The Status of Women in the Historical Profession, 2005
Overview: Generational Divides and the Reproduction of Discrimination
It is no secret that women who received their terminal degrees before the early to mid-1970s were true pioneers, many of whom faced outright discrimination and harassment without mentoring or support. One woman remarked that when she began teaching in the early 1960s, "many universities simply did not hire women." Another, graduating second in her undergraduate class, was denied a graduate fellowship because, as she was told, "the department would not be able to crack dirty jokes" were she to join the Ph.D. program. This generation of respondents reported numerous instances of blatantly discriminatory remarks: the male faculty members who "openly said there would be a woman on the faculty over their dead bodies"; those who justified denying women employment at a public institution in 1976 on the grounds that it "only had one faculty restroom and that was for men only"; or the department chair who told a job candidate in 1968 that her application would not be considered because "there are too many skirts on my campus as it is."
Respondents in this group noted that their salaries lagged behind those of their male colleagues, that time to promotion was longer for them than for men in their departments, and that they had struggled long and hard for what they'd achieved. As lone women faculty members, they report having been subjected to annoying slightsfor example, being asked to do photocopying on the assumption they could only be secretariesand full-blown sexual harassment, on the job and on the job market. Forward-looking chairs and administrators smoothed the way for some, and the slow trickle of women onto campuses in the 1970s provided support for others. The state of California was apparently something of an exception to the general pattern. One respondent reported "equal and fair" treatment during graduate school there on the way to her 1963 Ph.D., and another (after conceding that "all states are not like California") said that she "never felt that being a woman hurt" her career. Overall, however, this generation of respondents stressed the high price paid for their achievementsas one put it, having worked twice as hard to get half as much as male colleaguesbalanced, in many cases, by considerable satisfaction in a job well done.
Women who received the Ph.D. between 1975 and 1985 were the most optimistic and satisfied of survey respondents. They entered the profession as the women's movement was gaining momentum, and as women's history was beginning to be recognized as a legitimate scholarly and teaching field. Communities of women on campusesin women's studies programs, for exampleand in the profession at large (most important, the Berkshire Conference of Women's Historians), offered intellectual sustenance and camaraderie.
Even as new laws ruled some of the more blatant forms of discrimination out of bounds, discriminatory behavior persisted. One woman, now a full professor, was told by her dissertation advisor that since she was married, she should "stay home and just write books." Another noted that as she entered graduate school at a major research university, the chair of the department told the incoming class that "most of the women were ‘affirmative action' admits, that he thought this was a scandal, that most of us would fail, that we were taking the place of ‘breadwinners.'" Yet another was told by her department that she was ranked lower than two men for a prestigious graduate fellowship because "they would have to support a family later in life."
Nevertheless, many women in this cohort are well aware they benefited from favorable conditions on the job market, as the demand for women faculty and historians of women exploded. One said she was hired "because students sat-in demanding more women faculty, [and] suddenly recruiting someone like me became a priority." Another wrote that she felt as if she "moved from being a black sheep in the profession to being a pet lamb" when women's history was embraced. But with these advances came challenges as well, as women fought "old-boy network" cronyism and an often chilly departmental climate. One woman received the silent treatment from two men in her department after her university's provost overturned their "no" votes for her full professorship, noting that "one of them did break the silence long enough to [say] that he would not listen ‘to the likes of me comment on the accomplishments of men.'" Women in this group regularly felt that they were held to a higher standard than were men, or had to prove themselves in order to be accepted as scholars, whereas men were accepted as competent until they proved otherwise.
As a group, women who have received the Ph.D. since 1986 proved the most voluble and discouraged of all the survey recipients. The optimism and belief in progress characteristic of some of their predecessors is largely absent in this group, few of whom see improvements on the gender front. Many feel that gender knots have only become tighter. This is dismaying but not inexplicable. None of those surveyed suggested that hiring more women into tenure-track positions, and tenuring a portion of them, constitutes anything less than a welcome development. It is clear, however, that this is only a first step, and that, paradoxically, it has upped the gender ante in many departments and universities. With a larger cohort of women on faculties, more subtle and less easily addressed gender inequalities have come to the fore. Too many had assumed, as one woman put it, that gender problems would be "fixed" by hiring a few more women. Instead, it appears that the full range of ways in which gender discrimination is manifest in the world beyond the academy has only become more visibleand, seemingly, intractablewithin departments.
At the same time, some of the discrimination these women report is quite overt. Issues that older generations of women and men might have thought solved have resurfaced anew, in some cases quite starkly. For example, egregious cases of sexual harassment were reported by enough women to warrant concern. Surprisingly, the proportions of respondents mentioning they had experienced harassment increased over time: none of those holding Ph.D.'s dating to 1970 or earlier mentioned harassment (over the course of their careers), compared to 5 percent in the 197079 and 198089 cohorts, 8 percent in the 199099 cohort, and 10 percent of those who received their degrees from 200002. One woman, who received her Ph.D. in 1996 and is now a tenured associate professor, wrote of the job search: "I have had senior male historians touch me and make it clear that sex could be part of the ‘interview' process." Another woman, serving as the junior person on a search committee, was subjected to sexual innuendoes from a young male candidate. He did not get the job, but his actions in her opinion reflected the sort of unexamined male privilege that is all too prevalent in the academy. Many of the women with recent Ph.D.'s reported similar instances, and told more generally of being "bullied and threatened," and of being "shocked to see how much hostility there remains in the profession." Some of them despaired that gender neutrality can ever be achieved in an atmosphere where the intimidation of women is woven into the fabric of everyday life in their departmentsin the form, for example, of female graduate students being advised that "a graduate education is wasted on a mother."
The survey results make clear that much progress has been made in opening the profession to women and to addressing issues of concern. But it is just as clear that much remains to be done. A number of recently minted Ph.D.'s reported that gender only became a real issue for them after they had left graduate school and joined faculties as assistant professors, where the stakes are higher and the rewards fewer.Last Updated: July 10, 2008 3:04 PM