Why feminism matters to universities

9 May 2010

In the old days, professors had wives.  Wives edited and typed manuscripts, kept households running smoothly, conducted research or fact-checked for their husbands, directed the kids away from the study, sometimes served as unacknowledged co-authors on books, and served canapés and cocktails.

What could be a better measure of changed times than when one such wife, Dorothy Jane Mills, advanced an objection to being ignored for her considerable work on the definitive history of baseball written with her late husband, Harold Seymour.  She had described her life with Seymour at length in her 2004 autobiography, A Woman’s Work, but had to explain again this year “how she had, in fact, co-written those books but received no credit,” as the New York Times reported in March:

Asked why she did not object at the time, she paused and broke into tears.

“It was too easy not to,” she said. “I was just playing my role. I was just doing everything I had done before and continuing with it. I was comfortable with that role.”

Few men have the luxury of such a wife of old anymore, yet we in the university are still rethinking the nature of academic labor and productivity.  Feminism has taught young Dorothy Jane Millses not to be content with playing those old roles, helps us imagine valuable researchers and professors being women as well as men, and changes what we consider to be important topics for research.  But if universities are slowly becoming more inclusive, it’s harder to balance scholarly productivity and also take on basic household labor.  If books of old were sometimes produced by something like 1½ people, now they’re written by individuals working 70-hr weeks who don’t have time to get the oil changed on their cars.  At the same time, universities’ publication expectations are way, way up.

Simply having women professors, gay profs, and professors of color matters — it helps alter students’ perceptions of the world around them.  Numerous studies show that students often arrive at university with a set of received ideas about the world — and unconsidered sexism and racism are top among them.  Having to read books by experts who aren’t just straight white guys helps, too.  They don’t have to be the best teachers, nor do they have to be talking about issues relevant to their race/gender identity.  Their bodies alone familiarize young people with a wider world than, say, the race/gender visual of the U.S. Presidents.

I want my students to learn from their college experience to ask, why are there only 2 (white) female columnists for the New York Times, and why are there only 2 black men, while the remaining 7 are white guys?  Why don’t I see a single major black, Asian, or Latina woman anchor on TV news?  Why isn’t Sarah Haskins a major cultural force along the lines of Jon Stewart?  And I want those questions to emerge from a daily college experience of diversity amongst their classmates as well as professors.

We aren’t just teaching straight white guys in our classes.  Having professors who look like them makes a difference to the vast majority of students who are women and people of color — an even larger majority now that women make up about 57% of undergraduates on U. S. college campuses.  Those of us who’ve counseled students in need of pregnancy advice, whose parents were just deported, or whose relatives still believe higher education is a waste for girls can attest that these problems arise all the time, and that these students don’t seem to turn first for advice from their 60-yr-old white male profs.

In addition, let’s remember that university administrations are slowest of all to change; change there requires mind-numbingly slow turnover.  They still deny tenure to individuals because, say, they’re not convinced of the value of a queer view of women’s fiction or that a woman might be smart enough to be a full professor in mathematics.  Those same views are held by some of our male colleagues who still seem to embrace the gendered order of laundry detergent commercials.

But as much as gender and racial diversity matters, feminism matters too.  Feminism offers ways to articulate opposition to bad administrative or promotion decisions — moments when we can model for our undergrads and grad students a clearheaded feminist voice.  The resistance to change, together with some men’s discomfort with women peers, means that we have to fight for basic gender equity as much today as twenty years ago (as witnessed by continually demoralizing reports on gender in academia that emerge every year).  I know we’re tired from all the labor we undertake, but to be silent on these matters is to be indistinguishable from the nice little wife.  Colleges are a good place to stop internalizing that stereotype of the ugly and dour feminist, for if sexism still pops up in the university, students can be damn sure they’ll see it in the workplace in a couple of years.

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6 Responses to “Why feminism matters to universities”

  1. Shayna Says:

    This is so well said!

    I agree – the fact that the heads of most corporations are men (I’ll leave race out of it for the moment), is a deterrent to women who work in those companies, and women who are in college, who are considering what they want to be when they grow up, if they see no role models, if achieving that success is so unlikely, then they are smarter to set their sights on more attainable goals – changing our culture is the biggest step – but it’s also the first step to real change.

    Feminism is how we tell the world that we have to make this change.

  2. didion Says:

    Thank you! I too am unwilling to stop calling this “feminism” even though my students seem to think such a lable makes you fat, hairy, and humorless.

  3. Hattie Says:

    Just discovered your blog via Papa Zao. Very good! And I am going to order up that BBC Little Dorritt series, because it sounds like exactly what I need!

    • didion Says:

      Hattie, love your photos of Hawaii. I’m about to start traveling a little too, and you’ve inspired me to pop some photos up.

  4. didion Says:

    Okay, one more mini-addendum for you academics out there. I just spent a little time on one of those academic wikis where you can find out who got teaching jobs in your discipline — partly to see who got hired at what schools, and partly to see just how depressed everyone got during the process.

    This is a highly random thing — not all jobs report who got hired, some people self-report, and others keep posting pokes like “Hello? any news on this job? Crickets?” BUT. Every single one of the jobs reported went to a man. EVERY SINGLE JOB for which there is a report about the successful candidate WENT TO A MAN. There are about 25 reports, I’d guess. Now I know for a fact that one of our female grads got one of these jobs, but damn.


  5. […] Back in May I held forth on the subject of why feminism matters to universities with other goals in ….  But today I’m inspired to write on it again after trawling through news, both recent and from a few years ago, about the actor Ashley Judd.  What, you say?  You mean “Kiss the Girls” and “Ruby in Paradise” Ashley Judd, the youngest member of the freakishly beautiful and always very carefully put-together Judd clan of country singers?  Just a look at her collection of feminist t-shirts and you’ll know why I’m impressed.  She’s a kick-ass feminist, a remarkably smart and eloquent woman, and an intelligent and informed political figure – and she attributes the beginnings of these identifications to a college class she took.  We seldom want to acknowledge that our beautiful actors have brains or political opinions, but Judd just completed a master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and has been an outspoken feminist since her undergrad days at the University of Kentucky.  (She majored in French and had minors in art history, theater, anthropology, and women’s studies.  Busy.)  Just recently she’s been earning even more stripes as a public intellectual and humanitarian due to her work overseas, and is especially astute as a commentator on the ties between violence against women and the global economy. […]


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