Publication Date

February 1, 2006

Perspectives Section

From the President

Editor's Note: The following article is a revised version of "A New Agenda for the Academic Workplace," Chronicle of Higher Education, March 18, 2005, B6–B8. An expanded version of the essay is appearing as part of a forum in the Journal of Women's History, 18:1 (spring 2006), 121–32.

Last spring, the AHA Committee on Women Historians (CWH) published the most recent in its occasional reports on the status of women in the historical profession, available as an AHA pamphlet or online. Prepared from a survey of academic historians, conducted by the CWH and written by Elizabeth Lunbeck of Princeton University, it is a remarkable document that commands the attention of all historians with graduate training, wherever located professionally. Along with the CWH statement, “Gender Equity in the Academic History Workplace: A Guide to Best Practices“, the Report on the Status of Women in the Historical Profession calls upon us to set a fresh agenda for women and for men, and once again, as we did in the 1970s and 1980s, to do our part to reshape the landscape of the academy.

Women historians who entered the profession between 1975 and 1985 revealed themselves to be "the most optimistic and satisfied of survey respondents." That does not surprise me; this generation could see real change happen before their eyes. They entered graduate school at a time when women were a tiny minority in major graduate history programs; the average figure in 1970 was 13 percent. There were fewer women in visible positions in the profession than there had been a generation before, when Nellie Nielson was president of the American Historical Association in 1943. (There would not be another woman president until Natalie Zemon Davis in 1987.) When that generation entered graduate school, gay men and women were generally closeted; disabled people were rarely admitted at all. Senior male professors were often (though not always) unenthusiastic about accepting women students, partly because they sometimes felt awkward about working with them, partly because they knew that even when the women wrote brilliant dissertations it would be almost impossible for them to find jobs worthy of their talents.

Buttressed by a progressive political landscape in the 1970s, those who sought to change the academic landscape had successes that we still enjoy. Most importantly, the professional pipeline was opened (though it is still leaky, especially for people from the working class). In regularizing tenure procedures and modifying antinepotism policies, university corporate practices were greatly improved. Responding to federal guidelines for affirmative action, the AHA initiated the Employment Information Bulletin, ending job secrecy and undermining the power of placement officers to determine our futures. The CWH initiated the practice of including a graduate student member on an AHA standing committee, and the practice has expanded; now a graduate student member is permanently on the Council. The CWH initiated a collectively written advice manual, which began as The Survival Guide for Women (and Other) Historians, demystifying the practices of the profession for everyone.1 The editors of the AHR were responsive to the CWH’s demand that they scrutinize their lists of readers and members of editorial boards for gender bias that undermined choosing the most knowledgeable scholars for advice. And, although it took a long struggle, the dates of the annual meeting were shifted so as not to intrude on family holiday time between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

But responses from women who received their degrees more recently are remarkably different in tone and spirit. These respondents are joined more informally by men and women with disabilities and by gay, lesbian, and transgendered historians, who speak their bitterness in terms that are, alas, familiar. Many told the CWH survey of being targets of contempt, of assaults on their dignity, of sexual harassment from their own colleagues, of salary inequities, of overloaded service expectations (particularly for women of color). It is chilling indeed to hear reports of "the intimidation of women" in "hostile institutional climates." As the CWH report observes, "Too many had assumed, as one woman put it, that gender problems would be ‘fixed' by hiring a few more women.… With a larger cohort of women on faculties, more subtle and less easily addressed gender inequalities have come to the fore." [Survey, Introduction].

These complaints involve us all. Among them are searing indictments of history departments that have been unable, or have given up trying, to sustain collegial environments. If women are unhappy in these climates, it's easy to predict that many men are being made equally uncomfortable. The report on the status of women historians has much to tell us about all academic historians and those who are their students, whether or not the latter go on to practice in the academy.

Institutional convenience, institutional rules, institutional structures continue to intrude into our private lives. Now that many academic men are in partnership with academic women, now that the academy is populated with many same-sex partnerships, both men and women are complaining of the virtual absence of coherent benefit policies that make it possible for them to be professionals and parents; indeed, to be professionals and human beings attuned to the needs of aging relatives, adult siblings, and the health challenges faced by partners.

Academic institutions have been especially hapless in reforming policies on pregnancy and related infant and child care. A report inAcademe, the bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, notes that men with babies entering their households within five years of receiving their PhD are 38 percent more likely than their women counterparts to achieve tenure within 12 to 14 years. That is true across the liberal arts and sciences, and across four-year institutions, whether colleges or research universities.2 Tenure clocks were set when a male academic profession was blithely unconcerned about women’s biological clocks, and when men, even when they wished to, faced severe criticism were they to insist on reshaping their schedules to spend more time with young children. (Coaching Little League was another matter.) Women and men who are single parents have an especially hard time. Women with roots in the working class, a group that includes a disproportionate number of women of color, are especially hurt by their institutions’ failure to provide on-site child care and robust health-care coverage (including for partners).

Now men as well as women report trouble navigating the academic ladder. According to the American Council on Education's recent report "An Agenda for Excellence: Creating Flexibility in Tenure-Track Faculty Careers," young male faculty members "are making career sacrifices for parenting and caregiving at a much higher rate than their senior counterparts."3 Many mothers—and some caregiving fathers—are not married; in most states it remains impossible for same-sex partners to marry, and in some, state law forbids the extension of fringe benefits to same-sex partners. Yet all of us, men and women, parents or not, are likely to find ourselves at some moment with close relations—elderly parents, adult siblings, or life partners stricken with cancer or suicidal depression—who need our care.

We have not begun to think collectively about how family care might be taken out of crisis mode. For institutions that pride themselves on their intellectual power, that neglect of a major challenge is remarkable.

Anyone who thought that women were being excessively grouchy surely changed their minds in January 2005, when Harvard University President Lawrence Summers commented on women's inadequacy in the sciences.4 The firestorm that broke out in response focused on the issue of innate sex differences; it largely ignored Summers’s primary assumption that the 80-hour work week is a nonnegotiable requirement for a successful research career in the sciences (along with the implication that it does not require an 80-hour week to be successful in the arts and humanities). The 80-hour metaphor translates into 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., seven days a week. Most studies suggest that it is women and single parents, male or female, who are trying to combine jobs with childcare and housework, whose working hours have expanded so severely. Nor did commentators explore the implications of the traditional assumption that attention to family care is necessarily at odds with professional competence and ambition.

The outpouring of anger and frustration we are hearing today is a sign that as more and more women join men in earning a PhD, the inequities of the tenure-track academic profession are becoming more apparent. Once again we must re-envision how the professoriate is embodied. In the 1970s, what women needed for ourselves actually benefited the entire profession, and helped make a more equitable workplace for all. The CWH survey marks another moment when we are challenged to redefine the components of a professional career and to redefine inherited definitions of an equitable workplace.

Historians cannot make policy changes alone. But we can offer historical context for the problems with which we all struggle, and we can collaborate with our colleagues throughout many sites of historical practice (in state and federal agencies, museums, schools, and colleges) to engage these issues and support wise experiments.

Can we reimagine what counts as "full time"? Can we abort the drift toward the use of adjunct and temporary faculty members, passing on fewer benefits and making it impossible to maintain a research agenda, which affects both men and women but which has a disproportionate impact on women, who often hold such jobs? (The speed-up makes it almost impossible for scholars with disabilities, who must navigate their work with less rushing around.) Can we reconsider the high proportion of fellowship aid that is attached to teaching obligations, sending the implicit message, "don't get pregnant in graduate school" despite what we know about the heightened likelihood of birth defects and health complications of pregnancy in older women? Does our vision of who is likely to be an innovative and resilient colleague include people who were the first in their family to go to college, often people of color? White women's representation in the academy has skyrocketed since the 1970s; scholars of color have rarely found upward mobility in academic life.

As we reconsider the characteristics of the equitable academic workplace, let us not be apologetic. The CWH report has been framed by women historians. Some of what we claim is in the name of convenience and accessibility. But we have a larger vision: to reclaim the entire academic workplace as a locale for a full and humane life, for contemplation and meditation. People who do good work over the full expanse of their careers should be whole human beings, part of the world's tragedies and comedies.

This will be the work of a generation. We had better begin.

—Linda Kerber (Univ. of Iowa) is the president of the AHA.


1. Melanie S. Gustafson, Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 2003).

2. Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, “Do Babies Matter (Part II)? Closing the Baby Gap,” Academe (November/December 2004), 10–15; see also “Inequities Persist for Women and Non-Tenure Track Faculty,”Academe (March/April 2005), 20–30.

3. American Council on Education, Executive Summary ofAn Agenda for Excellence: Creating Flexibility in Tenure-Track Faculty Careers (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education 2005), 5. Available at, accessed September 7, 2005.

4. Lawrence H. Summers, “Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce,” January 14, 2005,, accessed October 16, 2005.

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