Chairman of Women's Studies

The University of Washington is about to gain the distinction of having the only Ph.D.-awarding program in women's studies to be led by a man.

July 26, 2005

The University of Washington is about to gain the distinction of having the only Ph.D.-awarding program in women's studies to be led by a man.

That man is David G. Allen, a professor of psychosocial and community health in the university's nursing school, who has taught for years in the women's studies program. Allen is popular in the department, and is well respected as a scholar, a teacher and a feminist. But his status as a man has created some fears in the department -- worries he considers completely appropriate.

"I think it's a very legitimate concern and a concern I honor and want to work with," Allen said. He said that until there is gender equity in academe, it is natural for many women to want to see one of their own in a position such as directing women's studies. "When we have a level playing field, then it will become a non-issue," he said.

Nancy J. Kenney, an associate professor of women's studies, said she had "mixed views" on the appointment. (At Washington, chairs are not elected by departments, but are appointed by deans.) "I think David is a wonderful person and can be a really good administrator," Kenney said. "At the same time, I am disappointed that there are no women who are seen as qualified to move into this position. Why not? Where are they?"

When Allen was approached about being considered for the job, he said, he sent an e-mail message to all of the faculty members and graduate students in the department, and asked whether he should go forward. "Not everybody, but almost everybody said that I should," said Allen.

So he decided to keep his name in contention, but not without mixed feelings of his own.

"On the good side, men should have a positive commitment toward feminism, just as whites ought to support anti-racism. I'm chairing a faculty of feminist scholars doing outstanding work and my job is to make their work easier," he said.

"At another level, one of the things I am ambivalent about is that universities, because of our history of sexism and racism, have very few women or women of color at the upper ranks of the university. So when the dean was looking for a full professor with a commitment to the program, he had a very small pool, and that's damning of our history," Allen added.

Generally, Allen said that he doesn't view his job as different from other chair positions. "I see this as a service position," he said, "helping a very good department."

But there may be some circumstances, he said, where it would be better for someone other than a male chair to be the face of the department. "There may be situations in which the politics of representation work against us, and it wouldn't be in the best interests of the department to have me represent it."

In such cases, he said, he'll ask one of the women in the department to go instead. Allen said that events involving the recruitment of graduate students may be difficult for him. All 22 of the graduate students in the department are women. "The students here know me, but those who don't know me could make a decision based solely on my demographics," said Allen.

Kenney said that she too was worried about what message the appointment would send to students or potential students. "Students may look at it and say, 'Oh, here we have a feminist institution being headed by a white male' or they may say 'feminists come in all shapes and sizes.' "

Another concern is that women's studies programs have been a "training ground" for women to rise the ranks of university administration, Kenney said. Allen will be succeeding Judy Howard, who is becoming a dean at Washington.

On the whole, Kenney described herself as "nervous" about the department getting a male leader, although she stressed that she had nothing but admiration for Allen.

While Kenney said that she respected Allen for considering the idea that he might not represent the department at some meetings, she said that the women's studies field is very well connected "and it's not going to be a secret" that her department has a male chair.

As word spread of the appointment Monday, bloggers weighed in with a range of views, with a number of authors saying that they were raising questions more than they were opposing the appointment. Esperanza wrote, "I believe men can be profeminist, but do I believe that men should be given such positions of institutional power in one of the only arenas in academic life where women are placed as a high priority?... How does placing a man in such a position address the inequalities of power in academic life? How does this work towards eliminating such inequalities?"

Several comments on expressed the hope that Allen's visibility might encourage more men to take women's studies courses.

Hugo Schwyzer offered a "Hurrah" for Allen, and took issue with a Washington undergraduate quoted in The Seattle Times as opposing Allen because "Men can never be as personally affected by women's issues as women are. It affects our everyday life, how we treat our bodies, our careers, everything."

Schwyzer teaches courses such as Women in American Society, Men and Masculinity, and Introduction to American Lesbian and Gay History at Pasadena City College, which does not have a women's studies department. He wrote that it is vital for such courses to be taught by men and women. "A shared biology, even a shared experience of suffering, is no guarantee of empathy; just look at the legions of anti-feminist women in public life!" he wrote.

"I would never want to see a world where all women's studies courses were taught by men. For any number of reasons, I suspect that women will constitute the majority of women's studies professors for years and years to come. But students need to see male professors teaching this subject too! They need to see men risking ridicule and opprobrium; they need to see men committed to justice; they need to see men professionally committed to feminism," he wrote.

In an interview, Allison Kimmich, executive director of the National Women's Studies Association, said that there was no data on how many men lead women's studies program. She said that they are in a distinct minority, and cautioned against reading too much into the Washington appointment. "One appointment is not a trend," she said. "Departments have unique circumstances."

Kimmich, like many of those interviewed for this article, said she saw multiple ways to view the Washington situation.

"You could say on the one hand that this is representative of a certain institutionalization and maturation in the field of women's studies, that women's studies has come to become broadly representative of gender studies and we are talking about masculinity and femininity, so this is just a natural step in the trajectory," she said.

But Kimmich added: "You could make an equally compelling argument that minority men and women are still underrepresented in leadership roles in higher education, as in many other fields, so this appointment does nothing to advance the cause of greater diversity of leadership in higher education in a field that should be particularly committed to the goal of diversifying."


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