On Completing 50: Self-Reflections
Memories of Development: Fifty Years with the AHA
Alice Kessler-Harris, December 2012
When I became a member in the fall of 1962, the AHA was a very different organization. I had just entered graduate school at Rutgers—a school I had chosen for its energetic political life as much as for anything else. I, and my cohort of graduate students along with many of the young faculty, engaged in resisting the politics of the cold war and especially in revealing its reverberations in Vietnam; we supported the Civil Rights Movement, and we participated in the community action programs of our own lively SDS chapter. The AHA seemed pretty much irrelevant. It was, we felt, the stodgy remnant of a profession that still claimed "presentism" as a cardinal sin, and hardly recognized our efforts to extend our research into new subject areas. We, on the other hand, young entrants into the field, were of the new left, bent on linking with the social sciences in ways that would reveal a usable past and illuminate contemporary problems.
For the relatively few women in the profession the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s extended the activist moment. I was then just finishing my degree. Among my first actions was to discover a vibrant CCWHP (Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession) whose task was to challenge the marginalization of women historians. Our first goal would be to break down the barriers to fair and equal treatment embedded in the organizational structure and cultural practices of the American Historical Association. To do that we would need information. Exactly how many women were there in the field? What positions did they hold? Where did they teach? What was their status in the profession? But this was not enough. It quickly became clear that there were two issues with which we needed help: if the first revolved around where and how women might find their places among professional historians, the second focused on the creation of a new field. We would need to uncover not only the history of women in our profession, but the field of women's history as well. To legitimize women historians we would need to affirm the value of the new research on women to which historians were increasingly paying attention. We could do both by presenting papers in the annual meetings, publishing articles in the journal of record; and integrating our persons as well as our scholarship into the profession as a whole.
At the time, the American Historical Association, the largest and most inclusive organization of professional historians in the United States, seemed to recognize neither the field of women's history nor the women who mostly fostered it. We set about finding the keys to open doors. When the AHA created a standing committee on women historians (the CWH) and then hired a special assistant for women's and minority affairs, we knew we were making progress. The CWH was charged with investigating women's status in the profession and disseminating information to the membership. It would encourage the AHA to collect data about women as it was then beginning to do with reference to minorities. To provide access to this material, to create a more transparent profession, we turned to the AHA's newsletter. Luckily, Perspectives already existed (albeit in its earlier incarnation). I think it is fair to say that its pages served as the strong right arm of the movement towards transparency. There members could track the depth of discrimination against women. They discovered how many new female and male PhDs failed to find jobs and how many women, African Americans and whites, entered tenure-track positions; they discovered the proportion of tenured female professors of history at research institutions and the paucity of women in the professoriate in the Ivy League. The numbers astonished everyone.
These published numbers eventually undermined what we have come to call the old-boy network and broke apart the reciprocally confirming hierarchy of prestige that created circles of friends and colleagues who monopolized the stream of honors. A new ethical code called for advertising jobs in the pages of Perspectives, which also publicized announcements of conferences and invited panel and paper proposals to annual meetings. In its pages, too, appeared commentary on some key issues. Does every historian need a wife, asked one article. And another suggested that we confront the dilemma of "what's in a field" by challenging labels that consigned historians to a single, unidimensional field of research. Were rules against nepotism a two way street? Did spousal hires solve or complicate problems of discrimination? Was the tenure clock too rigid for women? These are just a few of the professional issues that found a home in the pages of Perspectives and have since contributed to a deep and rich set of conversations.
When I look at the last 50 years in the AHA, I see its evolution from an organization that acted as a barrier to access for women, to one that has immeasurably enhanced their ability to enter and become fully part of the profession. From my own 50-year perspective, I have watched annual meeting programs become more diverse; articles in the journal routinely incorporate or focus on issues of gender and women, and women take their places in the highest leadership positions in the organization. I suspect that much of this could not have happened without the welcoming pages of Perspectives.
Alice Kessler-Harris is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University. She is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman and Gendering Labor History. She was a chair of the AHA's Committee on Women Historians, and served as a member of the AHA's Council. In 2010–11, she was president of the Organization of American Historians.