Skip to main content

Barber, Ethel M., 1914-1999



  • Existence: 1914 - 1999


Ethel Mabel Barber (née Schoenbaum) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on 9 January 1914. She studied music in her youth but majored in mathematics and economics at Milwaukee-Downer College (now merged with Lawrence University), graduating in 1934. During the 1940s, she was an instructional assistant in Northwestern University's Department of Interpretation in the School of Speech (now School of Communication) and concurrently took graduate classes. The first woman to earn a doctorate from the School of Speech, Barber received a Ph.D. in 1947 with a dissertation titled “The analysis for oral interpretation of the dramatic elements in Milton's Paradise Lost.”

Barber began teaching speech courses as a senior at Milwaukee-Downer College and continued to teach at Milwaukee-Downer for four years after graduation. In 1940, she married James Gordon Barber, a judge twenty-one years her senior.

Barber gave lecture-recitals on many topics throughout the world and donated her fees to educational or charitable causes. She was a founder and former president of the North Shore Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). She initiated a radio program for the AAUW, “Women at Work,” which she conducted from 1950 to 1962, and was a discussion leader on another radio program, “Gateways to Learning.” She and her husband were honorary life members of the Salvation Army Advisory Board. Barber served as an alumni trustee of Lawrence University and was the first president of its Founders Club. In 1970 she was named Alumna of the Year by Lawrence. Barber also served as treasurer of Zeta Phi Eta, a national professional speech fraternity.

James Barber, who died in 1961, established the Ethel M. Barber International Fellowship Endowment of the AAUW, and also endowed a scholarship fund at Lawrence. Ethel Barber continued her late husband's support of the AAUW Fellowships. In 1970, she established the Ethel M. Barber Visiting Professorship in Arts and Humanities at Lawrence, which sponsored visits from ethnomusicologists, photographers, composers, and actors, including members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who visited Lawrence in 1984.

A longtime benefactor of Northwestern University, Barber was dedicated to providing quality theatrical facilities and bringing world-class artists to campus. She established the Ethel M. Barber Visiting Artist Program in the School of Speech in 1979, which brought Robert Banner, George Cukor, Martha Graham, Garry Marshall, the Nikolais Dance Theatre, and Ying Ruocheng to the School of Speech. Barber was a sponsor and the Alumni Chairman of the Gala Program for the dedication of the new Theatre and Interpretation Center (TIC) in 1980. She provided much of the funding for the Festival Theater, the largest new theater space, and it was renamed the Ethel M. Barber Theater in 1984; a year later, her portrait was placed in the lobby. She also contributed to the purchase of a lighting control system, named in honor of her late husband. In addition, she made donations to the Speech School Alumni Fund and to the NU Library, the Music School, and the Art Department.

Barber was also active at NU as a “professional volunteer,” as she once called herself. For the School of Speech, she served on the Alumni Board, and as a charter member of the Alumni Dean's Council. She was also patron of WAA-MU patron and a member of Friends of Art. She served on the board of directors of the John Evans Club, and was a member of the Library Council, the Music Society, the Women's Board, and Center Court. She received the Alumna of the Year Award in 1970 and in 1976 received an Alumni Service Award.

Barber died on December 21, 1999.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Ethel M. Barber (1914-1999) Papers

Identifier: 31/6/90
Abstract Educator and volunteer Ethel Barber was the first woman to earn a doctorate from Northwestern University's School of Speech. The Ethel M. Barber Papers, dating between 1940 and 2000, fill two boxes and consist mainly of biographical material, press releases and clippings, records of her philanthropic and volunteer involvement in Northwestern University and other organizations, and photographs. The papers highlight Barber's commitment to education and the theater arts via her generous...
Dates: 1940-2000