized its worth? Even though Graves and Lunt had similar credentials, most readers who would refer to Weske’s book would be more apt to trust the review in the elite Speculum than one written for the more general audience of the American Historical Review. Google Scholar — albeit an imperfect research tool but it provides us with a base upon which to start — has the work cited in only thirteen studies since 1937. It seems that Graves’s review might have sunk Weske’s work.

My own thesis on late medieval English Convocation was a ten year project, broken up by the birth of my three daughters and various moves. When I started researching my subject, I read not only Weske’s work, but also the reviews. At the time, I was engaged to be married and childless. I perceived the second reviewer to be snarky, but other than noting what he saw as deficiencies, his words did not weigh heavily with me. Weske’s book was an important introduction to the subject and helped me identify paths to take and important themes to analyze.

When I finished my project, a decade had passed, and I was married and in my mid-thirties. I left my husband and three small children at home while I traveled to my dissertation defense. Alone in my hotel room, I became curious and googled Weske. I knew, roughly, that she hadn’t “done much” with the rest of her life. When I thought of the luminaries of twentieth-century scholarship on late medieval England, she did not come to mind, and I knew that few others even recognized her name.

But was that all there was? Her work was good. Her scholarship largely sound. In about an hour, I had come up with a rough summary of her life. Attended Radcliffe. Defended. Married. Moved to Ohio. Child. Teacher. Long-term member of the Medieval Academy of America. Several moves to various states, most following her husband as he switched jobs.

On the surface, that was it. Weske never published another large study, which, to most academics, meant she disappeared. She had failed. Was Weske satisfied? Had she done all she set out to do? It is, of course, impossible to determine, but her behavior in the 1950s and 1960s may indicate what was lacking in Weske’s academic life: encouragement.

Approximately fifteen years after defending, Weske’s scholarly life began to pick up speed. Between 1950 and 1969, Weske reviewed ten works for Speculum, the peer-reviewed journal of the Medieval Academy of America (and the same journal that had published Graves’s unflattering review of her own work) and one for the American Archivist, another peer-reviewed journal.

She had one review almost for every year in the 1960s, including one of a work by Lunt, her more positive reviewer. Her reviews were often of critical editions of sources for medieval England, such as ecclesiastical or political memoranda.5 How can we account for this flurry of activity and sudden reappearance in the academic field? For Weske, it might have been the friendship with a female medievalist — one whose name is writ large in academic circles — that brought on this rebirth.

Helen Maud Cam, the first woman tenured at Harvard. (Schlesinger Library)
Helen Maud Cam, the first woman tenured at Harvard. (Schlesinger Library)

In 1948, Helen Maud Cam was appointed to the Zemurray Radcliffe Professorship at Harvard. She stayed there until her retirement in 1954. She refused to take on committee work and, instead, focused on teaching and her research. She even created what were termed “grandmother classes” for mature female students at Radcliffe.6

In 1950, Weske was living in Rhode Island, approximately seventy miles from Cambridge. It is possible that the two met at a social gathering, or perhaps Cam was familiar with Weske’s work. What we do know is that at this juncture, the two began to communicate.

In 1975, Weske donated materials to the Helen Maud Cam collection at Harvard University. The earliest pieces are printed materials from 1948, most likely announcements of Cam’s appointment to the Zemurray Chair at Weske’s alma mater, but, beginning in 1953 and until Cam’s death in 1968, the two exchanged personal letters and postcards that cover a myriad of topics from medieval monasteries to gardening.7

It seems that a friendship developed between the two and Weske, who had already dipped her toe back into the academic world with a review in Speculum in 1950, became more confident of what she had to offer the scholarly world. Weske’s last review for Speculum came out in 1969, the year after Cam died. Weske, herself, passed away in 1988.

There is nothing in the record to demonstrate that leaving academia was not Weske’s decision. The record is silent. But on viewing her life from what is largely a collection of snapshots, I find myself imposing my own narrative. My own desires and fears. I have completed my dissertation. I teach at an independent school. I have followed my husband as he changed jobs. I have children. Is there a way to straddle the divide between the two worlds?

In the mid-twentieth century, balancing academia and motherhood could not have been easy. Yet it seems that the encouragement of a woman like Cam, who was single and, yet, aware of the challenges that faced women in academia, may have helped to present Weske more opportunities and encouragement. Surely this is a lesson that is still applicable today, as studies demonstrate that motherhood is one of the greatest hurdles to women in academia securing tenure.8 Would that all mothers in academia be so lucky to have their own Helen Maud Cam!


  1. Dorothy Bruce Weske, Convocation of the Clergy; a Study of Its Antecedents and Its Rise, with Special Emphasis upon Its Growth and Activities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1937). Return to text.
  2. “Obituary: Dorothy Bruce Weske,” Washington Post, March 11, 1988. Return to text.
  3. W. E. Lunt The American Historical Review 43:4 (1938): 841-42. Return to text.
  4. E. B. Graves, “Convocation of the Clergy: A Study of Its Antecedents and Its Rise with Special Emphasis upon Its Growth and Activities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. D. B. Weske.” Speculum 15:4 (1940): 511-513. Return to text.
  5. Dorothy Bruce Weske, “The Rolls and Register of Bishop Oliver Sutton, 1280-1299. Rosalind M. T. Hill,” Speculum 25:2 (April 1950): 273-274; ibid., “Archbishop Pecham. Decima L. Douie,” Speculum 31:3 (July 1956): 504-506; ibid., “York Metropolitan Jurisdiction and Papal Judges Delegate. Robert Brentano,” Speculum 35:2 (April 1960): 291-293; ibid., “The Register of Thomas Langley, Bishop of Durham 1406-1437. R. L. Storey,” Speculum 1/1/1963, Vol. 38:1 (Jan. 1963): 155-157; ibid., “Financial Relations of the Papacy with England 1327-1534. William E. Lunt,” Speculum, 1/1/1964, 39:1 (Jan. 1964): 183-185; ibid., “The Trial of Walter Langton, Bishop of Lichfield, 1307-1312. Alice Beardwood,” Speculum 40:3 (July 1965): 508-509; ibid., “The Letter-Book of William of Hoo Sacrist of Bury St. Edmunds, 1280-1294. Antonia Gransden,” Speculum 40:4 (Oct. 1965): 707-709; ibid., “Perpetual Chantries in Britain. K. L. Wood-Legh,” Speculum 42:4 (Oct. 1967): 768-769: ibid., “William Courtenay, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1381-1396. Joseph Dahmus,” Speculum 43:3 (July 1968): 501-503; ibid., “Accounts Rendered by Papal Collectors in England, 1317-1378. William E. Lunt,” Speculum 44:3 (July 1969): 477-478; ibid., “Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls Preserved Among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guild Hall, A.D. 1437-1457. Philip E. Jones,” American Archivist (1954): 373-374. Return to text.
  6. Euan Taylor and Gina Weaver, “Helen Cam (1885-1968): Charting the Evolution of Medieval Institutions” in Medieval Women and the Academy, ed. Jane Chance (Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 266-7. Return to text.
  7. For more on the collection, see: Helen Maud Cam Papers, 1928-1968, MC 199, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, accessed 20 October 2016. Return to text.
  8. Mary Dillard, “Motherhood in the US AcademyAmerican Association of University Professors, January/February 2014, accessed October 21, 2016. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Photo of a woman with her baby at work, 1982. (Freda Leinwand/Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute)

Elizabeth earned her doctorate in medieval history from Fordham University in 2016. She is a producer and contributor for the podcast series Footnoting History. Elizabeth also serves on advisory boards for her local city government. Her current projects include revising her dissertation for publication and a case-study on academia and motherhood in mid-20th century United States. She teaches history at an independent school in Atlanta, GA, near where she lives with her husband and three daughters.

5 thoughts on “Dorothy Bruce Weske: Academia and Motherhood in the Mid-Twentieth Century

    • Author gravatar

      Thank you so much for writing this lovely essay. I feel like we should all raise a glass to Dorothy Bruce Weske and all of the other academic mamas of the past.

    • Author gravatar

      I really appreciate your approach to this story. I am an independent scholar and at-home parent due to vagaries of health and family life, and I am not producing a typical academic “output.” It’s probably true that the encouragement/pressure of going for tenure would have pulled a second book out of me by now, had I been in a tenure-track position. On the other hand, I have gotten to choose projects (such as writing for Nursing Clio) based on my personal evaluation of how and where I wanted to share my work, rather than based on how it would boost my CV. I also can take the time to read what I want to read, and pursue questions even when they won’t necessarily lead to written output. I’ve spent a lot more unpressured time with my family than I would have if I had a tenure-track position. I am ambivalent about my route (as are many of my friends in more standard academic positions), but I don’t regret it. I think we could use more robust narratives of “alternate” post-Ph.D. paths, and I really like that you took a thoughtful historical look at one woman’s path.

      • Author gravatar

        Thank you! I think this balance is something we all struggle with and that it can be compounded by the feeling that we have somehow not lived up to our potential because we don’t hold (or desire in some cases) tenured positions. I enjoy teaching secondary school as well as researching, but what really appeals to me about my alternate path is that I’m not tied to “publish or perish” and can pursue these topics or questions that interest me without that added pressure while also having family time and volunteering. We need to re-write the narrative on post-Ph.D. paths and the “end goal.”

    • Author gravatar

      I have e-mailed you separately. She was my great-great aunt, and I knew her quite well. She had an undergrad degree from Wellesley, I believe, and she and her sister Kathleen both had doctorates in history from Harvard.

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