Mary Dillard

Director, Graduate Program in Women’s History

on leave fall semester

BA, Stanford University. MA, PhD, University of California-Los Angeles. Special interests include history of West Africa, particularly Ghana and Nigeria; history of intelligence testing and external examinations in Africa; history of science in Africa; and gender and education. Recipient of a Spencer fellowship and Major Cultures fellowship at Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. SLC, 2001–

Undergraduate Courses 2020-2021


Gendered Histories of Sickness and Health in Africa

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

How does an individual’s gender expression determine how s/he or they receive health care in Africa? In what ways does gender influence who provides health care, the kind of care that they offer, or the social determinants of peoples’ health? In the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries, African citizens, refugees, and internally displaced persons have had to cope with a range of health care challenges. These include: high levels of disability as a result of car accidents and work-related injuries; disruptions to health care services and food provision stemming from war or political unrest; lack of supplies and access to quality care resulting from neoliberal economic policies; and, most recently, the challenges of food insecurity due to seasonal locust infestations. These concerns paint a bleak picture of the status of health and health care provision in Africa. Epidemics like ebola and cholera complicate conditions for people seeking to improve the quality of their health. In addition, pandemics like HIV/AIDS and now COVID-19 have transformed demographics and gender relations in both predictable and unexpected ways. Despite these challenges, millions of African men, women, and children find ways to survive and respond creatively in order to address their needs for health and wellbeing. This class is organized around the understanding that the idea of “good health” is a useful critical lens through which to analyze gender-related questions. How do women, men, and LGBTQ+ individuals organize, navigate, and seek care in order to attain good health? What historical, political, and economic factors influence the provision of quality health care? How have African citizens, governments, faith communities, activists, and indigenous healers responded to the challenges associated with disease and the goal of maintaining good health? Because the African continent is massive and every country is complex and diverse, this class will use case studies from countries like Rwanda, South Africa, Nigeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, and Kenya to answer these questions. In addition, students will be able to choose other African countries to study in depth in order to gain as broad a picture as possible of this complex and important topic. While we will primarily focus our inquiries by using historical works, we will actively monitor innovations in African countries resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic with the goal of developing a deeper understanding of what it takes to maintain a sense of “good health” in Africa.


Previous Courses

Public Stories, Private Lives: Theories and Methods of Oral History

Advanced , Seminar—Fall

The goal of this class is to introduce students to the best practices of oral-history interviewing, theory, and methodology. Oral-history methodology has moved from being a contested approach to studying history to becoming an integral method for learning about the past. Around the world, oral history has been used to uncover the perspectives of marginalized groups (women, ethnic minorities, workers, LGBTQI communities) and to challenge “official” historical narratives. It is now a mainstay of social history, helping researchers uncover voices that might otherwise be marginalized or ignored. In this regard, oral history has become one of the most important methods in a historian’s toolkit. Life histories enable us to focus on individual experiences and consider the historical significance of one person’s life. Long used by anthropologists and sociologists, life-history methods continue to be rediscovered by historians seeking to enrich their understandings of the past. Conducting oral-history or life-history research entails more than listening to someone talk and recording what he or she has to say. Researchers must approach their work with knowledge, rigor, respect, and compassion for their research subjects. Toward the goal of developing those skills, this class will focus on several contentious questions associated with oral history. Questions that we will ask include: Is there a feminist oral history that is different from other kinds of historical inquiry? What is the role of memory? What is the role of intersubjectivity, and how much does the researcher influence the interview process? How should researchers catalogue and make their work accessible? Are there ethical considerations to doing oral-history or life-history research, and are they different from other types of historical methodologies? How have social-media and digital technologies changed the practice of oral history, and what ethical/methodological questions do those technologies raise?

Related Disciplines

Thesis Seminar in Women’s and Gender History

Graduate Seminar—Year

Core class required of women’s history graduate students in the two-year program. Open only to students in their thesis year.

This yearlong course is designed for students who are writing MA theses in women’s and gender history. We will discuss the historiographical dimensions of thesis work; assess various research methods, interpretive models, and theories of history; and grapple with practical questions about writing and documentation. Readings include historical with scholarship, theoretical works, and research guides. At critical junctures, students will also read and evaluate each other’s work.


Gender, History, and Memory: Diasporic Voices in Oral History

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

This course introduces students to the best practices of oral history by analyzing the works of women who have been historically marginalized. We will focus on the stories of African, African American, and Caribbean women, while studying ongoing debates in the field of oral history. By using ethnographies, life histories, oral histories, biographies, and autobiographies, we will answer the following questions: How can oral history be used to provide a more inclusive rendering of the past? How have women used various forms of voice to represent themselves and tell their own stories? What are the limitations of any historical research method (including oral history), and what are the ethical implications of both the digital revolution and the digital divide for oral historians? For the purposes of this class, “memory” will be defined broadly to include not only the mental recall that people utilize when responding to interview questions but also hidden, political, and public memories.

Related Disciplines

History Matters: Advanced Work in the Practical Application of Historical Knowledge of Women and Gender

Graduate Seminar—Summer

Core class required of all women’s history graduate students finishing the accelerated track.

This course combines an intensive one-week seminar with independent study culminating in the capstone paper.


Usable Past

Graduate Seminar—Summer

Core class required of all first-year women’s history graduate students in the accelerated track.

This intensive seminar is designed for students and practitioners who seek to apply historical knowledge to issues of gender policy and advocacy. Readings, discussions, and a wide range of guest speakers will address policy initiatives and advocacy projects that make impacts on women’s lives on local, national, and international levels. Students will acquire skills and knowledge essential to careers in public service, NGOs, and elsewhere in the nonprofit sector.


Ideas of Africa: Africa Writes Back

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

The continent of Africa has variously been described as the birthplace of humanity, the “Motherland,” a country, a continent, “Mother Africa,” and a “heart of darkness.” All of these descriptions reflect representations of Africa, but how accurately do they reflect reality? The goal of this class is to study the intellectual history of what we know—or think we know—about modern Africa. Why is it that some of the most prominent images of Africa today are either negative (e.g., Africa as a diseased, hungry, war-ravaged continent) or romanticized (e.g., Africa as a mother figure, birthplace of civilization, or lush nature preserve)? A central theme of our discussions will be that ideas have a history that is as powerful as radioactive isotopes. In other words, ideas maintain a shelf life even when their origins have long become obscured. Unfortunately, this has profound implications for Africa’s place in a modern, globalized world where image can be as important as reality. Through the use of historical documents, political manifestos, philosophical treatises, travel narratives, current news sources, and blogs, we will study how the image of Africa has changed over time. We will trace the “heart of darkness” narrative and analyze why it has become such an enduring trope of modern Africa. Ultimately, our purpose will be to interrogate various descriptions of Africa over time and analyze where they originated from, why they exist, and whether they are accurate.