This essay is as timely as it is unlikely. Timely, because many studies have correlated economic crises, such as the one corroding the academic job market as well as so many other career prospects, with a rise in domestic abuse. Unlikely, because I am far from the type of person whom one would expect to chronicle personal experience in this area.
None of the stereotypes apply. I am a professor at a respected university with what many people (not just my mother) would describe as an international reputation in her field. The product of a white, upper-middle-class professional household, I seldom heard my father raise his voice to my mother -- his raising his hand would have been inconceivable. Their marriage was perhaps not one made in heaven, but neither was it an instance of cruelty by any stretch of the imagination. And I did not and do not have a pattern of involvement with abusive partners; indeed, for the past 22 years I have enjoyed a very happy and stable relationship with a compassionate and supportive man.
I had thought I had every reason to anticipate a happy and stable relationship in my erstwhile marriage as well. My ex-husband and I shared many cultural interests and were anticipating careers in the same field within the humanities, with similar pedigrees and similarly strong academic records. By chance my career, however, started more smoothly than his, despite his impressive credentials and abilities, indeed gifts. I finished graduate school a year before he did in the ‘70s — shortly after the precipitous decline in the job market -- and obtained a tenure-track appointment while he was completing his dissertation. We then moved for compelling personal reasons, and I was fortunate enough to find an academic position again, but he did not do so.
My ex-husband had slapped me once early in our marriage when, because I had not understood and hence had not followed his instructions during a household repair, a small amount of water fell on him. I was shocked, but I viewed the episode as an aberration. It was not.
That event suggests that the recurrence of such abuse cannot be wholly blamed on his not having a job. And after all, many unemployed people do not descend into such behavior, while many who are guilty of it hold stable jobs. Nonetheless, the timing persuades me that my ex-husband’s not obtaining the sort of position he had hoped for contributed significantly to the recurrence of wife-beating. For shortly after we had moved and I, but not he, held an academic appointment, physical abuse started again. He pinched, shoved, and hit me with some regularity over a period of about a year. Not by any means the most violent wife-beating, but quite enough, thank you, to leave significant black-and-blue marks on one occasion and less visible scars on the others. The physical abuse was accompanied by persistent belittling remarks. Throughout all this, my ex-husband continued to appear in public as a charming and highly educated gentleman and a courteous husband. I later learned that this Jekyll-Hyde scenario is a common symptom of pathologies like his.
Why did I put up with it? Barely able to believe that this was happening between people like us, I made excuses for him, justifying his behavior as a regrettable but understandable response to his unemployment, which was clearly all the more difficult for him because I had an attractive job in the same field. The contrast between his public and private behavior made it harder to confront the events squarely, as did the ways the situation sapped my own self-confidence. Like many victims of domestic abuse, I began to blame myself, not realizing that although I had made real mistakes, such as occasional tactless remarks, they neither explained nor justified this physical and emotional maltreatment.
Moreover, like many wife-beaters, he repeatedly seemed to repent. On the several occasions when I finally resolved to leave, he admitted that situations for which he had blamed only me were in fact in large measure his responsibility, and he promised to get therapy. These apparent reversals were, I was to discover, as much a pattern as the violence itself, and the therapy never materialized.
His career not only got back on track but flourished after that year of unemployment — a good though temporary job one year, a tenure-track job the next, the publication of a well-received book by a leading press, and so on. The physical abuse stopped shortly after he gained those academic positions, though the emotional analogues to it did not, and for that and many other reasons I finally, belatedly, got a divorce.
What I learned is relevant to anyone, man or woman, suffering domestic abuse.
Realizing that stressful circumstances outside the home -- and one's own behavior -- may have contributed to tension is a very different matter from excusing the behavior or shouldering all the responsibility oneself. Distinguish compassion from submission: it's healthy to understand the financial pressures that might bring out this type of violence in some individuals, but no one should accept its continuation. Be alert to connections between the physical and verbal, recognizing that physical abuse often merely goes into remission or resurfaces as verbal wife-beating. Apologies and promises need to be backed up with concrete and reliable evidence for believing that change will occur.
But one step must precede and accompany all of these: Avoid the temptation to excuse or deny the abuse by saying, "This isn't really occurring, and it will stop any minute because things like this don't happen to a professional couple like us." They can. They do. And, sadly, in this academic job market, they will.
The author of this piece, who asked to remain anonymous, is a tenured professor.
"No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table," said Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her widely viewed TED talk, "and no one gets the promotion if they don't think they deserve their success, or they don't even understand their own success." In her new book, Lean In, Sandberg promises to expand on these ideas — and people are taking issue even before it’s hit the bookstores. She’s "tone-deaf to the problems average women face," argues Maureen Dowd. Other commentators have suggested that the skills Sandberg wants women to practice — including self- advocacy and negotiation — are the tools of "elites."
We don’t think so. Self-advocacy and negotiation skills, among others, are essential for developing young women as leaders. At Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, the oldest and the largest all-women’s college in the United States, respectively, 20 percent of students are not "elites" but are the first in their families to attend college – and this reflects a national trend. About 30 percent of the young people attending college (a majority of whom are women) are "first-generation." We realize, based on Annette Lareau’s now often-cited research, that self-advocacy, asking questions of authority figures, and acting as the impetus for change are practices more familiar to individuals growing up in upper-middle-class families — because these skills are often modeled and encouraged. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles published a study in 2009 showing that first-generation college students were less likely to participate during class, e-mail faculty members and attend office hours, or assist faculty with research for credit — yet these skills are associated with success at college and beyond.
It is with these students in mind that we teach the skills Sandberg recommends. When students learn to construct and voice their opinions — offering a new or conflicting view in class, sharing criticism effectively, or approaching a professor confidently — we believe they will become graduates who believe they’re entitled to speak up and ask for a fair share.
Yes, we said entitled. While the "e" word may call to mind college students who expect a decent grade just for attending class, or entry-level millennials who balk at the idea of working their way up, we see another dimension of entitlement: the recognition that you deserve a voice and a place at the table.
Let’s not forget that women make up less than 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and 25 percent of elected officials (even after a big election year for women), and they make 77 cents or less for every dollar a man makes. We are encouraged that all over the country, small movements teach women to feel entitled to push past real but often invisible barriers that keep them from influential positions. The OpEd Project has set a goal of increasing the number of women opinion makers — and that’s starting to happen. The number of women’s voices on the nation’s opinion pages has increased 6 percent in the last six years, because when more women submit their writing, more women’s voices are published. Project 2012 aimed to increase the number of female political leaders by encouraging more women to run — and it’s working. The number of women in public office increased during the last election to 20 women senators, because, when more women run, more are elected. Women need to feel entitled to throw their hats in the ring because when more women compete, more win. It’s that simple.
Sandberg’s advice isn’t just for elite women. It’s for real women, for young women, and especially for first-generation women and women of color.
Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges are both committed to guiding women — who often come from modest backgrounds — to "sit at the table." A Latina student who worked her way from a community college to Smith is now a finalist for a prestigious fellowship; a first-generation college student at Mount Holyoke published an article with her adviser. These pathways start from encouraging students to raise a hand, to apply, to put themselves out there.
Our leadership centers offer training in speaking up in class and speaking up in the media. This year we asked the OpEd Project to talk to our students, and we offered workshops to hone drafts. Last year, we brought an expert to teach a workshop, "Ask For It," to more than 100 students, and we continue to offer workshops on negotiation. Other campuses are expanding their leadership programming. At Texas Tech University, the Women and Leadership program offers female college students opportunities to hone their leadership skills including public speaking and community organizing. At Seattle Central Community College, they offer a range of women’s leadership programs, including one focused on political organizing around women’s rights. From Portland State University to the University of Virginia, women’s leadership programs emphasize confidence through skill-building.
We understand that teaching women from a range of backgrounds to feel entitled to speak up in class won’t change mind-boggling social policies that leave the United States trailing other countries. Showing students why and how to ask for more money in their first jobs won’t change laws that leave working families struggling when a new baby arrives, or when a child is sick.
But when women college students develop the skills that Sandberg argues are most important, they are gaining the capacity to change the world, as decision-makers and opinion leaders. As community members, teachers, parents and friends, we can encourage women in our lives to feel entitled to speak up, to ask for more, to run for office, to shape the media’s message. "Leaning in" is not just a good idea for elite women — it’s a good idea for all women.
Becky Wai-Ling Packard is director of the Weissman Center for Leadership at Mount Holyoke College. Jessica Bacal is director of the Wurtele Center for Work & Life at Smith College.