AHA Activities

Committee on Women Historians, 1970–90: A Twenty-Year Report

AHA Staff, March 1991

Twenty years ago, an ad hoc committee of the AHA, chaired by Professor Willie Lee Rose, issued its first report on the Status of Women in the Historical Profession. The AHA established this committee in response to a petition by historians requesting an investigation into women's status. The committee report, soon to be known simply as the Rose Report, argued that the AHA had a “significant area of responsibility and opportunity” to develop policies and an institutional structure that would secure “greater equity for women as prospective students and teachers of history.”

The Rose Report recommended the establishment of a standing Committee on Women Historians, the development of effective mechanisms to deal with individual cases of alleged discrimination against women, greater representation of women within the AHA, and the collaboration of the AHA with history departments in developing more flexible work policies. Today, twenty years later, we are evaluating the success of the Committee on Women Historians and the AHA in achieving the goals set by the Rose Report and the additional mandate to monitor the status of women's history.

It may be helpful for those who have come of age professionally since 1970, to briefly review the position of women in the historical profession and the AHA within the context which the Rose Report was issued. In 1970, I was eight years out of graduate school and I can vividly remember the status of women and their isolation within the profession. In the years between 1930 and 1970, women were 10 percent of the PhDs in history, but when I graduated in 1962 with a PhD in United States history, I was among 2 percent in that field who were women. Perhaps those of us who already felt marginal had an advantage in surviving on the margins of the historical profession. My parents came from first generation immigrant and poor farm families. Neither completed high school. I certainly felt marginal in graduate school. And, like other women graduates, I expected little from our profession. We hid our injuries, complained quietly over coffee, and found our strength elsewhere.

In the 1950s, many of us entered and completed graduate school against the advice of senior professors, especially if we chose to enter certain fields and if we were married. We had to search long to find mentors and acceptable research topics. We could not choose women's history because it was not accepted as a legitimate field of historical inquiry.

After graduation, we had other obstacles. Many positions were not advertised nationally in those days and women were not encouraged to apply. If we did, we were frequently not considered without a strong male patron or training in exotic or highly specialized fields. I, like many other women, obtained a teaching position at a small liberal arts college where I was poorly paid, overworked, and not encouraged to pursue research.

In 1970, women were being hired by departments in small numbers but they were clustering at the bottom of the academic ranks, often in part-time, non-tenured positions. In the history departments of major research institutions, women were absent or alone. At prestigious coeducational liberal arts colleges they were a small minority. Only in the history departments of women's colleges did women have much visibility. There was almost no women's history being taught or researched within history departments across the country. Many women worked at what we now call public history, but the profession centered on the academic world where women were a miniscule minority. Women were barely visible within the AHA structure, at its annual meetings, or as members of committees.

By 1990 that small, nearly invisible and isolated group of women historians had grown into a robust, visible, collegiate minority. Greater equity had been achieved, both for women as prospective students and teachers of history, and as public historians. Today, women's history is one of the most lively of disciplines, still growing in size and sophistication. For those of us who came of age professionally without women's history and with few female colleagues, it is still a fresh delight to be able to have this world of women's history and women scholars so well represented in the profession. We need to celebrate that change. We also need to call attention to the ways in which the equity gained has been uneven and incomplete and what we may do to remove those inequities. First, let us congratulate, then criticize and analyze.

Visibility within the AHA is one of the most notable changes that women have achieved with the help of the Committee of Women Historians. Today over 90 percent of all programs of the annual meetings are gender integrated, with women as more than one-third of the participants. Women are on almost all committees. They hold key positions on the council and as vice presidents of the research, teaching, and professional divisions. Natalie Davis has recently served as president. While women of the AHA are still a smaller group than men, they are also a more diverse group. Proportionately, we have more public historians, more students, more unemployed, and more retired, and fewer college teachers. We want to maintain vigilance on the status of all these groups. Membership has not yet reached 40 percent but student membership has, indicating that women are entering the profession in large numbers. Graduate students are a particularly important constituency and should be more visible in our concerns. Overall, however, the record of the AHA is very good.

The news on current hiring in history departments is also encouraging. In 1988, 38 percent of all newly awarded PhDs were women. According to the National Research Council, in 1987, women were being hired at tenure-track assistant professor levels in numbers almost equal to the percentage of women graduating with PhDs and at the same salary as men. At the entry level, according to these figures, women are not experiencing the difficulties they once had in obtaining beginning tenure-track positions.

Now for the other story, the one that merits continued criticism and analysis. The increase in numbers of women receiving their PhDs in history has not affected racial ethnic representation. In 1988, proportionately more new PhDs were white than in 1975, fifteen years before. The number of African American, American Indian, Hispanic, and Asian women historians has grown, but very slowly. Fifty-nine women graduates in the last four years increased the percentage of women among racial ethnic PhD graduates from 26 to 31 percent, but that number remained below the proportionate number of white women receiving PhDs. Although some universities have hired these women as beginning scholars, some of these same universities are reluctant to support them through the ranks after initial hirings. If these women teach at universities where they remain minorities, they are often isolated and lack a collegial environment and acceptance. The CWH has in the last few years worked to develop policies within the AHA, such as establishing a minority committee and joint initiatives with the OAH to address these issues and to increase the number of racial ethnic minorities within the profession as a whole. Much more must be done.

Even the healthy increase in percentages of women historians does not mean that once women have entered the profession, they experience equality. The figures of the National Research Council clearly show that the longer women remain in the academic profession, the more they fall behind their male counterparts in income and rank. Moreover, this shadow inequity is more extreme in the field of history than in other humanities. This is of particular concern because these women not only experienced inequity in pay when they began working but also have carried these inequities with them into the higher ranks and now, as many plan to retire, will take these inequities with them into retirement. The AHA in its 1990 Guidelines on Hiring Women Historians in Academia has recommended to departments and university administrators support for lump sum adjustments in salaries of these women. We want to encourage all women as they move up in the academic ranks to have their salaries reviewed for equity. Equity adjustments before retirement will help mitigate the lasting effects of this previous inequity.

Since women are proportionately overrepresented among retired scholars, these statistics may indicate that women historians are retiring younger than males and that they will live long productive lives as scholars after retirement from their jobs. The AHA could provide support for those years in more specific ways. It might provide a computer registry for those interested in temporary or part-time visiting professorships, lecturing in fields to which they have made scholarly contributions, and grants to continue their research. We need to develop ways of insuring that women remain active in the profession as long as they wish. Women have already pioneered ways of supporting unaffiliated scholars and these new support networks should be developed and expanded to retired scholars as well.

For mid-career scholars, the priorities are somewhat different. Many women historians remain overworked, isolated, and underpaid. While these women were working to achieve equity, professional standards have risen. They now risk being told that they are not good enough. These women are increasingly trapped between male colleagues who still refuse their assistance in achieving equity and a cadre of beginning women historians who are extremely well-trained and highly competitive. It is easier and less expensive for departments to hire beginning scholars than to support equity for women already in the system. The clustering of women at the bottom of academic positions continues. Women are twice as likely as men to hold non-tenure track positions and almost fifteen times as likely to hold adjunct positions where they received unequal professional and faculty welfare benefits. As it was twenty years ago, the part-time market remains feminized. Some states have moved to mandate full-time teaching as a solution to increased part-time hiring but that is not enough. The Rose Report emphasized, and most women historians still support, the availability of flexible well-paid part-time positions as well as access to full-time positions.

The structure of institutional support for all academic women is thus still not equal. According to Patricia Albjerg Graham's calculations in "Revisiting the Rose Report," there have been improvements in ten of the top ranked research universities, but numbers overall are still low at 12 percent. Liberal arts colleges have crept up to 19 percent but women's colleges have actually declined in the full professor range. As more professors retire in the 1990s, promotion must come from within as well as from new candidates.

Why is the number of women at the top still increasing so slowly or—as in the case of women's colleges—actually decreasing? The answer probably lies in several reasons. The remnants of direct discrimination keep women in non-tenure-track positions or shift them there. Indirect discrimination withholds the structures that allow women to be the most productive and make the greatest contribution to their profession.

Faculty and other welfare structures remain inadequate or lacking. Policies on sexual harassment are still restricted and lax. Childcare policies, even in the best of cases, provide for a small minority of the children of professional parents and are producing lengthening waiting lists. Personal family leave to care for dependents young and old is uneven. The CWH has assembled material from the American Association of University Professors of model policies that address many of these concerns. We urge the further study of such policies to develop guidelines that historians may support in their own institutions.

The CWH has engaged in a number of continuing activities over the last twenty years that have become an established part of the AHA. It has produced Guidelines on Hiring Women Historians in Academia, the third edition of which was mailed to history departments in November 1990. It has produced two editions of a Survival Manual directed to graduate students and beginning scholars. In January of 1991, it will be publishing a third edition entitled Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual for Women and Men. It has sponsored colloquia and conferences on women's history, including most recently Women and Public Policy and Women and the Progressive Era. It has encouraged the publication of historiographical aids that include or focus on women's history. It has sponsored sessions at the annual meeting, such as one on the Equal Rights Amendment and one on part-time professions. It has sponsored yearly breakfasts where women and men may come together to share and support the principles of equity in the profession.

Much remains to be done. As women approach a critical mass within our major professional association, we must rededicate ourselves to achieving equity in the thousands of academic and public history institutions across the country. Influencing these thousands of institutions will take new strategies and tactics. We will have to encourage cross-disciplinary alliances within institutions, provide women with tools to dismantle entrenched inequity in policy and practice, and develop tactics that are effective in reducing unequal demands upon their time and energy. By supporting policies that will increase our racial and ethnic diversity and provide the necessary support structures, we will enable the history profession as a whole to become a model of equity for the nation.

Joan M. Jensen
Chair, Committee on Women Historians
Professor, New Mexico State University