Townhouse Notes: Women Historians Speak from the AHA Archive
I’ve lingered a bit in two boxes of files related to the AHA’s Committee on Women Historians (CWH, now the Committee on Gender Equity), which came to the Association’s townhouse over the summer. The unprocessed documents, from the early 1980s, record the work of feminist historians holding a mirror to the discipline—and sometimes to the AHA—reflecting a hard-set visage.
One folder I looked through contained 26 responses to 2 open-ended questions from a survey the CWH distributed to 250 women historians in 1983, dealing with graduate education, professional life, and the status of women’s history. Among them was a response I was certain had been written by the AHA’s current president, Mary Beth Norton, though it was unsigned. You can read her reflections on what she wrote some 35 years ago in her column this month. I didn’t try to identify or contact any of the other authors.
All 26 responses struck notes of frustration, to varying extents. As voices from the past, they demand a look back in themselves, but they bear special relevance to us today, as academics and scholarly societies attempt to grapple with sexism and sexual harassment.
One of the paradoxes of being a minority in an academic discipline, as women as a whole were at the time of the survey, is being expected to specialize in a field related to your identity at the same time as that field is dismissed as “trendy.” Such was the case for several respondents. One who wrote books with women in them but didn’t see herself contributing much to women’s history wrote that departments should “restrain themselves from pushing all women on the faculty into women’s history. . . . I found myself . . . not wanting to be put in a box.” Another noted, “Women’s history is considered by most men to be faddish . . . useful because it meets student demand and generates enrollment, but not an authentic branch of history.”
Another paradox was being a visible token hire on the one hand and expendable on the other. One respondent confided, “It has been five years since I was denied tenure, and I still have bad dreams about it.” A male historian, who she thought was the candidate her colleagues really wanted to hire, joined the department the year after she did. “After he came,” she wrote, “I became defined as a lesser light. And he, too, defined me as a lesser light.” “I do not believe that there was anything I could have done to have been awarded tenure,” she concluded. Another respondent was hired as an adjunct, was promoted to assistant professor, then, along with another female colleague, was terminated the year following. “Comparable men were kept,” she wrote. A different respondent was hired at the same time as another female professor. “We were allowed to play musical chairs for the one tenured slot available,” she wrote.
But the “paradox” articulated most often was that family obligations closed off traditional academic career paths. One respondent juggled multiple jobs before finishing her dissertation. Then, she found, “the job situation in history was critical. I had not taught in four years, and my family situation was such that I could not even consider hopping about the country on one year teaching assignments.” An elder historian, ambitious to the core, said she “decided on a field of study as an undergraduate and pursued it for the rest of my life, always on the academic fringes because I married and had children[.]” There were costs, she wrote: “One has to accept financial dependence on one’s spouse and one is denied the privilege of working formally with the kind of students one would enjoy[.]”
The AHA has found that in recent years women have achieved parity when it comes to gaining employment as historians, both within and beyond the professoriate. But the problems women historians detailed to the AHA 35 years ago, while less obvious now (and likely pertaining less to white women), haven’t gone away. The plaints in the 26 documents in the file feel all too familiar.
Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.
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