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Celebrating Rae Moses, Champion of Gender Equality

Co-founder of women’s studies program, Women’s Residential College dies Feb. 7

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February 14, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold
Rae Moses
Rae Moses

EVANSTON, Ill. --- “Kind, smart, sassy and full of life” is the way Rajka Smiljanic remembers Rae Moses, founding member of Northwestern University’s linguistics department and co-founder of its women’s studies program. Moses died Thursday, Feb. 7. She was married to Leon Moses, emeritus professor of economics at Northwestern.

An award-winning teacher, Moses pioneered classes in language and gender, language and prejudice, and language and medicine. She joined the Northwestern faculty in 1966, serving as assistant dean of Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences from 1968 to 1976. She co-founded the women’s studies program (now the gender and sexuality studies program) with the late Professor Arlene Daniels, and served as its first director from its creation in 1986 until 1991.

“Rae was a gem who for nearly four decades humanized the university in ways that few people can or do,” said Judith Levi, associate professor emeritus of linguistics. “She was involved in every development at Northwestern that involved the expansion of gender equality.”

In addition to co-founding the women’s studies program, Moses also played a key role in establishing Northwestern’s Organization of Women Faculty and the Women’s Studies Residential College.

“She was a wonderful role model who never gave up on her mission to make the world a better place for women individually and globally,” said Cristina Traina, professor of religious studies. Traina happily recalls lunches at the Women’s Residential College at which Moses and Daniels, grinning from ear to ear, would engage in “brilliant” conversations on cultural, political and academic topics.

Moses’ research provided linguistic insights into how communication actually works in real-world settings, including the health care industry, pharmaceutical advertising, elementary education and bilingual families. In health care, for example, she compared the ways doctors talk among themselves to the ways they talk with their patients.

But it was the sheer force of her enthusiasm, passion for gender equality and generosity of spirit that her friends and colleagues remember best. She took a deep personal interest in her students and taught generations of them that the systematic study of language at the heart of linguistics can provide insights into crucial social questions.

“I loved hearing Rae’s stories about what it was like to be a female in academia when she started at Northwestern” in 1966, said Smiljanic, a former post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern now a faculty member of The University of Texas at Austin.

As Moses loved to point out, her early days at Northwestern were a time when few women were on the faculty and when university bathrooms marked “faculty” always included a urinal.

An online tribute on the Northwestern linguistics department website invites students, friends and colleagues to post their memories of Moses and express their condolences.

Born in 1935 in Oakland, Calif., Moses earned a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University and a doctoral degree in linguistics from The University of Texas. She retired from Northwestern in 2004.

Moses is survived by her husband Leon, daughter Megan McBride, three stepsons (Jonathan, Richard and Jared), 14 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and brother Patrick Stallcup.

The Rae Arlene Moses Leadership Award in Gender and Sexuality Studies was established in 2005 by the gender and sexuality studies program. It is presented each spring to a graduating senior who has fostered initiatives and demonstrated leadership in the program.