English departments rethink what to call themselves

Florence Howse Ridley, a barrier-breaking academic who was the first woman to chair the modern incarnation of UCLA’s Academic Senate and only the third woman to become a full professor in UCLA’s English department, died Jan. 16 of COVID-19 in her hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She was 98.

Ridley came to UCLA in 1957 immediately after earning her doctorate in medieval English literature from Harvard, driving across the country in a car without air conditioning through the summer heat, according to her hometown obituary. She became one of only two women then in the English department faculty. She was hired as an instructor, from which she could in theory advance to assistant and then associate professor before gaining tenure as a full professor, but for years, the department had largely barred women from advancing past assistant professor, according to a recent history of the department.

Undaunted, Ridley burnished her expertise in Geoffrey Chaucer (author of “The Canterbury Tales”) and medieval studies, earning her appointment to full professor in 1970. The only women to precede Ridley in the English department were Ada Nesbit, Ridley’s contemporary and a Charles Dickens scholar, who became a full professor in 1960, and Renaissance scholar Lily Bess Campbell, the namesake of UCLA’s Campbell Hall, in 1931.

To support future English students, Ridley left her home to the department to endow a doctoral fellowship for promising graduate students pursuing medieval, Renaissance and Dickens studies. The gift proceeds from the sale of the home will establish the Lily Bess Campbell, Ada Nisbet and Florence H. Ridley Graduate Fellowship in English.

“She was not somebody who wore her politics or her feminism overtly, but in a more quiet way, she was a pioneering woman, and she laid the groundwork for those of us who followed,” said Karen Rowe, a professor emerita of English and founding director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. Ridley would never have called herself a feminist, but did the work of one, and believed in serving her community and lifting up her colleagues, Rowe said.

“She was a reassuring inspiration for me, a generous mentor, and a giving colleague,” Rowe said. “There were 70 or so English professors when I arrived in 1971, and only two others were women … Florence greeted me warmly, and cautioned me not to serve on committees until I earned tenure so I could focus on my research, though that was not what either of us did.”

In 1977-78, Ridely went on to chair UCLA’s Academic Senate, becoming only the second woman to do so and the first since 1940, and the first woman to lead the modern incarnation of the senate after a reorganization made it more independent in 1963, said dentistry professor Shane White, who currently serves as chair. She’s also believed to be the first woman to chair the senate’s Graduate Council, which reviews all UCLA graduate programs. Ridley also served as associate dean of the graduate division, and was a founding member of UCLA’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

On top of her extensive contributions to the university as a whole, colleagues were quick to describe her as a generous and gifted teacher.

“I cherished my students,” Ridley said in an interview in 2004. She endeavored to share her delight in studying Chaucer, and in “getting to know a man who lived in the 14th century, understanding the universality of his experience.”

Before her retirement in 1992, Ridley served on “almost every important committee that one can think of, and served conscientiously and diligently,” said her friend and colleague, English professor emeritus and fellow medieval scholar Andy Kelly. Endowing a fellowship “was the culmination of her many years as a stalwart of the department, one of our loyalest and most enthusiastic members and supporters,” Kelly wrote in a remembrance.

Kelly recalled “many departmental and medieval parties” in the Santa Monica home she left to the department, and in which she lived with Page Ackerman, the UCLA Librarian and the first woman in the United States to lead such a large library system. Ridley cared for Ackerman in the years before her death in 2006, and co-wrote an obituary for her.

UCLA adjunct professor Lawrence Harding, whose parents lived next door to Ridley, knew her as a neighbor. Harding met Ridley over dinners at his parents’ home about 20 years after she retired from UCLA in 1992, and he recalled her wit and charm.

“I was unaware of just what a highly recognized scholar she was,” Harding said. “To me, she was ‘Flossie’ until I learned of her accomplishments, after which I called her Professor Ridley, to show respect. She corrected me back to ‘Flossie.’”

It was a different face than the one she presented in the English department, noted several colleagues, some of whom said they never knew her by that name.

“It was only after 40 years of friendship with Florence that I ever called her ‘Flossie,’ and then only after having consumed a second or third drink,” said Thomas Wortham, a UCLA English professor emeritus, and chair of the department who worked with Ridley to set up the details of her endowed fellowship. “She was enormously generous … Florence loved UCLA, its students and its legacy.”

In the late 2010s, Ridley returned to her hometown to be near her nieces, nephews and cousins. Her colleague Jeannette Gilkison recalled Ridley insisting that Gilkison visit her in Santa Monica to take a few items before the move to Tennessee.

“Now those items mean even more to me,” Gilkison said. “I knew Florence as a dear friend outside of the academic world — since I’m a staff member in the English department — but our friendship certainly grew over the years with all that we shared, and with her endless love not only to me but for my family, which meant so much.”

A memorial service was held on Jan. 30 in Murfreesboro. Ridley’s hometown obituary noted that she is survived by nieces Elisabeth Stewart Delargy, Mildred Florence Stewart Wells and Elisabeth Green Mondala; nephews Cameron Ridley Stewart, Jr., George Howse Stewart and John Mack Green; a great-niece, Emma Green Foster; and cousins, including Marilyn and George White, who cared for her in her last years.