Viewpoints

The Research Division Responds to Professor Haskell

Blanche Wiesen Cook, April 1992

In my capacity as AHA Vice-President for Research, I would like to respond to Professor Haskell's letter concerning gender integration of panels for our annual meeting program. One of the responsibilities of the Research Division is to oversee the annual meeting program, including the guidelines and the work of each year's committee. The Division consults regularly with current and former Program Committee chairs and responds to concerns raised by AHA members. Our goal is to be responsive and reflect the needs and concerns of the discipline and the profession. We welcome the opportunity for this exchange of views but feel obliged to correct certain matters of fact.

The disputed 6d was adopted in 1986 after years of effort on the part of women and their many allies among the men in the profession who recognized the severe marginalization of women in the profession. Those of us of a certain age remember the grim years of the 1950s, 1960s, and into the 1970s when women were invisible in the profession, found rarely either on panels at the annual meeting or within the pages of the American Historical Review. Discrimination against women had eased somewhat from that awful moment in 1885 when Henry Adams wrote a blistering letter to attack the AHA leadership for allowing a woman historian to speak and thereby diminish and disgrace the Association. One hundred years later an effort to codify change was made, and 6d was adopted. This exchange reveals that that struggle for fairness and equity is not over.

At no point has it been the policy of the AHA to require gender integration of every annual meeting session. In fact, every annual meeting program since the adoption of the guideline has included single-sex sessions. Nor is coercion an AHA policy—it was not the policy of the Program Committee under Linda Hall (as Professor Haskell acknowledges) and is not inherent in the disputed guideline 6d. And Professor Haskell knows that. He has received several communications, by letter and telephone, with vast apologies for "the letter" that was misinformed, ill-advised, and contrary to policy. His real objection is that women are now overrepresented. Men, he writes, are now underrepresented and discriminated against, and women "hold disproportionately large shares of both panel positions and professional offices." His argument is based on the erroneous assumption that data regarding the larger universe of historians is the appropriate context for discussing matters that pertain only to members of the Association. Only members can participate in annual meeting sessions or hold elected or appointed office, so the pertinent data is that which deals specifically with AHA members. I have asked the Association's membership office to estimate the percentage of female members, and they indicate that it is about 30 percent—nearly twice that of the larger profession and only a little below the percentage of women participating in the annual meeting program in 1990.

Then there is the question of leadership, which Professor Haskell makes entirely a gender issue. Since we have elections and are a democratic body, surely many men have voted for women, and many women have voted for men. Our votes reflect cohort groups and interests that extend beyond gender. And many of us consider this display of democracy across gender lines to be an altogether good and decent thing. Moreover, his claim of women's "accession to power" within the AHA rests on misleading data. He asserts that 78 percent of the 1991 Council positions were held by women. To get that figure, he excluded from his count the offices of president, president-elect, and past president. According to the Constitution of the Association (Article V), they are specifically members of the Council and not "ex officio." To exclude them enabled Professor Haskell to ignore the historic monopolization of those three positions by men. Indeed, of the 108 individuals elected to those positions over the past 107 years, only three have been women—Nellie Neilson in 1943, Natalie Zemon Davis in 1987, and Louise Tilly in 1991. When the full twelve-member Council is taken into account, the percentage of positions held by women drops from Professor Haskell's claim of 78 percent to a more accurate 58 percent, only three-fourths of the level claimed by Professor Haskell. Furthermore, if one looks at officeholding over time, it is clear that the relative proportions of women and men in the leadership fluctuate considerably. For example, in 1988 women held 33 percent of the Council positions; in 1989 they held 25 percent. And if one looks at the larger picture, the proportion of women in leadership positions (elected and appointed) in 1991 amounts to only 38 percent, less than half the level of representation claimed by Professor Haskell. It is unfortunate that Professor Haskell felt it necessary to distort the level of representation and ignore the larger context in order to argue his point.

In terms of numbers, white men now represent only 8 percent of the world population. But ultimately this is really not about numbers or demographics. The challenge before us is about fairness and decency, intent and respect. With the adoption of 6d, the AHA made a strong commitment to an important goal: to reduce the number of gender- segregated panels. With fairness and good will, this has been achieved—in 1991, only 6 percent of the sessions were gender segregated, compared, for example, to 1983, when 47 percent of the panels were gender segregated, despite the fact that women historians were active in virtually every field of history. The Organization of American Historians has now adopted the same goal, using identical language.

The Research Division declined to change guideline 6d but agreed to clarify the AHA's position (in the lore statement) regarding each Program Committee's freedom to set its own agenda and select its own emphases. The goal was to protect the operating autonomy of each committee, so that each may experiment with formats and submission policies and devise imaginative and innovative solutions to the many challenges they face. The Research Division believed that it acted in the Association's general and best interests, and the Council has concurred.

Blanch Wiesen Cook is a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice-CUNY and is vice-president of the AHA Research Division.