Between raising her newborn daughter, teaching history at the university, and pursuing her PhD in Lincoln, Marian had little time to get involved with politics during the OU-NU merger. However, she soon made time for activism after encountering numerous challenges as a female faculty member. First, despite her hard work, women were simply not paid the same as men. According to a Gateway article in 1989, the wage gap between men and women in the Arts and Sciences was approximately $1,889 (“Salary Differences”).
Secondly, she decided it was time to have another baby and was subsequently pregnant while working on her dissertation. One of the graduate committee members, who shall remain unnamed, walked over to her one day and patted her tummy before saying, “I thought you were serious about this” (Interview Nov. 30). Marian was shocked. She later talked with her PhD adviser, Dr. Homze, and requested the removal of the professor from her committee. Marian received her PhD in history in 1978. Unfortunately, Marian’s mother, Erna, did not live to see her daughter receive her degree. However, Marian expresses little doubt that her mother would be proud of her.
Throughout all these challenges, Marian’s family, friends, and colleagues gave her their overwhelming support. Her husband Jim was especially comforting. He was one of the few who truly understood what she was going through, trying to balance family and her career ambitions. Even though Marian wasn’t able to spend as much time with her family as she would have liked, she believes that being a working wife and mother was good for her. Teaching and working on her PhD kept her busy and spared her from being overly protective of her family.
Once Marian earned her PhD and gave birth to her second child, she was free to take a more active role within university politics with the goal of improving campus life by standing up to the Nebraska Board. Dr. Marian Nelson would go on to promote a professor’s union in order to close the gender gap between wages. She was elected as one of the first vice presidents of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) 1983–1984 and acted as liaison between the steering and bargaining committees. She would also travel to other colleges for the Union in order to “examine conditions at other institutions that were considered to be comparable to UNO” (Interview Nov. 30). Marian would take part in the AAUP lawsuit in 1983 against the administrators who were playing hardball at the bargaining table. With the Court of Industrial Relations (CIR) involved, the AAUP was able to get their first wage agreement and contract. The stress during this time was so palpable that even the strong-willed Marian got an ulcer.
Marian was appointed to the faculty senate’s committee of welfare and personnel, which at the time was dedicated to combating racial or gender harassment. Although Marian says that she did not experience harassment directed toward her, she did see it happen to her colleagues. For instance, teachers of women’s history, like JoAnne Carrigan and Jackie Saint John, had to unlist their phone numbers because of hostile phone calls. Marian thinks that she avoided harassment simply because she wasn’t teaching courses on women’s studies. Despite avoiding harassment, she felt that more could be done to prevent and combat injustice.
Dr. Marian Nelson received the Excellence in Teaching Award in 1992 for her dedication to her students. Out of all the possibilities available to her, she chose to teach history because history is a rich story she felt compelled to share (Interview Nov. 16). A combination of enthusiasm and attention to details made her classes popular and inspiring. Kurt Austin, a former student, describes Marian’s class:
I remember her as pretty no-nonsense, but with a good, dry sense of humor, and she was a terrific lecturer. It’s funny, but much of the professional literature about teaching these days (such as the material I work on for National Council of Teachers of English) emphasizes the value of student-centered group work and discussion, and it frowns on classes where the teacher just holds forth from the front of the room. But I always