Sometime around 2009, the number of women achieving Ph.D’s in the US eclipsed the number of men for the first time following a decades-long trend. That it wasn’t always so isn’t just anecdotal; in 1950 only 643 of 6,633 new doctoral degrees in the US were awarded to women. Thus, the name Evelyn M. Duvall, Ph.D. rather stands out in the opening credits of the 1951 film “What to Do on a Date”.

Produced by Coronet Instructional Films, the nearly eleven minute film instructs teens on how to approach socialization with the opposite sex. Four decades later, Mystery Science Theater 3000 took it as a study in camp and parodied to good effect it in the episode “Swamp Diamonds”. Underlying the jokes is the story of a woman who defied norms and pioneered a new field.

Evelyn earned her Master’s in Biology at Vanderbilt University by 1929, having already sailed through a bachelor’s in Geometry at Syracuse in three and a half years and graduating Summa Cum Laude. Academic excellence was by no means expected of her; as her grandson Mark Walther relates, Evelyn was born to a farming family dominated by a father who didn’t believe women should be educated. Nonetheless, her teachers noticed an obvious talent and encouraged her to pursue higher education. “Her father would not allow it”, Walther explains, “so one night she climbed out the second story window and ran away to Syracuse University.” Later, a family story holds, her father would callously burn a copy of her first published book without pausing to look at it.

Evelyn showed a propensity for achieving professionally even as she was finishing her education. While completing her Bachelor’s and working part time selling farm books, she convinced a mushroom farmer to give her a chance at combatting a fungus that regularly threatened his crops. By January 1927 she had developed a method of fumigation and sterilization that led to offers of a career with the USDA and commercialization of her techniques through a New York lab. Instead she turned down those opportunities to marry Sylvanus Duvall, start a family and follow him to his new job as a pastor in Nashville. Though she was initially excited at the prospect of pursuing medicine at nearby Vanderbilt University, the administration showed little enthusiasm for a married woman without pre-med courses already under her belt. She was denied admission to the program and opted to pursue graduate coursework in biology instead. After earning her Master’s, the Duvalls moved again in pursuit of Sylvanus’s career, eventually and fortuitously to Chicago. There, Evelyn found employment with the Chicago Association of Child Study and Parent Education. Soon after, she was attending the University of Chicago, helping design its budding Human Development program under the mentorship of Ernest W. Burgess before achieving her Ph.D. in 1946. Evelyn made lasting contributions to the nascent field from the very onset, and her Ph.D. research describing differences in parenting conceptions among social classes were widely referenced for years afterward.

Drawing on her experience as an accomplished academic, mother and wife, Evelyn went on to a prolific career as a family development authority, writer and public speaker. Though her perspective was often openly religious and personal, she sidestepped the banal territory of the anecdotal and folksy as she approached topics including in-laws, dating and sex with graceful directness and challenge. In her 1974 Handbook for Parents, she cautions that a parent’s sex education of their child “actually begins with [the parent’s] own feelings”, and that a parent’s “hang-ups” are obstacles to overcome before passing them on. She takes on the persistent practice of spanking, noting that “the simple fact is that physical punishment is not effective in training children of any age. It often is detrimental to the child and to the parent-child relationship as well”. On homosexuality she seems to grasp for a viewpoint she could be comfortable with, describing it as a “problem” while urging parents not to obsess over it, characterizing homosexual “phases” as natural.

Her views weren’t always well-received. According to Walther, she was occasionally singled out as a subversive liberal voice in the battles over sex education in public schools. That claim is well in evidence in John Steinbacher’s 1971 The Child Seducers, a diatribe steeped in indignation toward educators willing to acknowledge sex. Evelyn came to his attention for her Love and The Facts of Life, a book that was adopted into the early sex ed canon and the result of years of her work speaking with young people and cataloging their questions about love and sex – 25,000 in all. To justify his vilification of her as a “child seducer”, Steinbacher bristles at quotes and chapter titles taken out of context (Falling in Love with a Married Man, What’s The Harm in Petting?). Absent from his rebuke is any recognition of the carefully nuanced portrait she offers to prepare young readers for the universal experience of sexual maturation and the potential perils to their physical health, self esteem and relationships. Rather than admonish and frighten, Evelyn trusts her readers to make responsible use of her thoroughness, honesty and fearlessness. Ultimately, her trust was repaid, attitudes changed, and in 1991 George H.W. recognized her as one of his “1,000 Points of Light”.

Evelyn eventually published some thirty books, participated in the White House Conference on Aging, and was honored numerous times by civic leaders and agencies worldwide. She made one of her final and most lasting contributions at the University of South Florida – Sarasota, where she is still honored today with a biennial family studies conference in her name. Toward the end of her life, she reflected on her family and friends as having been most important. With a gift for poetic phrasing that surfaces often in her books, she writes “The flow of life blurs the shadow of death as we glimpse the sublime in many an early moment. Life is good and we feel blessed to be part of it.”

Special thanks to Mark Walther.

– Duval, Evelyn M. Love and The Facts of Life. Association Press, 1963.
– Duvall, Evelyn M. Handbook for Parents. Broadman Press, 1974.
– Steinbacher, John. The Child Seducers. Educator Publications, Inc., 1971.
– Steinmetz, Suzanne K., et. al. Pioneering Paths in the Study of Families.
The Hawthorne Press, Inc., 2000.