Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Am I That Name? Why the AHA's Gender Policies Make Sense to Some of Us

I've been participating in a fascinating discussion about graduate advisors over at Ferule and Fescue; instead of recapitulating it, I'll just send you there.

I also want to thank those people who commented on my last post: you were, in turns, funny, sweet and -- most importantly -- you took the post in the spirit it was intended. Mary Dudziak took the trouble to do a retrospective post on my book, which was also really nice.

So in the spirit of following up on other people's posts, I want to point to a fair amount of chatter in the history blogosphere on the question of the American Historical Association's requirement that panels at the Annual Meeting be gender diverse: you can get to much of the discussion, and some interesting commentary, by going to this post by Rebecca Goetz, the Historianess. Rebecca has included a number of good links to other posts on the topic, and also engages in a spirited debate in the comments section (and in the post itself) over gender, and gender equality, in the historical profession more generally. Why, she argues, when we should be focused on structural inequality, should the AHA have a policy in place that serves to make women "tokens" on panels where their only function is to sit there and "be" women? Furthermore, she implies that this rule on the program committee might cause a panel organizer to limit her/himself in choosing participants, and perhaps compromise the intellectual integrity of the panel.

OK. I understand where Rebecca is coming from, and if you read the whole thing rather than my necessarily brief recapitulation, you will see how thoughtful she is. But -- even though her observation is sensible, and Denise Riley and Joan Scott would be jumping up and singing hallelujah at Rebecca's accurate take on the epistemological issue at hand -- I beg to differ with Rebecca's conclusion about how the policy affects women -- and men -- in the historical profession.

The AHA's requirement is not senseless. Discrimination against women in many intellectual fields, history being but one of them, has been directly connected to what spaces women are -- or are not -- permitted to occupy and what networks they have been excluded from. You can go very far back, to 1912, when AHA president-elect William Dunning wrote J. Franklin Jameson to say that the AHA council meeting could not be held at the Century Club in New York because Lucy Maynard Salmon would be forced to enter through the Ladies' entrance and it would make her feel like a second-class citizen. Jameson more or less called him a sissy in response; Dunning went ahead and rented a faculty dining room at Columbia where Salmon could be a historian, not just a "lady" who happened to be a historian.

Fast forward to 1930, when "The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians [was] response to women academics' sense of professional isolation," as the website explains. "Although allowed to join the American Historical Association...women were never invited to the 'smokers,' the parties, the dinners and the informal gatherings where the leading men of the profession introduced their graduate students to their colleagues and generally shepherded them into history jobs in colleges and universities." One of the things our foremothers were responding to was the direct connection between these informal networks and the access women had to jobs, status, and publication in the American Historical Review. And let's be honest -- with all the talk about mentoring and networking in our professional circles (we hold workshops on these activities at annual meetings and urge graduate students to develop these skills), anyone who thinks that hiring and publishing have been transformed into utterly objective processes where connections do not matter, and scholarship alone reigns supreme, is not paying attention.

And of course, black scholars continued to be discriminated against in the same way long into the twentieth century. As with barriers to the employment of women, few white historians were willing to challenge the racial segregation of public facilities that meant black scholars not only had little access to the networks, in many cases they couldn't even register for the convention without breaking the color bar and getting arrested. Fred A. Bailey has a great article about the efforts of the Southern Historical Association to alter this in the November, 2003 issue of the Journal of Southern History: Bailey focuses on the central role of John Hope Franklin and determined white allies in this desegregation effort. And I have to tell you, the Southern is still one of the best integrated history conferences -- race, gender, sexuality, you name it -- that I go to, thanks in part to the efforts of these progressives.

Lack of diversity in the profession is not ancient history either, as my three examples might inadvertantly suggest, and racial diversity is a topic that deserves its own post. But gender: let me tell you. I am just old enough (49) to remember a time when many of us women were mentored in part or wholly by men, because -- well, there just weren't that many women on history faculties. And if you didn't want to do your primary graduate work in the emerging field of women's history, forget it.

This is a long way around to explaining to a younger generation of scholars -- men and women -- from a vantage of almost twenty-five years as a historian observing change in the profession, that integrating panels by gender is not just an annoyance, or some kind of PC bandaid intended to cover up "real" problems. Take a look at the AHA's Lunbeck report if you don't think the organization takes gender discrimination seriously. I want to say that I take these younger historians' concerns seriously too. But I would also like to point out that although assistant professors are living in a different world than the one even I came up in, it is also one in which women are successfully getting the majority of Ph.D.'s in history but oddly, not the majority of jobs. And yet, in departments that are predominantly male, it is not infrequent to hear people grumbling about quotas when it is suggested that perhaps seeing men's scholarship as inherently better, or hiring women primarily to teach the history of gender, is still pervasive.

I repeat: clearly it is time to find a new way to articulate the values of equal opportunity, in a way that makes sense to a younger generation grappling with a changed gender terrain. But I would like to make three final points:

1. The gender diversity rule, by asking you to include more than one gender on a panel, should expand, not shrink the pool of people you are considering for a panel. For example, because of gender diversity, when I was but a wee Radical, I once asked Alan Brinkley to be on a panel of mine on women in the New Deal. Alan, you may have noticed, does not work on women, but is a prominent scholar all the same. By asking a scholar, who happened to be a man and didn't work on gender, we got a terrific comment that authoritatively connected what some people might have perceived as marginal work to the field of New Deal political history. Finding a woman in those days who worked on the New Deal and didn't work on women would have been a feat. Gender diversity, while not a direct path to intellectual excellence, did lead there. And as an aside, Alan was really flattered to have been asked to join a conversation that otherwise, at best, he might have observed from the audience.

2. As I have grown older, I have been in the Brinkley position. If saying "we need a woman" gives some younger scholars the incentive to work up the nerve to ask me to work with them, terrific. And it has given me the opportunity to meet young people whose networks I am not automatically going to be in because of age and status differences.

3. The AHA's rule is simply not about discrimination against men, period: this is a right-wing canard that has unfortunately become common sense in centrist and liberal discourse over the past decade. A panel with three to five men on it and one woman has actually offered the lion's share of opportunities on the panel to men. I am not saying that discrimination of any kind has precluded an invitation to a woman, but we all know that we tend to operate within our own networks, particularly as we are entering the profession and we worry that we will not be taken seriously by those as yet unknown to us. And those networks can be very gendered.

All of these points emphasize that crossing gender lines can encourage scholars who -- let's face it -- are enmeshed in different but not insignificant contests for authority that continue to be marked by gender hierarchies to challenge themselves to interact more broadly in the profession. Even though women are not completely excluded from many fields as they were in the past, and you could argue that some subfields in history are quite feminized, several subfields -- political history, foreign policy, military history -- are dominated by men. The above examples also should suggest that the AHA's gender policy can push scholars to cross generational lines as well.

It would be hard to convince me that this is a destructive rule because I have no pervasive sense that a panel is worse off by "adding the woman:" ok, we're not asking you to add any old woman -- find a good one, like Rebecca Goetz, for example. But try. Because although gender diversity does not necessarily mean you will go outside your networks, it expands the chance that you will. Choosing someone for your panel who you would not otherwise have though of will have a variety of good effects and should not be a burden.

So let's scrap the tee-shirt that says "Token." How about, as Rebecca's post underlines, one that says "Equal Pay for Equal Work?"


Tim Lacy said...

It is becoming clear that the AHA's problem with regard to Goetz, Ahmad, et al, was the way the request was presented. The panel reviewers didn't do themselves any favors by curtly asking for something that required an explanation. And of course this is likely a mistake that those very some reviewers are regretting (I hope).

Otherwise, this is a great reflection from someone with real-time - not just theoretical or reading - knowledge of the terrain. Like Goetz, Ahmad, et al, my knowledge of gender discrimination in the history profession lies mostly in the realm of theoretical. I've at times wondered about the possibility of reverse discrimination, but proof of discrimination in any fashion often feels elusive.

All in all, well said! - TL

anthony grafton said...

Thank you, TR, for both the arguments and the history in this very fine post. If we don't keep pushing, the AHA will continue to be less diverse than the last Republican national convention. We really have to find better ways to push. But if we don't push, we won't change the ways in which we do things.

Onwards and upwards!

Susan said...

I would just echo your sentiments, TR. I am sure that this discussion is different in different fields, but I think your Alan Brinkley story is emblematic of what can happen. In my field, political history is still sadly male dominated, while social and intellectual history is full of interesting women. The AHA policy, as you point out, creates some of these great discussions you wouldn't have otherwise. . .

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hm. I had to really think about this one. See, a couple of years ago, I was part of an AHA panel on women & law. As with most AHA panels, this one was formed by one person asking people who s/he knew were working on similar topics whether they would like to try to get a panel together.

Now, there are topics that, right or wrong, seem to attract members of one sex over the other. I know of relatively few men in my subfield working on women's history. Some, certainly, but few.

Would there be a danger of panels on gendered topics dying out at AHA, for lack of the correct panelists?

Or, more hopefully: might this cause us to rethink how we categorize our panels, in order to be more inclusive (say, "gender" instead of "women"; "institutional violence" instead of "military history")?

Would either of these approaches potentially cause more harm than good? I don't know; I'm just asking.

Tenured Radical said...

Tim: interesting that it was the manner that caused misunderstanding. One thing this should suggest to all of us is that you can't just pass such things from one committee to the next as "policy" without discussing its implementation. The original panel organizers must have also dropped the ball (not difficult to imagine, since htese htings are now organized over the internet, submitted online, and much is done in haste) since I think the policy is usually outlined in the call for papers.

Tony: are you home? If so, let's do that lunch. The funny thing about AHA, of course, is that because it is a prime interviewing venue, the whole thing is so fraught anyway. I also think re-thinkiing the concept of the panel should be on the agenda at AHA, as it is other places, but that's another story.....

Susan: wouldn;t you also agree that aprt of hte reason political history is so not-diverse is that if you introduce anything -- race, sex, gender, etc. -- the political historians kick it over to cultural or social history? If a lot of people were allowed to identify as political historians who worked on these things it would be a whole different story.

Notorious: I got to tell you, yours is my current favorite blogger name. But re your question -- I don't know. I do sort of think everyone should un-ghettoize themselves. And, since "women's studies" became "feminist, gender and sexuality studies" at Zenith I have developed somewhat of a beef about how US-centric displacing "women" is. So I dunno either. Stay in touch.


Zach said...

In searching for panelists for a Trans Activism On Campus panel at NEASA, I had no success in finding transwomen who were currently in college and wanted to be a part of this panel. Non-trans women and trans guys jumped at the chance, but none of the transwomen whom I asked directly, and none who were on the various lists I plastered, responded positively.
I've been trying to figure out how to address this absence in the panel, and would very much appreciate your thoughts.
I'm even more excited about the paper I'll be doing about Lesbian Historiography, but there I don't pick the panel.
I don't think Zenith's program has become more US centric out of the name change, because I don't think that the program has done much changing. Please correct me if I'm wrong, of course, as I am only working on bits I've heard from current students. I did want the name change to reflect a shift in the curriculum, though, and from my conversation with professors last year, I didn't see any interest in changing what was taught. If programs could hire, that would help.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, one of the problems with the AHA's current position is that what is, on paper, a "recommendation" is, in fact, enforced as a "rule". Thus, the program committee told the panel's proposers: "We'd like to accept this proposal, but it doesn't follow our 'recommendation'." If your position is correct, then those who propose panels to the AHA deserve to be told up front that gender and ethnic diversity is a _requirement_. And, while we're at it, why isn't there a requirement for diversity of social class?

Anonymous said...

Of course Manan's panel got a "good" woman historian in the form of lil' ol' me to chair the panel, BUT. I am not in the panel's field by any stretch of the imagination. This is what I meant by wondering if this recommendation-that-is-really-an-unadvertised-requirement limits intellectual diversity. After all, the AHA only cared that I was a woman, not that I was an historian qualified to bring something of value to the panel. Personally, I prefer the latter to the former--isn't that the point of an academic conference? Manan was put in the ludicrous position of having to find a woman, any woman would do, for his panel and that's simply not a good situation for *anyone*.

I think your post brings out the generational aspects of this incident; I think younger scholars like myself who haven't had to fight to be taken seriously are less likely to find merits in this sort of policy. I'm going to do a post on this later.

Anyways, thank you, TR, for your thoughtful response to all the posts. You've given me much to think about.

Tenured Radical said...

Zach: I guess the tricky part is what people in particular "bodies" represent, and a trans panel immediatley raises that as an epistemelogical issue that is utterly unstable to begin with. That's where I would go with it. And of course, the trans community is so diverse on this issue anyway, you couldn't represent everyone. So I guess I would go with the question itself and choose by intellect (which is Rebecca's point, of course.)

Ralph/: Diversity always comes down to this splice and dice thing (why not a disabled person?), but I guess I would argue that whatever people's social origins, by the time you have a Ph.D. and a salary your social class could just count as "privileged: unspecified." Now if the AHA wanted to acknowledge professional stratification, wouldn't that be interesting? So few of us who teach at the Zeniths of this world spend time with colleagues in Catholic or evangelical colleges, much less community college or land grant university folk. That would really be interesting in terms of generating exchange.

But I think you are right on -- if it is required, say it is required, and it should have been in the CFP, which it was not. And if the committee can't bring itself to do either of these things, it is even more evidence that this needs to be discussed, and I think it should be sent to one of the Association's committees for study.

Rebecca: thanks for starting the discussion, and for checking in. I would say but one thing -- if these men (whose panel looks great by the way) *don't* know a woman in their field who could serve as a substantive comment or a panelist, don't you think that's something they also need to give a little thought to? I mean, why?

BTW: your blog is great, and good for you for not being anonymous.

Nathanael said...

Yes, Rebecca, we did get a "good woman" for the panel. I have no doubt that, despite your interest in other areas, that you will add something to it nonetheless. The three of us are all over the map, and it would be difficult to find anyone with the courage to provide a united framework.

However, I think that our panel itself needs to be defended. While promoting gender diversity is necessary, not just noble, we achieved other forms of diversity. Indeed, I would brag that we achieved ethnic and (a measure of) religious diversity by expanding on the positive aspects of blogging and bringing them more into academia. Our appeals for participation were public, the door was open. We were not a self-selected group, nor was our topic particularly "masculine". Anyone woman could have joined our panel (so long as she blogged, and many women do). Manan's call for a woman participant was in line with the original openness.

Unfortunately, the AHA's "recommendation" underlines the comical and alienating aspects of bureaucratic approaches to diversity, when more thoughtful approaches are called for. Feeling of being a token haunts many minorities in academia, not just Rebecca. How minority status of applicants is weighed is normally hidden. The AHA made it blatant.

Tenured Radical said...

Nathanael: I came back online to add something to my previous comment & found you too -- thanks for adding. I don't think you need to defend your excellent panel, and what you are saying about your openness to all participants and other forms of intellectual diversity you achieved sounds right.

What I also wanted to add is that I think there is a difference between whether a policy has a logic to it that can be defended (a history of discrimination in the profession that isn't over, and not just for "women"); and whether a particular instrument of that policy can be defended in its current form. The weight of the argument seems to be in the negative on that latter point and Rebecca's original post then raised the question, how do we deal with equity issues in a substantive way?


Anonymous said...

I think (and Manan can correct me on this) that once the panel was made aware of the requirement for a woman on the panel, the panelists had very little time to actually find someone. There's also the delicate matter of approaching a woman, any woman, and being honest about the reason she's being asked to be on the panel. Talk about awkward!

Now Manan, Nathanael, and Jon are all bending over backwards to assure me that I will make an intellectual contribution to the panel, which I'll endeavor to do. And I'm worried too that the panel will start to be about *me* instead of about the panel, which isn't good either. It's all starting to feel a little silly.

I'm thinking, when I post about this again, I'd like the AHA to put together some data on gender and panels at the annual conference. I'd also like the AHA to tell its members how often they need to enforce the recommendation/requirement. That might give us all a more numerical basis for thinking about this. If, for instance, most panels are already submitted gender-diverse and the committee only has to enforce the rec/requirement a few times a year, that would tell us something. But Tony's comment suggests that AHA officers are seeing the opposite trend and are, based on evidence, deeply worried about diversity of all types at the annual meeting. So it might help to know those things.

I would count 'em up myself except I'm right now counting Indian renamings in Accomack County, VA between 1665 and 1669, and that's absorbing all of my mathematical prowess. (It also makes my head hurt!) :)

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