Monday, July 27, 2009

A Meditation on Recent History, Belonging and Endurance

I was trying to think of something clever to add to Historiann's list of things to pack as you prepare to take off for graduate school. Medical marijuana? Nicotine patches (especially if you do not already smoke)? Extra courage?

And then I remembered this. In a collection of lectures entitled Writing in an Age of Silence (New York: Verso, 2007), crime novelist Sara Paretsky writes about entering the University of Chicago's Ph.D. program in history:

When I started my doctoral work, the head of the European field committee told entering students that women could memorize and parrot things back, but that we weren't capable of producing original work. In his history of Western Civilization, he included no accomplishments by women.

Thirteen women started the US history program with me in the fall of 1968. I was the only one who returned our second year, and that wasn't because I was a better scholar, or smarter -- it was because the other twelve women all figured out things to do with their time instead of enduring the department's relentless misogyny. I was simply too confused and depressed to work out an alternate career.

Paretsky, as many of you know, has gone on to write fourteen crime novels featuring gritty female private investigator V.I. "Vic" Warshawski, so I guess she wasn't as dumb as she looked, eh?

All kidding aside, it's hard to imagine saying something so terribly cruel and ignorant unless the purpose was to send a blunt message that women were not wanted in the program. Until 1972, long after racial segregation in education had become illegal, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against women applying for admission to graduate or professional school -- for any reason whatsoever. The reason that was usually chosen was one's low opinion of women's intellectual capacity as a sex; one's ideas about whether said women would put the education to good use; and/or assertions that men needed education more than women did because they supported families (women supporting families was not unheard of, but was to be avoided at all costs -- unless said women were of color and poor, and then it was desirable that they work at ill-paid labor.) In the late 1970s, when I was enrolled in an Ivy League university that had finally enrolled its first full class of women only four years prior to my arrival, it was not uncommon to hear male professionals and faculty justify their desire to exclude women from graduate and professional programs because "they are just going to marry and have children and they won't use the degree like a man would." The "fact" behind this stance was that demographically "most" women were married, were mothers and had dropped out of the workforce. As someone who had a horror of such a fate, even as a pre-feminist child (I could imagine myself saving damsels in distress but the idea of donning a wedding dress made me frantic), I would think, "Yes, but if they don't let you into medical/law/graduate school, then you would have to get married to make a living, right?"

And when I was at that Ivy League university, I knew half a dozen undergraduate women who were sleeping with professors who had not welcomed coeducation with open arms, but had been happy to open their beds (half of the female academics who tell you they did not have sex with that famous Oligarch post-structuralist are lying, I'm convinced of it.) A decade later, graduate education for women also created an opportunity to recruit highly educated second wives who were younger, and more fun to talk to, than the wives who had typed your dissertation back in the 1960s. As late as the 1990s, in a number of departments I was acquainted with it was not uncommon to hear both graduate students and faculty justify tenured male professors philandering with their female graduate students by pointing out that such relationships had a tendency to result in marriage -- after wife number one got the old heave-ho, of course. I said to one person who explained this rationale to me one too many times, "Yes, but have you noticed that most of them drop out of the doctoral program to have children and never complete the degree?" (since this would often require the awkwardness of recruiting a new dissertation advisor from the ranks of hubby's peers) and the conversation stopped abruptly, not to be resumed.

And have any of you (in real time now!) who slipped in the door of the club despite everything you saw and endured that should have made you run screaming for the nearest military recruiting center, noticed that still, when you are doing a search, and you ask the search committee why there aren't significant numbers (or any) women/people of color in your cohort or in the final candidate pool the most frequent answers are:

a. "There aren't any." (To be followed by liberal and conservative moaning about how few of these individuals in a given field are "in the pipeline.")
b. "There aren't any who are qualified." (Usually not followed by a cogent statement of what the qualifications were that were not met.)
c. "I don't believe in affirmative action."
d. Some comment to the effect that, by asking this question at all, you are revealed as racist/sexist.
e. Complete silence.

Academia is not the same club that it was back in 1968, to the extent that anyone who said what was said to Paretsky would know to keep such thoughts to himself and act on his contempt for women in another way. But it is still a place where belonging is a struggle for many of us, and one of the skills to develop as an academic is to cope with that. Sometimes, it will be so exhausting that, temporarily, you can't go on. You know you will soon, but not now, because you have reached the end of your capacity to endure slights and the ongoing suggestion that you do not belong.

And for moments like that, young graduate students, I recommend you pack a Sara Paretsky novel.


Historiann said...

"'Fi were kiiingg, of the forehehehest! Not queen, not duke, not prince..."

This is so much more important than anything I or my readers came up with (a conversation inspired by Sisyphus, BTW.)

I'm reminded of something Karin Wulf said in her comments on the plenary session in honor of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich at the Omohundro Conference at the University of Utah last month. She was quoting Ulrich saying, "They can't exclude you if you know you belong," with regards to being both a Morman and a feminist, as I recall. Ulrich faced her share of condescention as a faculty wife (married to a man in another department at UNH) whom "nobody took seriously," as she remembered.

Jenn Gruden said...

Keep talking about it. :)

I remember vividly the night my professorial father said (unwisely) to his two teen, nascent feminist daughters that there was "no way" his department (Urban and Regional Planning) could find a qualified woman for a position despite having been given the directive that the all-male department had better be looking for women on this hiring round.

I think he crawled out of the kitchen. That was 1985.

He was instrumental in hiring not only a female prof, but establishing a female chair some time later. But neither of us ended up in academia.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

In my department, precisely half of our tenured or tenure-track faculty members are women, and both of the chairs since I've been hired have been take-no-BS women, so it's been a pretty supportive environment. Yet I'd hazard a guess from looking around that a majority (perhaps two-thirds) of the students in our M.A. program are male, and almost all are white (this in a school with a 35% latino/a undergraduate population). I don't think you're wrong about the continuing -- if more subtle -- doubts about women in graduate programs in academic departments, but my experience suggests that the "you don't belong there" message may be coming from outside the university walls as well.

It will be interesting to see what tough economic times will do to the gender and ethnicity balance among our graduate students (a.k.a. "the pipeline"). Any guesses?

tanya said...

In 2005, I was one of 3 women accepted to my cohort of 8 or 9 history PhD students. One of the women did not come, and a couple of the guys left.

In 2006, 4 students accepted offers: 2 women, 2 men. A woman joined halfway through the year. Two of the women admitted that year have since left.

In 2007, 8 students came in: about half men, half women.

In 2008, 5 students came in - 4 women, one man. This fall, we'll have 2 incoming students: one male, one female.

I consider myself very fortunate because I have not yet truly encountered the discrimination I know is out there. As a woman who studies 20th century women's history, I'd be blind to pretend it doesn't exist - blind to pretend it couldn't happen to me (because I know it could, and that is why there are certain things I don't talk about, certain things I won't do - such as being visibly pregnant on the job market circuit).

In the pats 15 years, my department has "made improvements," but I learned this last year just how far it has come in those years and just how far it truly has to go, both among grad students AND faculty. For every fabulous professor I have, there are 2 or 3 that are still mired in the Old Boys' Club - and still act like it's 1968, as in the story you gave here.

Anonymous said...

It was really grotesque, wasn't it. The old profs who weren't sleeping with the girls were sleeping with the boys. Do people still have couches in their offices? Once de rigeur. But if one thing has changed for the better it's that the boys now know how to type.

HistoryMaven said...

Nobody in my graduate program in the late 1980s could tell me, when women outnumbered men three to one, why all the men received funding. Year after year after year. What are the odds?

Anonymous said...

When I came to graduate school, my cohort was 50/50, men to women. More men have dropped out than women.

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad you posted this, especially because the men in my graduate seminars in English are quite sure that feminism is a crude instrument of analysis, sexism is over, and even if it weren't over, it would be ancillary to more important forms of social critique. It's exhausting to have this conversation over and over again, and then to be asked by all of them later to serve on their doctoral committees because they "need a woman." So does Mars, but I'm not going there either unless you can convince me that it needs my field expertise.

These are, I should say, roughly the same conversations people would have in my own graduate school. When I got my first job, which began in the fall of 1994, I was humbled by the fact that I had gotten a job at an R1 in the worst job market ever (save this one, of course). I was very happy that I had a choice of where to go, and very happy that I was getting to go anywhere. But not a single faculty member in my graduate program congratulated me.

What they did do, however, was commiserate with my male partner, mostly in front of me, about how terrible it was that I had a job and he didn't. They then advised me to take jobs I didn't want because there might be more work for him in the area, told me to leverage a job for him at the job I did want, and threaten to quit in my first year if I couldn't get a job for him.

None of them asked if my partner and I were in a serious, committed relationship -- we weren't -- and none of them appeared to think that it was weird of them to spend all of their time helping to to get him a job he deserved, rather than, say, telling me what to expect. Indeed, they told him, and he believed it, that he should never take a job "lower" than mine because that would be too unjust.

1994. I still can't believe it when I type it out. And you know what really kills me? Sometimes I still feel like the one who "accidentally" got the great job she didn't really deserve. It helps me (I hope) with my own grad students, but it really bothers me that it's still there, in my head, after all these years.