Last week I had the honor of speaking on behalf of Mama, PhD at the Arkansas Council for Women in Higher Education Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas where I met a wonderful group of mother professors, administrators, and students, many of whom were African-American. Although I was the guest speaker, the most inspiring stories were from the women of Arkansas. I heard the stories of single mothers working full time while getting their degrees, a mother of four who lived away from her children in order to get an advanced degree, and a mother of three who had her first child in high school who is now working toward her PhD. Their experiences caused me to rethink my own assumptions about motherhood and academia, and made me wish for another volume of Mama, PhD that would include more women of color, not just for the value of some abstract concept of “diversity,” but because black women face different challenges, and their stories have a lot to teach us.
As the women’s stories attest, minority women have made great strides in obtaining degrees, yet “Hispanic and African-American students remain underrepresented in graduate study.” As I listened to these women’s stories, I could see why: these women struggled with seemingly insurmountable odds. In addition to less economic power (according to the National Women’s Law Center black women working full-time, year-round in Arkansas earned only 64%, and Hispanic women only 55%, of the wages of White, non-Hispanic men), black women have very few role models in academia, one reason why this conference was so important.
I was struck by the difference in rhetoric that the women used in describing their journey. Many women talked about their education (and their lives), not in terms of self-actualization (or “having it all”), but as a struggle that involved the whole family. For me, college was a place to find myself, to experience freedom and develop my own interests; it was an individual journey. I couldn’t imagine having children while in college and never thought about my career in terms of my future children or my parents. My parents assumed that I would go to college and that I would move far away from home to pursue my own life, as they had done. In contrast, many of the women I met in Arkansas have stayed in their communities, close to their families, and spoke of the importance of family support in achieving their goals. And while the essay I read at the conference described my own experience of waiting until after tenure to have my first baby, most of the women in attendance were struggling to achieve their academic success with children.
I was reminded of a remarkable essay about being a black single mother in graduate school by Tarshia Stanley, who described the differences between her culture and that of her (white, middle-class) professors: “I am from one of those Southern black communities where mothering is the reason you exist. You go to school and do well so you can get a good job, so you can take care of your children. I think they must have been whispering this to me from the time of my own cradle. Even before my daughter came into existence, I was achieving for her, living, in many ways, for her.”
Unfortunately, Stanley’s confidence in her ability to thrive as a mother and academic was undermined by the assumptions of her professors, for whom single-motherhood was an inconceivable burden. “The irony of it all is that I only began to believe that I was failing because other people assumed I would fail.” Her essay should be required reading for every college administrator, I believe.
At this conference, I heard little discussion of “opting out.” One reason might be that many black women do not have the luxury of being supported by a wealthy spouse (there is a great educational disparity between black men and women: black women earn 15% of bachelors degrees, and black men earn only 9%.
But I also think that, having struggled so hard to obtain an education, these women are loath to throw it away.