David Tachau, a partner in the Louisville law firm Tachau Meek PLC, is quick to give credit — so much of who he is, especially his feminism and social justice values, is thanks to his mother.
That’s no surprise, considering his mother, former UofL professor Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau, was a prominent local activist for women’s and civil rights. In her 30-year career on campus, Tachau was a nationally recognized constitutional historian, the first female chair of the UofL history department, the first female president of the Faculty Senate and the first faculty woman to sit on the Board of Trustees.
Soon after earning her master’s degree in history from UofL in 1958, she began teaching and quickly became an influential advocate in statewide government, chairing the Kentucky chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and serving on the state Commission on Human Rights. She also was a historical adviser to the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee and worked with the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution.
But while she was breaking barriers at the same time as national feminist icons such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, Tachau’s contributions were generally more local.
David Tachau, along with his sisters, Katherine and Susan, decided to honor their mother’s legacy by funding an annual essay contest through the UofL Women’s Center.
“I grew up in Louisville, so I understand and appreciate the university’s incredibly important role for the region. I wanted to benefit one aspect of the institution: the Women’s Center,” David Tachau said. “I did want to try and tie it to the experiences our mother had and encourage other women to think about how the patriarchal landscape has and hasn’t changed in two generations.”
The contest asked students to consider historical and sociological attitudes toward women of the 20th century, using Tachau’s life and their own experiences as examples. Valerie Casey, director of the Women’s Center, said the center was delighted to facilitate the contest and spread Tachau’s story to a wider audience.
“She inspired a lot of people,” she said of Tachau, who died in 1990 at the age of 64. “We felt she deserved to be recognized.”
Tachau’s experiences have much to teach students about the tectonic shift society has had to make in gender equality, Casey said. For example, when Tachau obtained her doctorate in 1972, the press wrote stories about her. The coverage reflected the biases of the era with headlines such as: ‘She mixed babies and study… ’ and ‘History mastered, with diapers.’
It’s a challenging subject, Casey said, but the students rose to it well. The winners this year are Mallory Cox, who is graduating this spring with her master’s in anthropology, and Hadley Hendrick, a senior bioengineering student in the J.B. Speed School of Engineering.
Cox said she didn’t know much about Tachau at first, but once she delved into the professor’s papers, which are housed in UofL Libraries’ archives, and got familiar, she knew she’d have material to write something worthwhile.
“She really led the way for women in academia and the political arena,” Cox said. “It’s a neat thing for students to get to learn about the fight for gender equality and politics right here in Louisville.”
Hendrick also had not heard of Tachau before researching her life for the contest.
“There needs to be more opportunities like this for people to learn about these incredible figures in history that we wouldn’t learn about from history books,” she said. “It is so important to highlight women’s rights advocates, racial justice advocates, LGBTQ+ leaders, and more to get a more holistic view of what history really looked like that often isn’t taught in schools.”
In her essay, Cox noted that growing up, there weren’t many role models around her of women working in the sciences. Cox, who plans to enter doctoral studies this fall at Yale University on full scholarship, wants to change that. Last summer, she volunteered for STEM Girls in Science Week at the Kentucky Science Center.
“Dr. Tachau was a perfect example of the woman I strive to be. She was simultaneously a caring, nurturing mother, an activist and an academic. These are goals I set for myself,” Cox wrote in her essay. “I will continue to pursue all opportunities to share with others my success story as a woman in science in hopes of creating a mentality of equality for future generations.”
INSPIRED TO ACT
“We should take the things she fought her entire life for — things like economic opportunity for all women, providing equal access to higher education, giving women agency over their bodies, and closing the wage gap, to mention a few — and build on them. As times change, so too does our awareness of the problems facing women, or even our definition of who “women” are. Mary Tachau is a cornerstone of what the feminist movement has become, and it would be a disservice to her memory to not take her ideas even farther … It is our duty as women to spread awareness for the amazing work that she accomplished during her lifetime, and to build on it. Feminism is a struggle that has come a long way, and if Mary Tachau were alive today, I am sure she would agree it still has a long way to go.”
— Excerpt from Hadley Hendrick’s award-winning Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau Essay. Her complete essay, as well as the essay by Mallory Cox, can be found at louisville.edu/womenscenter.