Has the Battle Been Won? The Feminization of History

Lynn Hunt, May 1998

Editor's Note: The following is the text of a talk given at the Committee on Women Historians' breakfast on January 10, 1998, during the AHA annual meeting. The talk was based on Hunt's "Democratization and Decline? The Consequences of Demographic Change in the Humanities," in Alvin Kernan, ed., What's Happened to the Humanities? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 17–31.

The Report on the Status and Hiring of Women and Minority Historians in Academia, prepared by Carla Hesse for the AHA Committee on Women Historians (available online from the AHA web site), underlines the great progress made by women in the profession.* In 1992, 34.2 percent of new PhDs in history went to women, and women comprised 33.3 percent of academically employed historians with PhDs granted between 1986 and 1991. This is quite a dramatic change from the 13 percent of women PhDs in 1930–59 and even the 15.8 percent of women PhDs in history in 1970–74. Using readily available statistics about history and the humanities and some less well-known survey data, I advance four related propositions:

  1. The feminization of history has paralleled the feminization of the humanities and the social sciences as a whole, and there is virtually no gap between the percentage of PhDs going to women and the percentage of new jobs going to women.
  2. Although affirmative action can claim its success in regard to women, it has not had the same effect for minorities, at least in history and the other humanities. But this has not been for want of effort but rather for deeper structural reasons.
  3. Feminization has usually had its downside in other workforce restructurings. It might well have some negative consequences for the status of history.
  4. Finally, a question: Are gender differences really the most salient ones now when looking at potential sources of conflict within the profession? Will they be overshadowed by age or generational differences? I think they might.

The Feminization of History and the Humanities

Although higher education has become more available to almost every social group in the United States, women have made the most spectacular gains. Just in the 1980s, for example, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to men increased by 7 percent, while those awarded to women rose by 27 percent. Women now make up 55 percent of the undergraduate student population; in 1993–94 women earned 54.5 percent of all BAs and 38.5 percent of all PhDs.1 The number of women among the faculty is increasing too, albeit at a slower pace. In 1987, 27 percent of full-time college professors were women. By 1992 this had risen to 33.5 percent. The humanities have one of the highest proportions of women faculty: 40.8 percent in 1992 (the most recent year for which such comparisons are available), compared with 5.9 percent women faculty in engineering, 19.6 percent in the natural sciences, and 26.9 percent in the social sciences. Only health sciences and education had a higher percentage in 1992.2 These aggregate figures for fields mask to some extent the relative lag of history compared with the other humanities; in 1993–94 only 37.2 percent of history BAs went to women, while exactly the same percent of history PhDs went to women. Although history has certainly improved, it still falls behind the other humanities.

Minority Historians

Although the proportion of minority students has increased (in 1993 minority students made up 22.6 percent of college and university students) and even the proportion of minority faculty has increased (in 1992 13.2 percent of the faculty were minorities) history and the humanities have lagged behind in attracting both minority students and faculty.3 In the humanities 11 percent of the faculty were minorities in 1987; this increased to only 11.7 percent in 1992. This latter figure put the humanities toward the low end of fields, which ranged from 23.2 percent minorities in engineering (largely Asians) to 8.1 percent in agriculture and home economics.4

Minority students take fewer BAs and fewer PhDs proportionately in the humanities than do whites. It is worth noting that in 1993 only education and the social sciences produced proportionately more women PhDs than the humanities, whereas all other fields—including the natural sciences—produced more minority PhDs in 1993 than the humanities.5 Thus, though demographic changes might inevitably put feminism and multiculturalism on the intellectual agenda, their impact on the humanities should be viewed as less than self-evident. Perhaps a paradox is at work here: the humanities have responded most vehemently in intellectual terms to the changes within the student body, but they have not shared equally in all those changes; humanities faculty teach their subjects somewhat differently because of changes in the student body, but they have not actually attracted those different students to serious study of the humanities. It is possible that minority students have been especially alert to the potential decline in status of the humanities or that they have felt that the humanities are inherently more elitist and white in subject matter because the humanities are more closely tied to Western culture than the social or natural sciences.

Consequences of Feminization

The increasing "feminization" of the humanities (and, to some extent, of higher education in general) raises serious questions about long-term consequences, because the feminization of work almost always has led to a decline in skill status in other occupations in the past. One measure of the relative status of the humanities can be found in comparative pay scales. In a national faculty salary survey of 1993–94, researchers found that the average salary (all ranks included) for foreign languages and literature was $41,038, for English $41,346, for philosophy and religion $43,489, and for history $45,337. History, philosophy, and religion had much lower proportions of women receiving doctorates (from 1966 to 1993), than foreign languages or English. Similarly, nonhumanities fields generally got higher average salaries than the humanities: biology $44,390, mathematics $45,000, physics $52,660, economics $52,755, and engineering $62,280.6 There is a clear correlation between relative pay and the proportion of women in a field; those academic fields that have attracted a relatively high proportion of women pay less on average than those that have not attracted women in the same numbers.

The potential for a decline in status has become more likely with the increased use of part-time positions for teaching. Already in 1989, before the vogue of downsizing, one-quarter of four-year college faculties were part-time and fully one-half of those teaching at two-year colleges were part-time.7 Women comprise 42 percent of the part-time faculty, and 43.2 percent of women faculty members work on a part-time basis as compared with 30 percent of the male faculty. As more positions go part-time or temporary and more teaching is done by lecturers and adjuncts, the social structure of the university faculty is likely to become proletarianized and feminized at the bottom.

If humanities fields are perceived as especially "soft" because they are "feminized" (admitting more women as undergraduate students, doctoral candidates, and faculty), and especially contentious because they "man" the front trenches of the "culture wars," they may suffer disproportionately from decreases in funding, declines in faculty size, or increases in adjunct and part-time teaching. Such a trend would exaggerate a decline in status. This decline may already have been registered in comparative numbers of doctoral degrees, which in the humanities have declined from a high of 14.8 percent of all doctoral degrees in 1973 to a low of 8.4 percent in 1988–89 (rising marginally to 9.2 percent in 1992), compared with a more steady state in the social sciences (rising from a low of 14.6 percent in 1966 to a high of 18.8 percent in 1977). The natural sciences have long dominated (32.3 percent of doctorates in 1966), but they have also declined somewhat (to 23.7 percent in 1993), though no doubt for different reasons (many of the students in the natural sciences, especially at the doctoral level, are now foreign-born, reflecting declining interest in the natural sciences among U.S.-born students). At the BA level, both the humanities and the natural sciences seem to be suffering from a long-term malaise; as the number of BA degrees overall has more than doubled (from 1966 to 1993), the proportion in the humanities has steadily dropped from just over 20 percent in the late 1960s to a low of about 10 percent in the mid-1980s, increasing only to 12 percent in the early 1990s. Similarly, the proportion in natural sciences has dropped steadily from 11 percent in the late 1960s to under 7 percent in the early 1990s. At the BA level, as at the doctoral level, the social sciences have achieved more of a steady state, claiming 15–17 percent of the BAs in the late 1960s, rising slightly then declining slightly only to end again at 15 percent in the early 1990s.

How Salient Are Gender Differences?

Economic constraints, feminization, and the turn toward part-time employment are creating a kind of class or caste system within the universities: proletarianized part-time or nontenure-track lecturers and adjuncts at the bottom; junior faculty with uncertain or temporary positions on the next rung; regular ladder faculty with tenure who have no prospects of outside offers or much inside advancement; and at the top a relatively small group of "stars" who have secure positions, high salaries, a steady stream of graduate students, and the prospect of continual advancement. This new hierarchy is already reflected in severe salary compression in the assistant, associate, and even the full professor ranks; downsizing will only make this more prevalent and more divisive. This trend seems to affect all disciplines alike: the average salary of a new assistant professor in English is only about $9,000 less than the salary of an average associate professor, and the range is similar in other fields (biology $8,000; mathematics $9,000; economics less than $7,000).8

The entrance of new groups into the faculty has distinctly changed the social dynamics within the university in just the past 20 to 30 years. In the 1960s Jews finally gained full admission to faculty positions, followed by women in the 1970s and ethnic minorities in the 1980s. Reactions to these changes cannot be measured precisely, but it seems that resistance and obstruction have been correlated largely with recentness of entry to the profession: Jews are on the whole accepted (with many exceptions), women are sort of accepted, and minorities still meet great resistance. In any case, the atmosphere of a club of gentleman scholars has largely disappeared, or at least has begun to dissipate.

The pace of change should not be exaggerated, however. Between 1972 and 1989 the proportion of women faculty in all institutions of higher education rose only from 21.4 percent to 28.3 percent. The proportion of nonwhite faculty grew from just 5 percent to 9.1 percent (figures for women and minorities vary from study to study depending on the institutional base included). But these averages mask significant differences between types of schools: private universities averaged only 20.3 percent women on their faculties in 1989 as opposed to 21.3 percent in public universities, 27.1 percent in public four-year colleges, 30.8 in private four-year colleges, and 39.2 percent in public two-year colleges. (Once again, the lower the status, the more women, and conversely.) If there is a continuing correlation between the pool of applicants and the faculty chosen (and there is such a correlation, however imperfect in the past), the composition of the faculty will continue to change in the foreseeable future: the 18.7 percent women with history PhDs in academic employment in 1956–91 will move toward the 37.2 percent of PhDs who were women in 1993–94. But the disparity between the figures for women and minorities should be cause for alarm; at every level, the humanities attract women candidates much more than minorities. Although this is true to some extent in every field of study, the discrepancy is greatest in the humanities; it is among the most successful in attracting women faculty and among the least successful in attracting minority faculty. In 1987, for example, the ratio of women to minority faculty in the humanities was 3:1, whereas in both the social sciences and natural sciences it was 2:1 (in large part, admittedly, because there were fewer women in the social and natural sciences).9 Because the percentage of new PhDs in history is about twice the percentage of women faculty in history, there is still considerable potential for change for women. The same is not true for minorities, for the percentage of new PhDs in the humanities who are minorities (10.9 percent) is no higher and may even be lower than the current percentage of humanities faculty who are minorities (already 11 percent in 1987). Here there is not much room for improvement.

The diversification of the faculty has created an unprecedented social situation in which the rules of interaction are less than clear. The confusion about social codes has been aggravated by the social differences between age cohorts within higher education, the vagaries of the job market, the rise in two-earner partnerships, and the question of retirement. The potential for social conflict within the academy has been on the rise, while the factors that might have mitigated it have been in decline.

Those who currently teach within the university know that different age groups have had very different experiences in higher education. These differences can be attributed in part to the fluctuations in the job market for faculty positions. A huge cohort, the cohort of the expansion of positions in the 1960s (largely made up of white men), is now going into early retirement in some places (refusing to retire in others), but universities are replacing them at the junior level and only slowly. Here, the difference between the humanities and other fields is especially striking; in 1987, 47 percent of the humanities faculty were 50 years old or older as compared with 37 percent in both the natural sciences and the social sciences. Thus the humanities will be particularly hard hit—and perhaps permanently so—by early retirement schemes.10 They will also suffer disproportionately from downsizing because they are on the verge of losing the most positions in the near term. Or conversely, they will experience the most intergenerational tension if the older cohort chooses to remain.

My own cohort (with the first significant influx of women)—those who entered the job market in the 1970s during a time of constriction but who eventually gained quite a large number of positions—might be left facing recurring internecine struggles over budget cuts and curricular realignments. This intermediate group is smaller in the humanities than in the natural or social sciences; in 1987, 34 percent of the humanities faculty were in their forties, as compared with 39 percent in the natural sciences and 41 percent in the social sciences (perhaps because these fields expanded later). This cohort, however, has great advantages over those that follow, for it at least had a common experience in college and graduate school: the experience of vibrant social movements in the 1960s and a consequent sense of mission. Moreover, careers in this cohort had been established by the time constant budget crises set in for most universities in the 1990s.

The 1980s cohort is perhaps the least advantaged of all because it is the product of a very constricted job market and very different social and political times, especially for higher education. This group is arguably isolated because it is numerically smaller; in the humanities only 18 percent of the faculty was under 40 in 1987 as compared with 24 percent in the natural sciences and 22 percent in the social sciences. They run the risk of being alienated by the structural changes occurring within the university (which threaten to lower the profile of the humanities), a risk that is enhanced by changes in the social life of the university and by the now relentless pressure to try to escape from the compressed ranks of assistant and associate professors.

Changes in the economy and in customs have encouraged the rise of two-earner partnerships, which have had an impact on the university along with other sectors of society. Wives now work, many of them within the university. No one sex is assigned the invariable role of social facilitator in the couple. Because everyone works all day, no one has the energy to organize the dinner parties of old with 8, 10, or 12 colleagues sharing a festive meal laboriously prepared by a dutiful (and unemployed outside the home) wife. As a result, socializing and social life in general have almost disappeared in favor of official functions and much more informal interaction (but generally, I would argue, just less interaction). Junior faculty feel left out, even though there is no "in" that is clearly identifiable. The result is that there is not much in the way of a mechanism for smoothing over the tensions cited above. Just at the moment when economic pressures create the potential for internal strife, social bonding within the university has weakened. Esprit de corps rests only tenuously on common interests, especially in disciplines that are increasingly fragmented by specialization (as most are).

Interesting evidence of age differences can be found in a 1989 survey of faculty attitudes. Younger faculty were less likely to believe that their institutions had made affirmative action a priority or aimed to create a diverse multicultural environment and less likely to agree that faculty in their own institutions were sensitive to issues of minorities or that many courses included minority or feminist perspectives. Those 55 and older were more likely to believe that their institutions put a premium on affirmative action and a multicultural environment and that the faculty was sensitive to minority issues and offered many courses with minority and feminist perspectives. Women were as likely as men to believe that their institution promoted affirmative action for minorities but less likely to believe that it did the same for women; otherwise the differences between age cohorts were much greater than the differences between men and women. Similarly, the difference in age cohorts overshadowed the differences between ethnic groups. Whites were less likely to believe that their institutions wanted to promote affirmative action than were their African American and Latina/Latino colleagues (only Asian Americans were a bit less likely to believe this than whites). Whites were also less likely than any minority group to believe that their institutions hoped to develop appreciation for a multicultural society or to create a diverse multicultural environment.11 The difference between age groups within the faculty has great significance for the long-term future of the humanities and the university as a whole.

I do not mean to paint a nostalgic picture of the past, when a gentleman's club often functioned through various forms of prejudice and unspoken exploitation. But I do mean to suggest that we need to think about the social conditions of our jobs as much as the economic ones. It might also be time for senior women to take the lead in mentoring not just their younger female colleagues but also their younger male ones, to help create a different esprit de corps for history departments, one in which colleagues can work together to confront the challenges of continuing economic pressure, demands for new kinds of learning, threats to the role of teaching faculty, increasing hurdles for tenure, posttenure reviews, and the like. Many of us learned our lessons all too well in the 1980s—to get ahead you had to pursue your own self-interest. It seems unlikely that this will work as well in the future, and we need to think collectively about what will work better for all of us.

—Lynn Hunt is professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.


1. The Digest of Education Statistics, 1996, Table 244; an electronic version is available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/d96/Chapters.htm.

2. The figures in this section are from the Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac (CHEA), 1994, p. 33; 1995, p. 22; and 1997, p. 26.

3. CHEA, 1995, pp. 14 and 22.

4. For 1987, Digest of Education Statistics 1994, p. 232; for 1992, CHEA, 1997, p. 26.

5. CHEA, 1995, p. 18.

6. College and University Personnel Association, 1993–94 National Faculty Salary Survey (Washington D.C., 1994), especially pp. 3–14.

7. Data on part-time faculty from Digest of Educational Statistics, 1993, p. 166; data on female part-time faculty from "Report on the Status of Non–Tenure-Track Faculty," Academe (July-August 1993), 39–46.

8. 1993-94 National Faculty Salary Survey.

9. Digest of Education Statistics 1994, p. 232.

10. All data on age groups comes from Digest of Education Statistics 1994, p. 232

11. Jeffrey F. Milem and Helen S. Astin, "The Changing Composition of the Faculty: What Does it Really Mean for Diversity?" Change 25 (March–April, 1993), p. 25 (Table 4). Age groups were divided into under 35, 35–44, 45–54, 55–64, and 65 and over. The trends tended to be uniform; for example, those under 35 were less likely than those 35–44 to believe that their institutions put a priority on affirmative action for minorities, those 35–44 were less likely to believe this than those 45–54 and so on. The differences are not always great, but the trend is apparent in each case.