Partner Maxine Bennett

Queer Places:
Barnard College, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027
Waucheeta Trail, Madison, WI 53711
Saron Cemetery Jamestown, Cloud County, Kansas, USA

Martha Peterson, ca. 1965, during her tenure as Dean of Student Affairs at UW–Madison. UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN–MADISON ARCHIVES IMAGE S07985Martha Peterson (June 22, 1916 — July 14, 2006) served as Dean of Women at the University of Kansas and the University of Wisconsin, President of Barnard College, New York, and President of Beloit College, Wisconsin. Peterson, the first woman to serve on the board of ExxonMobil, also served on many other corporate boards.

Martha Elizabeth Peterson was born June 22, 1916 near Jamestown, Kansas to Anton Romeo Peterson (1890-1952) and Osey Gail French (1891-1982), who were married November 14, 1914. She was born on a Kansas farm, which she later inherited from her grandfather. Her grandfather, Nicholas French, had homesteaded near Jamestown, Kansas, in 1872.

In 1933 Peterson graduated from Salina High School, Salina, Kansas, and went on to attend the University of Kansas (KU), earning both her B.A. (1937) and M.A. (1943) in mathematics. Peterson taught math in high schools in Stockton and Ellinwood, KS from 1937-1942 before joining the KU Department of Mathematics as an instructor in 1942. As she worked towards a Ph.D. in educational psychology, which she completed in 1959, Peterson served as assistant dean of women at KU from 1947-1952, and as dean of women from 1952-1956. She is credited with installing the dormitory system for freshmen women while at KU. In 1956 Peterson left KU to become dean of women at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; she remained in this position until 1963, when she was named University Dean of Affairs.

Upon the retirement of Louise Troxell, longtime dean of women at UW–Madison, university president E. B. Fred recruited Peterson for that position. But with strong support from the women interviewers, including Helen Connor Laird, a member of the Board of Regents, President Fred was pleased to recommend Peterson’s appointment to the full Board of Regents in March 1956. In 1963, Peterson was named a special assistant to the new UW president, Fred Harvey Harrington, and was later promoted to dean of student affairs. From the beginning of her tenure in Madison, Peterson was a strong advocate for women. She promoted the concept of equal pay for equal work and advocated for women to use their professional abilities, even if “to use these talents, they see that they will have to give up other things—a husband and family.” A Dean’s Office survey of the opinions of educated Wisconsin women about professional opportunities and civic issues led to a 1962 conference on continuing education for women. This initiative brought Peterson into contact with other woman activists, such as Madison’s Kathryn Clarenbach, a feminist and later the first chairperson of the National Organization for Women.

It was in Madison that she met her long time friend and partner, Maxine Bennett, M.D. They shared a lovely home on Lake Waubesa near Madison, a lakeside home and an antiques business in Door County, a Florida condo on Marco Island and an apartment in Madison. They also shared many friends, world travels and experienced life to its fullest. When Peterson was being hired as the UW dean of women in 1956, President Fred told Bennett, his colleague, that she should get to know Peterson. Fred encouraged the two to meet because, as Bennett remembered, he said, “I think you should get to know her because Kansas and Nebraska are neighbors.” The relationship that formed and blossomed in the late 1950s between Bennett and Martha Peterson did not go unnoticed in these pre-Stonewall days. A UW news release featuring staff traveling during the summer of 1959 informed folks that “Dean of Women Martha Peterson and Dr. Maxine Bennett, [are] touring Scandinavia.” The Madison society magazine Select published a 1964 feature on the “Halfway House,” jointly owned by Peterson and Bennett. The article noted, “It all began three years ago when ‘Max’ and Martha purchased . . . a 200-foot frontage on the Lake Michigan side of Door County’s ‘thumb,’ two miles from Jacksonport.” Noting that “both hold responsible positions in Madison,” the article commented that Bennett and Peterson’s house was furnished with antiques, many of which they had refinished on their own workbench. A picture showed them in matching University of Wisconsin sweatshirts restoring antiques. Later the two would open an antique shop in Door County. 

In 1967, Peterson became the president of Barnard College, where she navigated the student body through the Vietnam War years. She also developed the college's relationship with Columbia University, which lead to a successful course exchange program between the two schools. Peterson left Barnard in 1975 to become the first woman president at Wisconsin's Beloit College, where she remained until her retirement in 1981. Peterson's tenure at Beloit saw her enact drastic budget cuts in an effort to restore fiscal stability to the institution at a time when both enrollment and endowment funding were down. Peterson became the first woman to sit on the board of Exxon in 1975. She would also become the first woman to sit on the boards for both Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Dry Stock Savings Bank. During her retirement Peterson continued serving on a number of boards, including the Board of Trustees for the University of Notre Dame.

She and her longtime companion, Dr. Maxine Bennett, divided their time among residences in Wisconsin and Florida, and traveled extensively. Peterson was inducted into KU's Women's Hall of Fame in 1972 and received KU's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Citation, in 1968. She also received the KU School of Education's Apple Award in 1993. At the time of her death, Peterson had received over 20 honorary degrees from different institutes of higher learning.

Upon Bennett’s retirement in the summer of 1978, a surprise dinner party was held at the Madison Club for fifty friends. “Among them,” the paper noted, “was Miss Martha Peterson, New York City, president of Barnard College.” When Peterson was serving on the board of directors for Exxon, she noted about other members, “It was awfully hard when they came with their wives” to board meetings and trips, because it was often presumed she had no partner to bring. When Peterson was told she could bring somebody, somebody, Bennett accompanied her, and together they witnessed the launching of an Exxon tanker in Japan.

Martha Peterson, age 90, died on Friday, July 14, 2006, at Covenant Oaks in Oakwood Village West, Madison, from complications of Alzheimer's Disease. Martha requested that her ashes be scattered on the Kansas farm she inherited and that a headstone be placed next to her mother's headstone in the Saron Baptist Kirke Cemetery, a small church and cemetery adjacent to the farm. In 2006, Peterson’s obituary in the New York Times observed that she was “survived by her companion Dr. Maxine Bennett.” The Madison obituary referred to “her longtime friend and partner, Maxine Bennett, MD,” and noted that they “shared many friends [and] world travels and experienced life to its fullest.” Appropriately, the notice stated, “She was a wonderful role model for young women.”

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