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A Meditation on Recent History, Belonging and Endurance

July 27, 2009, 3:35 pm

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. (56-57)

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.

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