September 1, 2021

Barbara Stern
Barbara B. Stern at the Graduate Center's first commencement in 1965. She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D.

When Barbara B. Stern (Ph.D. ’65, English) was awarded her Ph.D., the news made The New York Times. Stern was not only the first woman to receive her doctorate from the Graduate Center (Daniel Robinson, Ph.D. ’65, Psychology, was the other first), but, as the newspaper noted in its headline, “Stork Outraced, A Ph.D. is Earned,” commencement was held a month early because Stern was about to have a baby, her daughter Leslie.
Stern’s younger daughter, Wendy Stern, said that her mother “was proud of being the first woman. She was proud of receiving the first Ph.D. She was proud of being able to do it while she was so pregnant. And she was proud to get another graduate degree, because she had one already. She was very smart and very good at it.”
Stern made a career of firsts.
She grew up in Queens and entered Cornell University at the age of 15. She received a master’s in English from Hunter College, where her mother Rose Zipes Bergenfeld received her undergraduate degree in 1936. (The Sterns became a rare triple Hunter legacy when Wendy earned her M.S.W. there in 2000.) Barbara Stern then went on to the doctoral program in English at the newly established Graduate Center, writing her dissertation on James Joyce and receiving her Ph.D. at the age of 25. She taught English part-time at several New York area colleges but, like today, found that securing an academic job that paid enough was difficult. And, for a woman in the 1960s, as she told the Times, it was deadly to find a job in liberal arts.

Stern book cover

By 1980, she had made a new career move. She decided to get an M.B.A. at Fordham University. She also wrote a book about the importance of networking for women in business with the subtitle, “A working woman’s alternative to the Old Boy System.” The subject was so new for the time that the publisher put a drawing of a daisy chain on the cover to soften the message.
Stern began teaching business at Kean University in New Jersey and moved to the Rutgers University Business School in Newark, New Jersey, in 1986.
“Stern invented a whole new style of marketing research that relied heavily on applying literary criticism,” recalled her colleague Morris Holbrook, emeritus professor of business at Columbia University.
Stern published papers with titles such as “Gender and Multicultural Issues in Advertising: Stages on the Research Highway” and “The Role of Myth in Creative Advertising Design: Theory, Process and Outcome.”
When Leslie Stern was studying for her M.B.A. at UCLA, her mother gave guest lectures in her consumer behavior and advertising classes. Literary theory and feminism figured prominently.
“The topic she prepared was language analysis of print ad copy based on gender,” Leslie Stern recalled. “She put up two ads, one with a man and one a woman, with copy underneath, and then she started looking at the differences between the language. This was stuff that she thought was cool.”
Stern made sure, as well, that her business students, from undergraduates to doctoral students, knew how to write. She was a prolific writer and editor of marketing texts and journals, credited with more than 70 journal articles, 21 book chapters, and three edited books, as well as book reviews and visiting lectures. Holbrook said that her work “transformed the possibilities for interpretive work in marketing.”

three generations of hunter grads

Three generations of Hunter grads: (L-R) Daughter Wendy Stern, Grandmother Rose Zipes Bergenfeld, and Barbara Stern (Credit: Hunter College)

She taught at the Rutgers for more than 20 years, chaired the marketing department, and, as her daughters learned from the emails sent in tribute after their mother died in 2009, was a mentor who inspired her students. As she told The New York Times when she became the first woman to earn a Graduate Center Ph.D., “I love teaching. I can’t think of anything more exciting — except possibly acting — than getting up in front of a class and communicating with students.”
In a tribute to Stern, two of her colleagues, Professors Stephen J. Gould of Baruch College, who first met Stern when they taught at Rutgers, and Barbara Olsen of SUNY Old Westbury, wrote, “Barbara will be missed not only for her unique academic contributions, but also for the place she filled in our hearts and consciousness. As diverse and rich as our fields are, and for that matter as large as New York City (where she lived) is, it is hard to imagine either of them without her.”
Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.