Remembering a dedication to intellectual life

The Gender and Women’s Studies Esther O. Kegan Fund, which brings special programs and speakers to UIC, honors Kegan (pictured above with husband Albert), one of few women practicing law in the 1930s.

Like many of today’s UIC students, Esther Kegan commuted to school, was the first in her family to attend college, and came from a home where English was a second language.

After graduating from Northwestern University’s law school in 1936, she had a pioneering, five-decade law career focused on patent and intellectual property cases.

Working with her husband Albert, also an attorney, whose bar admission she sponsored, Kegan overcame discrimination as one of the few women practicing law during her era.

Her success as an attorney and her active involvement with professional organizations didn’t deter her from family life. It was a balance she championed while raising three children.

“We always felt she was more accomplished and more interesting than many stay-at-home mothers,” said her daughter Judith Kegan Gardiner, professor emerita of English and gender and women’s studies.

“We were hardly neglected children.”

A common thread throughout Esther’s endeavors — school, work and family — was a pursuit of intellectual interests.

Inspired by her mother’s legacy, Gardiner recently established the Gender and Women’s Studies Esther O. Kegan Fund to bring special programs and speakers to campus.

Gardiner, a founder of UIC’s gender and women’s studies program, wants the gift to deliver a “diversity of opportunities.”

She hopes the fund will help place the gender and women’s studies program “in a league with our peers, where intellectual life can be encouraged by a lot of cross-pollination with people from other institutions.”

The gift is the latest example of Gardiner’s impact on campus since she arrived at UIC in 1969.

Working with other female faculty members during the second wave of the women’s movement, she helped start the women’s studies program and worked to establish child care, health services and centers for women’s research. In 1992, she was named UIC’s first Woman of the Year by the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women.

Looking back on her childhood, Gardiner appreciates her parent’s strong support of academics — but more importantly, a home environment that encouraged healthy discussions.

“They were bright people interested in what was going on in the world, reading and current events,” she said.

“When I was in high school a friend came to dinner and said, ‘That is not a family. That is a debating society.'”

In the tradition of Esther Kegan, Gardiner envisions the fund feeding the intellectual curiosity of the university community for years to come.

bflood@uic.edu

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