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

June 13, 2007, 1:24 pm

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] formed…in 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 scho
lar 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?”

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