Toward a Woman-Centered University, Revisited

What has changed. What hasn't changed.

August 21, 2013

I spent some of my summer in London, a city that I also consider my academic home. I traveled there for work and not holiday, but I did bring some summer reading along in the form of Adrienne Rich’s collection Lies, Secrets, and Silences (okay, and also Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, but that’s a story for another post!).


Re-reading one of the pieces in collection, “Toward a Woman-Centered University,” Rich eloquently critiques the “male-created,” “male-dominated” structures of the university, asking whether patriarchal structures are “really capable of serving the humanism and freedom it [the university] professes.” She draws on a long feminist tradition of such critique, dating back to Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, a damning critique of fascism and war, connecting both with the patriarchal exclusion of women from power.


I was initially struck by how far women have come in academia since Rich authored the piece some four decades ago (1973-1974). The more I read, however, the more I realized how little has actually changed, but has in fact gone in the opposite direction.  The university has not only not become “women-centered,” but the increasing prevalence of precarious low wage positions with little or no benefits is evidence of a rather dramatic “feminization of academia,”or the general devaluation of academic work.


I could easily focus on – and think that Rich would be equally shocked by – any of the elements of the “feminization of academia”: the low wages, the increasing number of temporary faculty and decreasing number of tenure track positions, the instability of many positions faculty and otherwise. However, reading the recent articles and books on the state of women in academia in the U.S. – particularly when those women have children – started to take a new shape through Rich’s lens. I began to realize just how “de-centered” the academic climate has become from women’s needs, how much the institution remains grounded in its patriarchal roots; in short, this “feminization” has not resulted in a turn to a more “feminized” approach to academia (read: more collaborative, more personal, more flexible), but the opposite.  Although Rich’s critique covers all of the workings of academia – from the structure of academic critique, to the elitism and hierarchy within the system, to the content and style of education itself – what gave me particular pause as I read Rich’s words alongside the recent debates on women in academe, is the structure of the workplace.


If you are a Gen X woman in academia, you do not have to read the recently released Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower to know that, hell yes, they do.* You will all have had experiences, or at least know someone who has experienced, horror stories around the theme. People outside of academia (as well as my friends in the U.K.) are shocked when I tell them about my meeting with Human Resources during a campus interview at a university in the northeast (which shall remain nameless).  The staff member literally skipped over the family leave section of the benefits plan she was reviewing with me. When I told her that, “yes, in fact, I was interested in the plan,” she told me there essentially wasn’t one (only the bare minimum under FMLA – 12 weeks unpaid) and sheepishly followed up with, “now you see why I don’t like to highlight it.” And this university is, of course, not alone: only 58% of Association of American Universities offer six weeks of paid maternity leave. The message that this institutional barrier to childbearing sends to women who want to (or do) have children is loud and clear: the university is not set up for you.


The essays in another recent book, the collection Mothers in Academia, showcase different women’s experiences with parenting in academia, highlighting the ways in which they vary according to race, class, sexuality, and marital status.


Some of the pieces are hopeful, focusing on positive experiences and offering suggestions and examples of universities who’ve “got it right.”  Recently, I have also taken a similarly optimistic perspective about the potential for change in the academic workplace. However, this is an issue in which I can see no hope for change in the foreseeable future.  Although I admire the careful inclusion, in Mothers in Academia, of successful examples of institutions with generous leave policies and tenure clock breaks, I still believe that, overall, the picture for women who have children in academia is grim (and, as Jeanne Zaino recently noted, even more so for women grad students). Just as important, the situation for working mothers is certainly not unique to the academic profession, as the recent rehashing of the “opt-out” debate makes clear.


Unsurprisingly, one of the major suggestions for Rich’s “women-centered” university is “universal and excellent childcare” that serves not only university faculty, but all members of the community.  As it stands, most childcare is not of the state-subsidized variety envisioned by Rich, but provided by privately paid nannies or the support of spouses or family members who do not work outside the home, or who also have flexible schedules. The implications of this current modus operandi according to class and marital/partnership status need not be spelled out.


In this sense, it may be true that academe offers a certain amount of flexibility that is useful for parenting (for the low percentage of women who are able to gain tenure). That said, I find it offensive that many women who publicly make this argument are not forthcoming – or, indeed, honest – about how they were able to “balance” work and childcare, especially in their children’s early years.  I remember grimacing last year at a student event when the speaker (a judge) told the students present that she “had it all” as a career woman and mother – never once mentioning who cared for her children when she went back to work, even though she acknowledged that her husband also worked outside the home. (Never fear, fellow gender studies professors, I brought this up with my students in class!)


Is the answer that we should all move to some (mythically) gender-equitable Scandinavian country? I don’t know. In lieu of answers, I offer a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, also used in Rich’s piece:


        The questions that we have to ask and to answer about that [academic]

        procession during this moment of transition are so important that they may

        well change the lives of all men and women forever. For we have to ask

        ourselves, here and now, do we wish to join that procession, or don’t we?

        On what terms shall we join that procession?


The procession that academic women have joined is clearly still a very patriarchal one. To heed Rich’s words, then, is to do the opposite of “leaning in:” we should be pushing desperately and strongly against the patriarchal cultures and traditions of the university, instead fighting for inclusion on our terms. To do so is the only way that the university -- and society more broadly -- will become even slightly less male-centered.


*Of course you should still read this wonderful book!


Brooklyn, New York


Gwendolyn Beetham lives in Brooklyn, where she manages the column The Academic Feminist at Feministing.com, writes for several academic publications, and teaches yoga. She has a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. Follow her on twitter @gwendolynb


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