Publication Date

May 1, 1998

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

Over the past several decades the Committee on Women Historians has received a steadily increasing number of requests for the AHA to develop a set of professional guidelines for spousal and partner hiring practices. Because of the complexity of the issues involved in such policies the committee decided that the best course would be to develop a "working document" that could stimulate an open debate within the profession. The committee has discussed the following document and would like to share it with the membership for comment.

Why We Need a Spousal/Partner Policy Statement

  1. Though more systematic research needs to be done, there is considerable evidence (see our Report on the Status and Hiring of Women and Minority Historians in Academia, 1995—available free from the AHA, and also on the AHA web site, that women are more likely than men to make career sacrifices in order to maintain marriages and committed relationships with partners. (The significantly higher percentage of women with PhDs in history in “adjunct” and “nonacademic” positions is telling.)
  2. History department chairs throughout the country encounter spousal/partner issues daily in hiring and retention cases. Most departments are engaging in heated debates about this issue; they are improvising, and regularly express the need for guidance from the AHA.
  3. While, in principle, spousal/partner policies could and should be nondiscriminatory with regard to gender and sexual preference, there is considerable anxiety among women historians that current academic policies that do acknowledge spousal/partner issues in hiring and retention are used disproportionately to accommodate the personal needs of senior married heterosexual men, rather than married women, nontraditional heterosexual couples, or gays and lesbians.
  4. There is continuing evidence of gender bias in hiring decisions with regard to marital status, and in the case of gays and lesbians, with regard to recognition of committed relationships. Women who are married or in committed relationships continue to be perceived as "less movable" and less committed to their careers or to particular institutions than married or committed men, and are still perceived to be "higher risk appointments" than single women or married or committed men. Women are perceived as more likely to sacrifice professional ambition for "family" matters (especially child rearing). Married women (especially younger ones) repeatedly report removing wedding rings, for example, before job interviews in order to avoid prejudicial judgments by interviewers.
  5. Spousal/partner issues in hiring and retention inevitably raise the issue of "unadvertised searches" (creating a position to recruit a spouse or partner). Women and minorities fought long and hard in the Association for a policy against unadvertised searches because they were traditionally used to sustain the "old boys' network" in the profession. There is no doubt that advertised searches have resulted in greater equity in hiring decisions, with regard to issues of women and minorities as well as to issues of the relative status and influence of PhD granting institutions (encouraging search committees to look beyond the Ivy League and Big Ten for potential candidates).
  6. Conclusion: Spousal/partner issues are not going to go away. As more women and gays enter into the profession (a goal our committee promotes), the issue of spousal/partner hiring will become increasingly frequent. We have two choices: (1) No action: Hold the line on the principle of "one person, one job" and "no unadvertised searches." The risk here is that without an explicit policy, departments will simply improvise and that issues of equity are likely to continue to be compromised if left to the discretionary judgment of department chairs, deans, provosts, and chancellors; (2) Action: the risk here is that a spousal/partner policy will jeopardize, or at least compromise, the policy against unadvertised searches. Accommodating spousal/partner issues could compromise affirmative action goals.

Policy Recommendation

As a consequence of these considerations the Committee on Women Historians proposes the following policy statement for discussion by the AHA membership:

  1. Searches for all positions in the historical profession should be advertised in conformity with the AHA guidelines insuring equal opportunity.
  2. The individual scholarly merits and potential of a candidate and departmental need should be the principal criteria for making hiring decisions, without consideration of the marital status or personal commitments of the candidate.
  3. The AHA recognizes, however, that once a candidate has been selected for recruitment through a search, spousal/partner issues may arise, and are likely to arise with greater frequency in hiring and retention negotiations. Because individual candidates must consider their personal commitments in making career decisions and spousal/partner considerations may be crucial in successful recruitment and retention, such considerations are inevitable for candidates. Moreover, the presence of a spouse or partner may present an unanticipated exceptional hiring opportunity for the department or another department or program at the same institution. In both cases, the AHA Committee on Women Historians recognizes that consideration of spousal/partner appointments may be appropriate.

Proposed Guidelines for Spousal/Partner Appointments in Hiring and Retention

In order to ensure equity in such procedures the AHA Committee on Women Historians proposes the following guidelines for consideration.

  1. Consideration of spousal/partner issues should occur only at the initiative of the candidate for recruitment or retention.
  2. To ensure equity with regard to gender and sexual preference in the initiation of such considerations, history departments and institutions of higher education in general should adopt public and explicit nondiscrimination policies with regard to spouses and partner recruitment and employment.
  3. Under no circumstance should spousal/partner appointment jeopardize current or prospective affirmative action searches/lines intended for the goal of increasing diversity.
  4. As spousal/partner appointments in most cases, in effect, constitute an unanticipated and therefore unadvertised appointment, departments should develop specific procedures in order to ensure the greatest possible equity for the candidate, the spouse/partner, and the professional community at large. We propose the following procedures:
    1. In the event that a candidate initiates consideration of the appointment of a spouse or partner, an ad hoc committee should be constituted to consider the candidacy of the spouse or partner on its own merits, independently from the case of the initiating candidate.
    2. In conformity with regular search procedures the ad hoc committee should assess the individual merit of the spouse/partner and the consequences of such an appointment for immediate departmental needs and long-term planning.
    3. In conformity with regular search procedures, the ad hoc committee should take explicit steps to evaluate the merits of the spousal/partner candidate in relation to other possible candidates in their field. This should entail a systematic canvassing of other potential candidates for a position in the field of the candidate (through letters of inquiry to specialists in the field and a reading and evaluation of publications by scholars in the same field at a comparable stage in their careers).
    4. The committee should also make an explicit assessment of the affirmative action consequences of such appointments.
    5. The ad hoc committee should make a recommendation to the department and the ultimate decision to recommend the spousal/partner appointment should be made in conformity with regular departmental search procedures (that is, by vote of the departmental faculty).

Please send comments and responses to Noralee Frankel, Assistant Director on Women, Minorities, and Teaching, American Historical Association, 400 A St., SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889. E-mail:

The Committee on Women Historians will publish a selection of representative responses in an upcoming issue of Perspectives.

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