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Academic Abbey
January 21, 2013 - 9:16pm

Earlier this month, the American Historical Association announced the anything-but-shocking discovery that tenured men benefit more from marriage than their female counterparts.  My female friends and I long ago noticed that women at the top of the academic hierarchy rarely have more than one child and a marriage in the present tense.  Scott Jaschik scrutinized the higher statistical propensity for academic women to form endogamous marriages with another Ph.D. Academic men pick partners more willing or better able to fulfill Ruth’s biblical pledge, “whither thou goest, I shall go.”

Such marital politics produce the stuff of domestic dramas played out in every sector and every age. Mr. Darcy tests the waters with Elizabeth Bennet when he asks if she thinks her newly married friend lives a suitable distance from her father’s estate. Ma Ingalls packed up Laura and Mary whenever Pa got the notion to move further afield. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake captured the isolation centuries of new wives experienced when they set out to cross the Atlantic with husbands they barely knew.

Jaschik’s report appeared the day after Downton Abbey’s third season premier. Julian Fellowes’ reduction sauce of English stereotypes stirs American imaginations with matrimonial ephemera. The lord of the manor married American money but failed to breed profit or sons. The heiress must lower her expectations in order to keep her estate. The Irish chauffeur liberates his aristocratic lover from her hide-bound behaviors and stately home.

Academics, like aristocrats, need certain types of structures in order to survive. A tenured professor needs pupils like an aristocrat needs servants. They exist only in juxtaposition to one another. No stately home to house the servants or no university to engage the undergraduates and the top dog (to steal my tone from 1066 and All That) ceases to have anything to stand atop.

Academics drive their marital moves, but they can only manage chronic migrations if they have a doting partner to herd their progeny towards a new destination. If a tenured academic happens upon their intellectual equivalent of Downton, he (statistically more likely) digs in his heels with a fervor that would make Lady Mary blush. Two PhDs unable to share the same Downton face a marital fate scarier than the Dowager Countess’ disapproving scowl.  

If the ‘trailing’ spouse has (as is more likely among trailing wives according to the AHA) a JD, an MD, an MBA, an MSW, an MAT, or anything other than a Ph.D., someone will hire her. If the partner holds a Ph.D. (more likely among trailing husbands), he confronts a choice of adjunct instructorships and administrative positions once held by the wives of the male professoriate in preceding generations. Just as those women railed against their second class citizenship as they held aloft copies of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, no one should express surprise that the husbands of tenured wives fall short the Alan Alda ideal of household helpfulness and satisfied subordination.

We all dream of marital equality. I once cringed as a newly arrived, male administrator replied, “yes,” to the patronizing observation, “so you are the trailing spouse.” Back during my tenure-line days, my husband - while fully employed at many multiples of my salary - used to field questions from faculty wives as to his experience as a “stay-at-home dad.” I doubt he liked it any better than I did when a few years later an academic wife told me, “I thought you were just a mom.” My husband and I adore our boys. We wear our parental titles with pride. However, the queries possessed the same, internalized self-loathing that Mr. Carson exudes whenever the middling or lower classes imperil the Downton way. They indicated subordination in what we understand as a marriage of equals.

Academics devalue all other occupations in the way Fellowes’ fictional aristocrats struggle to acknowledge the worth of the world beyond the Abbey. When both partners live within such stilted walls, they can appear insurmountable barriers to professional and marital success.

For those who attempt to administer academic abbeys populated upstairs & down by peculiar personalities, we could have worse role models than the indefatigable Mrs. Hughes of Downton. She neither worships nor resents. Mrs. Hughes merely comprehends and coordinates with an admirable mix of affection and authority.

Evanston, Illinois in the US.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to


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