Progress and Problems for Female Historians

July 14, 2005

By many measures, history is a discipline in which women have made notable progress in the last generation. 

In 1979, women made up only 16 percent of new history Ph.D.'s, and in the 20 years that followed, that percentage rose to 40. But a new American Historical Association report notes the many ways in which progress has been limited. The report was prepared by Elizabeth Lunbeck, a Princeton historian, and mixes a review of data with surveys of women in the field.

Both the data and the survey point to lingering problems. For instance, statistics show that by 1988, 39 percent of assistant professors of history were women. But by 1999, only 18 percent of full professors of history were women.

The report found that while women who started their academic careers in the 1970s felt great pride in the strides they had seen, many younger women were not optimistic at all. "As a group, women who have received the Ph.D. since 1986 proved the most voluble and discouraged of all the survey recipients," the report said. "The optimism and belief in progress characteristic of some of their predecessors is largely absent in this group, few of whom see improvements on the gender front. Many feel that gender knots have only become tighter."

Women who have entered the profession recently feel strong pressures about balancing work and family responsibilities -- and inadequate support for doing so, the survey found. At the same time, many women reported overt sexism of the sort that many believe to be long gone.

"Surprisingly, the proportions of respondents mentioning they had experienced harassment increased over time: none of those holding Ph.D.'s dating to 1970 or earlier mentioned harassment (over the course of their careers), compared to 5 percent in the 1970-79 and 1980-89 cohorts, 8 percent in the 1990-99 cohort, and 10 percent of those who received their degrees from 2000-2," the report said.

The AHA study quoted women who said that in recent years they had had male historians in interviews touch them and indicate that sex could be part of the "interview process," and who had been subjected to sexual innuendos in interview situations.

While the AHA study has been discussed informally for some time, the association is now moving forward with publicizing the findings, along with steps that departments can take to encourage women in the discipline. The AHA's Council recently approved a set of "Best Practices" to promote gender equity in history departments. The practices cover such topics as mentoring, balance between work and family life, and the need to avoid evaluation systems that might unintentionally discriminate against women.

The new report and the suggested actions were produced at the request of the AHA's Committee on Women Historians.

Jan Lewis, chair of the committee, said the idea of putting forward both the study and the recommendations at the same time reflected a "sense that it's no longer sufficient for women to complain about problems within the profession. It's time for the profession more widely to take ownership of the issues."

Lewis, chair of the history department at Rutgers University at Newark, said that the issues raised by the report were not surprises, but that the "pervasiveness" of some issues wasn't something she expected. For example, she said she was concerned about the sense among so many women starting their careers that they would have difficulty advancing while also having families.

She also said that the report was an important reminder that overt sexism isn't gone. "Many of us who teach at large universities have seen that the more overt kinds of sexism and misogyny had become unacceptable, but there are places where they are not unusual," she said.

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