They launched their careers at Washington State University in the 1960s and ’70s, becoming full professors during a time when reaching that milestone was extremely rare for women. Forty years later, a friend and colleague urged the “Troika,” as they call themselves, to tell their stories in a volume that she then edited.

We Few, We Academic Sisters: How We Persevered and Excelled in Higher Education was published by WSU Press in 2023. The same year, WSU’s department of sociology, where the trio worked, turned 100. The authors and their editor, all longtime friends, took part in the centennial celebration, presenting a panel discussion on their triple memoir.

“These sisters, they made do with whatever circumstances came their way,” says Betty Houchin Winfield, who was an assistant professor in the Murrow School of Communication when she met Lois B. DeFleur, Sandra Ball-Rokeach, and Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman. “They cracked the glass ceiling. They didn’t break it entirely, but they certainly cracked it.”

Winfield instigated the book project during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everyone was complaining about being locked up. I suggested, ‘Tell your stories, and I will edit them.’ I think they have amazing stories.”

Here, all four of them talk with Washington State Magazine about their start in academia, sexism, supportive male colleagues, and more.


DeFleur came to WSU in 1967. “I was the first woman in every position I had,” she says. “And, for a long time, I was the only woman. It was pretty lonely.”

Former Binghamton University President Lois B. DeFleur visiting campus in 2023, photo detail. (Photo Jonathan Cohen/Binghamton University)


It was also, in a word, “stressful.”

DeFleur remembers, “I was particularly concerned about coming up for tenure and about getting promotions. All the committees that looked at my work were all male. So, it was just challenging.

“It was an era when it wasn’t easy for women as they progressed in their academic studies and careers. I remember being insulted all the time. I’d go into a meeting, and they’d say, ‘We’re waiting for Dr. DeFleur,’ and I would say, ‘I’m Dr. DeFleur.’

“There were a lot of things that happened to us because we were the few. That made a difference, in my view, about how we became friends and formed bonds beyond our work. We had high aspirations. And we faced a lot of challenges—not being taken seriously, being told ‘We’re waiting for Dr. DeFleur’ and expecting to see a man.”

It started when they were students. “I remember when I was going to do my master’s degree and the department chair told me, ‘You have good grades, but we don’t have good luck with women. They get married and leave us. So, we won’t give you the fellowship.’ All of us experienced something similar during our careers.”

A licensed pilot who owned her own aircraft, DeFleur often flew the coop. “I had my plane, and I spent a lot of time in Spokane and other places, and that was a bit of an escape mechanism for me.”

When she arrived at WSU, “They first put me in ag, but that didn’t last long. I had a big project on urban drug use in Chicago. They wanted me to interview some farmers. Even though I had spent summers on my grandmother’s farm and fed the pigs, I don’t think I had the expertise for that.”

WSU, she says, “really provided the foundation for my career. For me, there were lots of opportunities I would not have had other places.”

DeFleur served as dean of liberal arts at WSU. She went on to teach at the US Air Force Academy. Later, she was provost at the University of Missouri-Columbia and president of the State University of New York at Binghamton. She retired in 2010.

Today, she is living in Colorado. “I love retirement,” she says. “No more pressures.”

Writing the book, she says, “was such a wonderful experience. We had a foundation of shared experiences and friendship. We have different paths, but somehow—through the ups and downs and being far apart—we all stay in touch. We have become very close personal friends.”


Ball-Rokeach, of Los Angeles, is a widely published professor emerita at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She won the 2013 Provost’s Mentorship Award and a 2011 Mellon Mentoring Award. “The reason I wanted to mentor was because I didn’t have mentoring in graduate school,” she says, stressing that her mentorship activities are—among all of her accomplishments and accolades—“what I’m most proud of.”

Video frame from the documentary “Feminizing Communication Sciences: Memories and Contributions of Female Researchers” based on an interview with Sandra Ball-Rokeach, emeritus professor at the Annenberg School for Communication (USC)

Sexism and sexual harassment permeated her academic career as a student and as a professor. “I went to one of my favorite professors and asked him to be the chair of my master’s thesis, and he said, ‘Why should I do that?’ I said, ‘I really respect your work and what I study is close to your interests.’ He said, ‘You’re just going to get married and have children.’ And I said, ‘But you’re married and have children.’ And he said, ‘That’s different.’ It was very frustrating. It still hurts. It really takes a lot of perseverance and tenacity and guts to get through something like that.”

Academic conferences, where most of the attendees were male, were particularly troublesome. “You didn’t want to ride in the elevator with those men. All of a sudden, you’d feel hands on your body. It was bad.”

Ball-Rokeach served as codirector of the Media and Violence Task Force of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence from 1968 to 1969. “One of the commissioners asked me to make him Xeroxes. So, I said to him, ‘I am codirector of the task force, not a secretary.’”

She was also “one of the first to hyphenate my last name. They’d look at me and they’d look at my name tag and they’d say, ‘What is that?’”

Like DeFleur, Ball-Rokeach calls WSU “the launching pad of my career.” In Pullman, “we helped each other a lot. There just weren’t that many women who were professors. We helped each other not only with professional work but personal struggles.”

And they still do. “Lois and I were talking about it the other day,” Ball-Rokeach says, offering an example: “My husband had to be flown to Stanford Medical Center because he had spinal cancer. Lois arranged for the twin-engine plane.”


Ihinger-Tallman went back to school after her husband, a professor, left her for a graduate student. She was busy raising five children as she finished her undergraduate degree, then went on to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees. She’s the only one of the four women involved with the book who stayed at WSU, serving two terms as chair of the department of sociology.

Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman
Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman, historical photo (Courtesy National Council on Family Relations)

At WSU and her other alma maters, she says she felt insulated from the sexism and sexual harassment that her colleagues faced. “They took me seriously as a scholar,” she says. “I can’t say that I was ever hit on. I had a wall of children all around me that protected me.”

Her research and writings focused on divorce, remarriage, step-parenting, and sibling interaction. These topics were rarely studied in the late 1970s with the possible exception of divorce. At that time few scholars thought about the consequences of family life post-divorce. With coauthor Kay Pasley, now at Florida State University, Ihinger-Tallman published many books and articles on these topics. She also authored with colleague Teresa M. Cooney a family textbook, Families in Context.

Today, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Pullman, she says, “was my home, and it holds a very dear place in my heart.”


A journalism historian, Winfield came to WSU in 1979 to teach in what’s now the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. “I was the first woman to get tenure in the Murrow School,” she says. “The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title IX, all these things laid the groundwork for women. By the 1970s, women were aiming for parity in hiring and for being full professors. All four of us made it to full professor, and we did it within 10 or 11 years of assistant professor.”

Betty Winfield (Courtesy Missouri School of Journalism)

Getting there wasn’t without its bumps. “I had a baby during my master’s program, and I was being touted to get my PhD. The head of the program told me, ‘How dare you get pregnant? You have such a promising career. Shame on you.’ I was surprised he bawled me out,” Winfield says. “When I made full professor and gave a major address at a national meeting, I made sure he knew about it. Today, men would think that, but they wouldn’t say it.”

In Arts and Sciences at WSU, Winfield says, “There were so few that we would all meet for dinner.” These potlucks played an important role in bonding and building camaraderie among WSU’s female professors.

“Lois and Sandy were mentors to me. I didn’t have any female mentors in communication. Lois was my dean. We did a book together. She mentored me. She hosted the women in arts and sciences for potluck dinners at her house.”

The husbands of three of the four women involved in the book left them for graduate students or, in Winfield’s case, a much younger woman. “We all kind of went through the trauma of that,” Winfield says. “We supported each other personally, too, through these and other situations.”

Throughout the years and decades, they would often reunite—in the Seattle area, where Winfield lives; along the Annapurna Ridge in Nepal, to hike; in the Sea of Cortez, to kayak; in Mexico, to relax after a long academic year.

All four praise Provost Wallis Beasley for his ongoing support during their time at WSU. “There were challenges, but he went above and beyond for all of us,” Winfield says. “He was very supportive of women and minorities.”

Still, they adopted coping mechanisms, such as concealing their gender. “The first national paper I gave, I listed the author as B.H. Winfield. When they called B.H. Winfield and I got up, people laughed. They knew exactly why. With a paper on FDR, I didn’t dare put Betty.”

She continued, “We all had to have a sense of humor. I think that helped us survive.”


Learn more

Video: All four women discuss their book in September 2023 at the department of sociology’s centennial celebration

Buy We Few, We Academic Sisters at WSU Press