The Typewritten Ceiling

Was I a woman of letters, or only a girl?

March 2023

Reading time min

Illustration of a woman in a Stanford cardigan running through campus while holding a baby and a typewriter

Illustration: Michael Koelsch

In April 1962, three days before I would give birth to my daughter, a letter arrived from Wallace Stegner, informing me that I had won a Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford and that he was looking forward to meeting me that fall. I was in shock. I had almost forgotten that I’d applied, so busy was I buying diapers and organizing my thoughts around my imminent motherhood.

I had finished a year of grad school at Brandeis University, and my husband had just accepted a job nearby. I asked the head of the English department at Brandeis about applying for a scholarship so I could continue on for a PhD. He said to me, “Merrill, I’m sorry, you’re only a girl, and men need these scholarships much more than you do.”

Well, never mind the PhD—I was a writer at heart. My husband and I conferred about the letter. How could we just pick up and move to California? But this amazing invitation had come to me. It was the chance of a lifetime, my husband said. So we decided we’d do it.

That September, as soon as we got to Stanford with our daughter, we drove our rented car to the housing office to find out how to get an apartment on campus. The kindly woman at the front desk looked at me quizzically. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but we only offer married student housing to male students and their families.”

She suggested that I come back inside and write a letter to the president of the university.

Was I really hearing it again, that accusation of being only a girl?

“But I’m the student—I’m the Stegner fellow!” I protested. She apologized again.

I went back to the car and told my husband what I’d learned. I began to cry, in outrage and in worry. As we sat there in alarm at the thought of having nowhere to live, the woman from the housing office appeared and tapped at the car window. She suggested that I come back inside and write a letter to the president of the university, explaining my situation. “Since you’re here for the writing program, my dear, I’m sure you can write him a very good letter!” she exclaimed. I sat at her desk and typed away on her typewriter.

The next day, we were offered a student apartment in Stanford Village, close to campus. Within the week, we had moved in, set up a crib for our daughter, and met Wallace Stegner at his home, where he welcomed us warmly. A few months later, when Redbook bought the first story I had written in the fellowship’s weekly workshop, Stegner rejoiced with me.

The morning after I learned my story would be published, I sat on the porch of our apartment, my daughter on my lap. I whispered into her tiny, beautiful ear, “We’re only girls, sweetheart, but we’re here to make our marks on the world!”

Merrill Joan Gerber, Gr. ’63, is a former Stegner fellow (1962–63) and has published many novels and short stories. Email her at

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