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M. Elizabeth Tidball, 84; studied women’s-only colleges

WASHINGTON — M. Elizabeth Tidball, 84, 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 a retirement community in Adamstown, Md.

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 for nearly five decades and was the society’s president from 1982 to 1984. She was the first woman to hold that post.

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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 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, federal legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in education, and coincided with an intensifying debate about the role of women’s colleges in US 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 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.

Shannon credited Dr. Tidball with helping the society reestablish itself in 1976 as an entity legally and financially separate from the cathedral.

Mary Elizabeth Peters was born in Anderson, Ind. She received a bachelor’s in physiology and chemistry from Mount Holyoke in 1951, a master’s in physiology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1955, and a doctorate in physiology and pharmacology, also from Wisconsin, in 1959.

She leaves her husband of 61 years, Dr. Charles S. Tidball, a retired George Washington University professor,and a brother.

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