M. Elizabeth Tidball, a physiology professor at George Washington University whose surveys of graduates of women’s-only colleges pointed to the advantages of such institutions and had an enduring influence on debates about academic and professional opportunities for women, died Feb. 3 at the Buckingham’s Choice retirement community in Adamstown, Md. She was 84.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Margaret Shannon, the historian and archivist of the Cathedral Choral Society, the resident symphonic chorus of Washington National Cathedral. Dr. Tidball sang in the chorus’s alto section for nearly five decades and was the society’s president from 1982 to 1984. She was the first woman to hold that post.
Known to her acquaintances as “Lee,” Dr. Tidball joined George Washington University in 1960 and remained a researcher and professor in the physiology department until her retirement in 1994. She was widely known as an advocate for women in academia generally and the sciences in particular.
Her prominence stemmed in large part from a study she began in the late 1960s. Dr. Tidball examined 1,500 listings in the reference guide Who’s Who of American Women and found that graduates of women’s colleges were two to three times more likely than graduates of coeducational colleges to be included in the guide for their professional accomplishments.
The article appeared in the journal Educational Record in 1973. Critics have noted that the study did not control for socioeconomic background or the self-selecting nature of student body populations. But for years, the article continued to be cited in discussions of women’s educational and career paths.
Its publication followed closely the enactment in 1972 of Title IX, the federal legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in education, and coincided with an intensifying debate about the role of women’s colleges in American society. The number of such institutions fell, according to the New York Times, from 300 in 1960 to 70 in 2000.
Dr. Tidball — a graduate of the women’s-only Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. — steadfastly championed their advantages. Among their merits, she argued, was the greater proportion of female faculty members and administrators who could be role models for female students.
In the 1970s and ’80s, she conducted variations on her original study, including surveys of women who received doctoral degrees and who were admitted to medical schools. Those surveys, too, pointed to the merits of women’s institutions, said Lisa Wolf-Wendel, a co-author with Dr. Tidball of the volume “Taking Women Seriously: Lessons and Legacies for Educating the Majority.”
“What is essential to taking women seriously are places and spaces for women’s voices to be heard,” Dr. Tidball told The Washington Post in 1999. “We’re saying coed institutions should look and see if they have places where women don’t have the opportunities they should.”
Dr. Tidball held numerous leadership and administrative positions in academia. Outside the university sector, she held perhaps her most public role with the Cathedral Choral Society, where, in addition to her tenure as president, she served on the board of trustees for years.
Shannon, the archivist, credited Dr. Tidball with helping the society reestablish itself in 1976 as an entity legally and financially separate from the cathedral. Dr. Tidball also helped manage the transition from the leadership of Paul Callaway, the group’s founder and first musical director, to that of the current director, J. Reilly Lewis.
Mary Elizabeth Peters was born on Oct. 15, 1929, in Anderson, Ind. She received a bachelor’s degree in physiology and chemistry from Mount Holyoke in 1951, a master’s degree in physiology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1955 and a PhD in physiology and pharmacology, also from Wisconsin, in 1959.
Dr. Tidball wrote in the publication Current Contents that she began her research on women’s colleges in 1968, when she was a newly elected trustee at Mount Holyoke, in an effort to inform herself on the issue of coeducation. At GWU, she told The Post, she sat on admissions committees and overheard remarks such as one that a candidate was “too pretty to be a doctor.”
In addition to her degrees in the sciences, Dr. Tidball received a master’s degree in theological studies from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington in 1990. Her awards included the highest honors from GWU and the Cathedral Choral Society.
Survivors include her husband of 61 years, Dr. Charles S. Tidball, a retired GWU professor, of Adamstown; and a brother. The Tidballs, who lived for years on Cathedral Avenue NW, donated to the Washington National Cathedral a stop for the organ and a gargoyle of their design.
“I cannot point to one thing in my life that says, ‘What have you done?’ We can’t say, ‘She split the atom,’ ” Dr. Tidball told The Post. “I’ve just been doing a lot of small things and groups of things and trying to reach out for an equitable and humane society. . . . I’ve had a lot of opportunities, and I’ve also had my share of being a threat, of being out of place or being put down. All of that. Big deal. A kite goes up against the wind.”