Publication Date

April 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Professional Life


Women, Gender, & Sexuality

Last spring, a surprising letter arrived in the mail of an acquaintance of mine. He is an able young Ph.D. from one of the nation’s top universities, who at the time held a temporary position and was seeking his first tenure-track job. To improve his chances of employment, he organized a session for the upcoming convention and submitted his proposal to the AHA Program Committee. The committee chair, Professor Linda Hall, responded as follows:

Thank you for your very interesting panel proposal for the 1991 American Historical Association meetings in Chicago. However your proposal fails to meet all the AHA requirements we need in order to consider it for presentation. Specifically, your panel is not gender balanced. … If you can find a female participant we will be pleased to consider your proposal.

Most historians who read this letter react predictably. First, upon getting the gist of it, they look up in amazement and say, “Surely this isn’t AHA policy!” Then, realizing that they are not quite sure what their Association’s policy is, they back down a bit, saying, “Whatever the AHA’s policy is, surely it was not meant to be carried out in this way.” The conversation then typically focuses on the wording of the letter. “Too literal-minded,” “too rigid,” are typical comments. Most readers are eager to express their support for the principle of gender integration, but they believe it can be achieved less coercively. “Giving preference to gender-balanced panels is desirable, but completely rejecting single-sex panels, refusing even to consider them—that’s going too far,” is the conclusion most commonly reached.

As it happens, Professor Linda Hall, the Program Committee chair, fully agrees that the letter went too far. She informs me that the letter erred in making gender balance a prerequisite for consideration and she accepts full responsibility for the misunderstanding that resulted in that error. Only a handful of such letters went out, unnoticed in the avalanche of mail that crosses the desk of any Program Committee chair. The letter did not accurately reflect the policy of the 1991 Program Committee, which in practice never treated gender balance as an absolute prerequisite for consideration or acceptance—though in other ways the committee did strive to enforce Association policy on gender balance “strictly,” in accordance with the language of the relevant policy guidelines and the advice of AHA staffers. Once she discovered the error, Professor Hall sought to correct it through telephone communications to those concerned, including the recipient of the above letter. Although my acquaintance’s proposal was turned down, both he and I accept Professor Hall’s assurances that it received fair consideration and was rejected for reasons other than gender balance.

Professor Hall generously accepts personal responsibility for misunderstandings that might better be attributed to another source: the AHA’s policy statement on gender balance, Program Committee guideline 6d. Although ambiguous, that guideline not only authorizes, but instructs, the Program Committee to engage in conduct only marginally less coercive than that threatened by the letter. The guideline reads as follows: “The Program Committee will actively seek to avoid gender-segregated sessions. It shall encourage proposers of individual sessions to ensure that whenever possible sessions include members of both sexes.” Presumably as a result of this policy, the proportion of single-sex panels appearing in the annual program has fallen, by my count, from thirty-five in 1986, the year before the first version of 6d was adopted, to no more than six at the 1990 convention. The impact of the policy is felt principally by males: in each of these years, all but one single-sex panel was male. As we shall see, this is unsurprising, since only one of every five or six historians today is a woman, making it much more difficult to include a woman on every panel than a man.

The language of guideline 6d is open to a wide range of interpretations. One can, of course, interpret it noncoercively by focusing on the word “encourage.” Encouraging—even “actively” encouraging—a proposer to conform to a test of gender balance is presumably not the same thing as requiring conformity as a condition for further consideration. But the statement also lends itself to a much more coercive interpretation, for it gives the Program Committee ample authority to exclude a panel if its proposer cannot show that balance was impossible to achieve. The task assigned to the Program Committee is to “actively … encourage” proposers to “ensure … whenever possible” that both sexes are included. These are strong words, and they place the burden of proof squarely on proposers. The tacit assumption is that when someone submits a panel not balanced by gender, the most likely explanation is bias. That this presumption of guilt is refutable does not render it unobjectionable.

The letter received by my acquaintance was not so much a departure from AHA policy as a guilelessly explicit expression of its most coercive features. After all, how is the committee to “actively encourage” gender balance if not by excluding, or threatening to exclude, those panels that fail to meet the test? How is the committee to satisfy itself that the “whenever possible” condition has been met, except by interrogating proposers of single-sex panels, requiring them to testify that they have tried and failed to find participants of the requisite gender? And how can this testimony be elicited unless the committee warns proposers that their panel is likely to be excluded if it is not forthcoming? The letter sent to my acquaintance was an “accident” in the sense that it interpreted 6d more inflexibly than Professor Hall and her committee intended, but even on the most flexible interpretation the guideline encourages the committee to treat proposers as guilty until proven innocent. This was an “accident” that was waiting to happen. What set the stage for it is the evasively coercive language of guideline 6d.

Upon seeing the letter, both a colleague and I called AHA headquarters to protest, taking care not to divulge the name of the recipient. After conferring with Professor Hall, AHA staffers assured us that our acquaintance’s proposal would receive due consideration, and reported that the committee did not regard gender balance as an absolute prerequisite, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. The recipient of the letter received the same assurances directly from Professor Hall a few days later, when he called to inquire cautiously about the fate of his proposal. For obvious reasons he did not identify himself as the subject of our protest. Although Professor Hall assured him that his proposal would be considered, she did not expressly repudiate the language of the letter he had received, and so her assurances seemed pro forma. What does it mean, we wondered, for anyone to promise over the telephone that a single-sex panel will receive “due consideration,” when the committee has already specified in writing that gender balance is a prerequisite to any consideration at all, and when its standing instructions direct it to “ensure … whenever possible” that panels be gender-balanced?

Coercive measures do, I believe, have their appropriate uses in rectifying deep-rooted discrimination. If there is any justification at all for restricting single-sex panels, I suppose it lies in the belief sometimes voiced in feminist circles that males typically are unable or unwilling to recognize merit in the work of their female colleagues. On this interpretation, guideline 6d evidently fights fire with fire, prejudice with prejudgment, sexism with sweeping assumptions about the ethical and intellectual incapacities of the male majority of the Association. But even people firmly convinced, as I am, of the reality and harmfulness of sexism among males might think this suspicion of male judgment and motivation excessive in the case at hand, given the fact that last year seven of the nine elective positions on the governing Council of the AHA (leaving aside the ex officio positions reserved for the president, president-elect, and past president) were occupied by women. How threatening can male chauvinism be in an organization that is more than 80 percent male, and yet elects women to 78 percent of the regular positions on its governing board?

Still more to the point, how threatening can male chauvinism be in an organization in which women are already overrepresented on panels? No doubt this will surprise most historians, as it did me. Not women, but men, are underrepresented on AHA convention panels. At the 1990 convention, for example, women held 34 percent of all panel positions, twice what one would expect, given that they currently constitute little more than 17 percent of academically employed history Ph.D.’s. Nor is the overrepresentation of women a recent development. Women were also overrepresented in 1986, the year before the earliest version of guideline 6d was adopted by the AHA Council. At that convention 28 percent of panelists were women, although women at that time made up only about 16 percent of academically employed Ph.D.’s. Even a decade ago, back in 1980, when women accounted for 15 percent of the profession, they held 23 percent of panel positions at the annual convention, half again the rate of participation one would expect on the basis of their numbers.1

Ironically, women already have much readier access to panel participation than would be produced by even the most radical affirmative action measures now being debated on the national scene. If, for example, the AHA were to adopt the much-hated “quota” system, gearing panel participation directly to the proportions of men and women in the profession, the number of women panelists at future annual meetings would have to be reduced—to half its current level. For many years it has been obligatory for candidates for AHA office to demand that our annual meetings “reflect accurately the real diversity of the profession.” I wonder how many have realized that this goal, if taken seriously, would require the Program Committee to reverse course and take steps to promote greater participation by males?

Professional associations are porous organizations, easily influenced by any dedicated interest group. It is neither surprising nor disturbing, in view of feminism’s current momentum in academic circles, that women should temporarily hold disproportionately large shares of both panel positions and professional offices. But with accession to power the case for affirmative action evaporates. Men need not bend over backwards to be fair in areas in which women are already being treated more than fairly.

What justification is there, then, for the retention of guideline 6d? No doubt avoidance of gender segregation is a worthy goal, and the guidelines should continue to articulate that general sentiment. But what reason is there for thinking that adequate progress toward the goal cannot be achieved voluntarily? Why try to micromanage the composition of particular panels, diluting the intellectual criteria that ought principally to govern panel selection, when women’s overall rate of panel participation is already higher than that of men?

Why place a special burden of proof on the proposers of all-male panels? Surely anyone can see that all-male panels need not signify anything sinister, but only the natural workings of statistical distribution in a population that is more than 80 percent male. Panels typically have about five members; fewer than one in five historians is a woman. Arithmetic alone makes it difficult to include a woman on every panel. Given the large role that women already have in our annual meetings, guideline 6d is not only needless, but counterproductive, for it indiscriminately penalizes even gender-blind decision making and forces male proposers to engage in “tokenism” on behalf of a group that is already more than adequately represented. No one wants to play the role of token. Why not trust each other’s good judgment and leave both the Program Committee and individual proposers free to choose panelists, not because of their sex, but because of the cogency and intellectual relevance of the contribution they are likely to make to the session?

Strong as the case for change may seem, 6d is not without defenders. In April 1991 the AHA’s Research Division, which oversees the Program Committee, met and considered a proposal to revise 6d. The proposal was prompted by the letter sent to my acquaintance, a copy of which was furnished to the Division. The revision proposed was the least confrontational solution imaginable. It consisted of a three-word parenthetical addition to the existing language of the guideline, authorizing the Program Committee to “encourage (but not require) proposers of individual sessions to ensure that whenever possible sessions include members of both sexes.”

Mild though it was, this revision was vigorously rejected. Instead, at its next meeting, in October 1991, the Research Division reaffirmed the language of the guidelines and merely supplemented it by adding several ambiguous sentences to the Program Committee’s informal “lore” book, which does not bind anyone. The first of the new sentences commendably warns committee members not to “misconstrue or misrepresent the AHA’s guidelines.” But this sound advice is then counterbalanced by an affirmation of the Committee’s unqualified “authority to set goals or requirements that go beyond that [sic] stated in the AHA guidelines … [as long as] all announcements and correspondence … clearly state when a goal or requirement is a committee policy rather than an AHA policy.” As an afterthought, the Division added to this ambidextrous statement a third and final sentence that points in the right direction, though with little effect: “For example, guideline 6d should not be interpreted as requiring all sessions to be gender-integrated.”

The result of all this foggy language is that future Program Committees are specifically deprived of authority to treat gender balance as an AHA requirement, but left completely free to adopt it as a committee requirement—a distinction without a difference. And of course even when gender balance is no longer treated as a flat “requirement,” it remains in place as a criterion for preferring some panels over others. The Program Committee is still under orders to discriminate against single-sex panels unless their proposers can show that it is not “possible” to include members of both sexes. How rigorously 6d is to be enforced is, in effect, left up to each committee, and is likely to vary unpredictably from one year to the next.

Instead of mandating ritual displays of mutual respect, let’s try relying on the real thing, voluntarily expressed. In the absence of hard evidence of discrimination, coercive measures, no matter how well intended, do more harm than good. The time has passed for fine-tuning the hopelessly vague and misguided language of guideline 6d. In place of 6d (and 6e, which parallels it in matters of age, ethnicity, and race), I urge the Council to adopt a new Program Committee guideline reading as follows:

In the selection of panelists the aim should be to avoid parochialism in all its forms. No simple formula will insure this result, but panels made up of a single gender, race, religion, age cohort, political persuasion, or school of thought are, on average, less likely to be intellectually productive than panels that give voice to diverse perspectives. Panelists should, of course, be selected mainly for the intellectual cogency and relevance of their expected contribution to the topic under discussion. Other things being equal, the Program Committee will give priority to panels that display a spirit of cosmopolitanism, both in the kinds of questions asked and in the range of perspectives brought to bear on them.

Thomas L. Haskell is a professor of history at Rice University.


Response to Professor Haskell

In Professor Thomas Haskell’s document entitled “A Proposal to Change the Program Committee Guidelines” he quotes a letter sent over my name to “an acquaintance” of his over a year ago. This letter was sent in error, and did not at that time or at any time represent the policy of the 1991 Program Committee, nor did it represent my interpretation of 6d in the Program Committee guidelines. The proposer of the panel asked for clarification, and he was informed by telephone within a few days that it inaccurately reflected the intentions of the Committee and that his panel would be fully considered at the March meeting. However, as Professor Haskell observes, it is understandable under the circumstances that these assurances were unconvincing. Clarification was given as well to the few others who received the inaccurate letter and inquired. No proposals were withdrawn, and all proposals submitted to the Committee were considered at the March meeting. As I have emphasized to Professor Haskell and others, I was entirely responsible for the error, the result of an injudicious alteration of a form letter. I very much regret that this error occurred, but it in no way altered the ultimate form of the program.

The policy of the 1991 Program Committee was to apply all of the guidelines of the Association as carefully as possible. As chair, I felt that we had both the authority and the responsibility to enforce all the guidelines in Section 6 (which are largely directed to questions of eligibility), and I felt that we had both the authority and the responsibility to waive those guidelines when there was good reason to do so. We informed all panel proposers of any inconformities with those guidelines, while remaining open to the reasonable exception. In the case of 6d, nine panels on the 1991 program were either all men (eight) or all women (one). In terms of overall balance, approximately 228 of 700 participants were women. The 1991 Program Committee acted fairly and carefully, as the 1991 Program reflects.

I must note, however, that as chair of the Committee I found 6d to be by far the most sensitive issue with which I had to deal, and one that caused considerable confusion not only for me but also for the members who were proposing panels. It is, moreover, the only item in Section 6 in which the Program Committee is directed to “actively seek” to achieve a particular end. For these reasons, it would be extremely useful, it seems to me, for the Research Division and the AHA Council to give future Program Committees more specific guidance in regard to the goals to be served by gender-integrated panels. I believe that the guidelines in Section 6 should be directed to opening the program to the largest possible number of members and to presenting a wide variety of voices and perspectives. Professor Haskell’s suggestion in this direction deserves careful consideration.

Linda B. Hall is a professor of history at the University of New Mexico and chair of the 1991 Program Committee.

The Research Division Responds to Professor Haskell

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.

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


  1. My figures for the proportion of women in the profession come from the same source routinely cited in these pages by the Committee on Women Historians: the biennial “profiles” published by the National Research Council, titled Humanities Doctorates in the United States. They give the proportions of women among academically employed history Ph.D.’s, based on an annual census in which NRC personnel have great confidence. AHA staffers tell me that the proportion of women on AHA membership rolls is higher, ranging somewhere between 25 and 30 percent, but they admit that this is only an estimate; surprisingly, as of this writing, no one has ever counted AHA members by gender. Even if this estimate were used instead of NRC’s hard data, women would still have been overrepresented on 1990 AHA panels by as much as a third. Readers may be surprised that women constitute less than 20 percent of the profession, since the proportion of women among new Ph.D.’s, fresh out of graduate school, has been above 30 percent for nearly a decade; but the population to which these new recruits are being added is large (it includes people who got their degrees as many as forty years ago) and so it changes slowly. The proportions of panel participants are based on names of known gender that appear in the “Index of Participants” in each annual meeting Program. Space limitations preclude a fuller account of the sources employed, but anyone interested is invited to correspond with the author. []