I Women’s Networks and Women’s Loyalties Reflections on a Tenure Case
In the midst of my tenure case, I was asked to speak to the Committee on Women Historians at the 1983 meeting of the American Historical Association. The previous year, I had filed an internal grievance charging that a Stanford dean’s reversal of my department’s vote to grant me tenure discriminated against me as a woman and reflected biases against my research on women. During the next year and a half, until the university decided in my favor, I was sustained by the emotional and financial support of hundreds of friends and colleagues. I agreed to speak at the 1983 meeting in order to share my experiences with many of them. I present this talk as a historical document that offers personal testimony about the pitfalls women face in attempting to integrate male-dominated institutions. The recurrent distrust of both women’s loyalties and feminism that I discuss here also reveals the influence of homophobia on academic life.
last spring, when I was asked to speak at this meeting, I had serious reservations about whether I should do so. For one thing, I believed at the time that, come December 1983, I would most likely be engaged in a sex discrimination suit, and I was not sure how much I would be able to say in public about what was coming to be known as the “Estelle Freedman Case.” Aside from this strategic reservation, I felt very uncomfortable about being asked to speak to my professional colleagues about what seemed like a personal crisis — we all have them, I thought, but why should I get up in public and talk about mine? My feminist instincts — and my feminist colleagues — soon helped me overcome the latter hesitation, for I realized that the university’s denial of my tenure was not simply a personal problem; it was a deeply political one that has affected many members of the community of women historians and feminist scholars. It was also an event that needed to be placed in historical perspective, for it might serve as a measure
Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “Women’s Networks and Women’s Loyalties: Reflections on a Tenure Case,” Frontiers 8, no. 3 (1986): 50-54. Reprinted by permission of Frontiers Editorial Collective.
of both women’s position within the historical profession and the status of women’s studies in the 1980s.
Just a decade ago, there were few women historians and fewer still who specialized in women’s history, and yet the signs of change were clear — the formation of the women’s caucuses, the revival of the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, the entry of women into graduate programs, and the outpouring of articles and books by or about women. Despite the tightening job market, many history departments did hire their first women historians and/or historians of women, giving an impression of expanding opportunities. As we know, however, women disproportionately entered the profession at the lowest and least secure ranks rather than through tenure track appointments. Moreover, in the early 1980s, the generation of junior faculty hired in the 1970s began to come up for tenure in more troubled economic times and in a political climate that was increasingly hostile to feminism and to the principle of affirmative action. As a result, the phenomenon of “last hired, first fired” struck feminist scholars in a number of disciplines, including history. In response, bitter tenure fights and legal suits have too often taken energy away from the very scholars we have needed to continue building our profession and our field.
My own case sent ripples through the network of feminist scholars who know from personal experience, or from the experience of colleagues at their own universities, that we must now fight a defensive battle in order to maintain the limited professional gains we have made over the past ten years. We do so not only for ourselves but also because we risk losing the next generation of women graduate students who might well fear that there is no equal opportunity in the university for them.
For these reasons, I think, the Estelle Freedman Case drew national attention from a wide audience of women scholars and their male supporters. And largely because of that interest, because of that support — for which I am deeply grateful — I was able to fight the decision to deny me tenure. Given these larger concerns and given the role of the community of women historians in my case, I did finally decide that it would be fitting for me to address the Committee on Women Historians today, in what will be my first and, I hope, my last public statement about my tenure case.
Happily, I do not stand here today as a litigant in a sex discrimination suit. As many of you know, in July 1983, after a year and half of delays and reconsiderations, the denial of an internal grievance, and submission of a formal appeal, the provost of my university recommended that I be granted tenure and promoted to the rank of associate professor; in September, the president and the trustees approved my promotion, and the Estelle Freedman Case came to a long overdue and very welcome conclusion. When I learned of the positive decision, amid my feelings of relief and anger I often found myself thinking about this audience, using it as an imaginary sounding board for taking stock of that painful year and a half.
Today I will share only a small portion of the thoughts that have come to me — there are limits of time, propriety, and relevance to this audience.1 This morning, I want to talk about three questions that might be of particular interest to other women historians. First, what was the role of the community of women historians and other feminist scholars in this case? Second, in what ways was my predicament related to problems that we all face in our jobs? And third, what did my tenure fight mean for the rest of you — the graduate students, colleagues, and allies who wrote to me during the past year and a half to offer support and to share your feelings?
I have often thought that if I had to choose a title for this talk, I would want to borrow one from an article by Mary Ryan called “The Power of Women’s Networks.”2 I am convinced that in many ways it was the existence of strong women’s and feminist networks that made it possible for me to fight and then to win this tenure dispute. The university will, of course, officially deny that outside pressure had anything to do with its reversal of the original negative decision. But that is not really the point, for I know that the mobilization of the women’s history community and its allies was a critical factor in enabling me to file an appeal, to get the legal help I needed, and, above all, to survive the overwhelming pressures that the denial of tenure places on one to withdraw entirely from the university and from one’s work.
Women’s networks proved to be powerful in this instance in a number of ways. The most basic and crucial was the personal support I received from feminists at Stanford and around the country who let me know that it was important to fight back. At the same time, it was clear from the outpouring of letters to the Stanford administration — which admitted that it had never received so much commentary on any individual decision — that women’s history was not some isolated, quirky, or “narrow” field. Rather, the university was going to have to contend with a widespread recognition within the historical profession that women’s history is “real” history. That these letters came not only from the practitioners of women’s history but also from their colleagues, both male and female, carried important weight, I think, for it let the administration know that a sizable chunk of our profession was watching Stanford to see how it evaluated not just me but, especially, my field.
At least three other powerful women’s networks helped sustain me and influence public opinion in my case. Both women lawyers and women journalists empathized with my position and offered their professional help at critical moments. They wrote or called to give me advice, drew upon their own professional networks to let others know what was happening at Stanford, and encouraged me to pursue my case for the sake of their careers as well as my own. In addition, a small and seasoned group of “tenure case survivors” — women like Louise Lamphere and Nancy Shaw—each in her own way offered assistance: tips from previous and current grievances at other universities, leads to financial and legal support, and personal inspiration. Finally, both old and new women’s organizations mobilized to support the tenure cases — the American Association of University Women (aauw) has set up a fund for academic women’s tenure suits, and the National Women’s Studies Association (nwsa) now has the Fund for the Defense of Women’s Studies, begun with money from Annette Kolodny’s settlement in her academic sex discrimination case.3 Knowing about these resources made it possible to envision the long legal fight that I anticipated.
Several years ago, I published an article entitled “Separatism as Strategy,” in which I suggested that when women integrate into mixed but male-dominated institutions, we have to be particularly careful not to lose our separate, female-dominated organizations, which have been, historically, the basis of our power.4 My experience over the past few years has confirmed this belief. Without the separate organizations of women — the Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession (ccwhp), the Committee on Women Historians of the American Historical Association (cwh), the nwsa, the aauw, and women’s studies and feminist studies programs around the country— I, for one, would have given up long before I received tenure. That is why it is so important to me that we are gathered here today and that we continue to meet as women and as feminists — even as we continue to draw male allies into our movement and try to convince our nonfeminist colleagues of the need to combat discrimination against women scholars and against scholarship on women.
But there is also an interesting irony about the strength of our networks, one that brings me to my second question: in what ways did my case relate to problems we all face in our jobs? To put it another way, how did my being a woman, a feminist, and a historian of women affect the denial of tenure? (It might be pertinent to explain here that the Department of History voted to recommend my promotion with tenure; the denial came from a set of administrators and faculty who were not historians and who, until I began my grievance, were traditionally all male. One outcome of my case is that Stanford finally appointed a woman dean and, for a time, one woman sat on the committee that reviews departmental hiring and promotions.)
If I had to choose a title that captures my answer to the question of what difference it made that I was a woman, and a feminist scholar, I would take it directly from a memo to the deans written by an unsympathetic department member who questioned the value of my work by stating that I seemed to have “other loyalties.” “Other loyalties.” The phrase implied, I believe, that being a feminist, a cofounder of the Feminist Studies Program at Stanford, and a faculty member known for supporting women’s and feminist issues on campus must in some way detract from my loyalties to the values of the university as a whole and to those of the historical profession.
This characterization of feminist academics is both dangerous and in some ways accurate. It is dangerous to the extent that it presupposes that there is one appropriate set of loyalties that academics must share — loyalties to the traditional patterns of academic life, patterns that we well know have excluded women and minorities from full access to that life. To attempt to transform those patterns is to risk being labeled, essentially, a subversive. But the characterization is at the same time an accurate one, for, indeed, I do want to subvert traditional academic life in order to encourage both the advancement and the study of women within it. By associating with the subgroup of academics and historians who consider ourselves feminist scholars, we risk being seen as traitors. And yet it is our very identification with each other, our networks and our organizations, that often gives us the strength to remain in the profession. I believe that the only resolution of this seeming dilemma is to obtain recognition of the legitimacy of our loyalties to other women, and to women’s studies, so that we are appreciated rather than penalized for our work in these fields. That is what ultimately happened at Stanford — the legitimation of feminist loyalties. But before I speak of happy endings, let me dwell for a moment on the ways that discrimination against women who have “other loyalties” operated in my case and likely operates in many of our lives.
In my case, two related interests — women’s history and women’s studies — made my record suspect and led the deans to downgrade the department’s evaluation of my teaching and my scholarship. For one thing, my participation in the Stanford Program in Feminist Studies was not considered part of my academic work. Rather, these activities — which I knew to be intellectually challenging and important to my scholarly development — were labeled as a commitment to a “cause” that could, at best, be relegated to the category of “university service” but that could not count toward tenure. In a long, defensive letter sent during spring 1983 to people who had written in my support, Dean Norman Wessells explained that feminist studies has not yet proven itself as a legitimate academic concern and may simply be a temporary fad; therefore, the university should not invest its resources in the careers of feminist scholars. Obviously, if the university does not do so, women’s studies is destined to wither away for lack of support, and the prophecy will be neatly fulfilled. Under this logic, whatever good I may have done for feminist scholarship, my teaching and research on women, however highly rated, could only hurt, not help, my status at Stanford. To me, this mentality reeked of a regrettable cultural phenomenon, namely, the nearly universal devaluation of that which is female. What women do together, for or about women, simply does not count as much as what is done with, for, or about men. It is not, so to speak, of comparable worth.
This devaluation of the female hits even closer to home when it is applied to the study and teaching of women’s history. In my case, although I had previously received the university’s two awards for excellence in teaching, although my department had evaluated my teaching as excellent, the next administrative level downgraded that judgment to only “very good” — that is, not good enough to get tenure. The only grounds I could find in all the documents I received about the decision — and these grounds were stated explicitly— were that my teaching was too narrowly focused on women. In fact, less than half of the courses I had developed at Stanford focused on women, but even this amount of attention to my specialty was perceived as too much. Similarly, my scholarship was faulted for being, like my teaching, narrowly concerned with women. Women, it was implied, are simply not that important.
In a long and rather legalistic appeal that I prepared last winter, I developed these points thoroughly, along with a discussion of the ways that discrimination operates to exclude women and minorities from the university. In response to my appeal, the provost ruled, quite interestingly, that although he found that no discrimination had taken place, he was recommending my promotion because it was proper for him to take into account my contribution to the university as a feminist scholar and teacher. However different his logic was from mine, we were, in a sense, in agreement on the crucial points I have been raising here: that is, that women’s history, feminist scholarship, and women’s studies must count fully in the evaluation of scholarship and teaching. The message of the decision to the university and
to the academic world at large, I would like to think, is that our loyalties to women are legitimate ones and should be supported by the institutions in which we work.
Thus far, I have been speaking purely from my own experience and presenting my own interpretations of my case. Others who were involved would see things differently—and indeed further considerations influenced both the denial of tenure and the ultimate success of my appeal. For the moment, I want to turn to the thoughts of scholars who were not directly involved in the case but who wrote to me over the past year and a half, often commenting on the meaning of my case for themselves and for the profession. I want to close with this summary of your reactions to what happened to me, in part because I think it provides a measure of how we now see ourselves and, admittedly, because I felt I had a wonderful “data set” — a file of well over a hundred letters — that I wanted to reread in order to get some perspective on what had happened.
In reading through all of the correspondence I received about my case, I detected four kinds of responses. The first and most frequent was an emotional response that can be easily summarized as empathetic anger, along with compassion for my feelings of anger and my sense of injustice. The recurrence of words like “fury,” “outrage,” “rage,” and “frustration” was affirming; these words also indicated an enormous backlog of anger that many of us carry around as we maneuver our way through unfamiliar and often demoralizing academic rituals. As one historian wrote, “It is anger against what has happened to you. . . . It is also a reaction against a blow that feels aimed at all of us as a group. I feel that it is part of a nationwide reaction, and all the more frightening because of it.”
Along with this wonderful outburst of collective rage came offers of support— a willingness, frequently stated, to “do anything,” to “fire off letters,” to send money, and to support whatever legal actions I took. Many colleagues urged me to file a grievance and go to court if necessary. “Whether you grieve or not,” one wrote, “you have my strong support.” A third and related response was that of advice, some of which I liked better than others. The best advice I want to be sure to recall for those who find themselves in similar situations, but really for all of us, on all of our working days: Do not internalize this judgment! Women who had been denied tenure and those who had filed grievances or lawsuits were especially clear about the danger of accepting, even as we fight, that we somehow deserve all of this trouble. We don’t. The next best advice was to carry on with my work rather than
women s NETWORKS AND WOMEN S LOYALTIES
become totally absorbed in the process of fighting the decision. I think this advice, too, has to be recalled in all of our daily political struggles lest we undermine the larger cause for which we fight: the right to do this work.
One set of advice I found very problematic. It was that, at all costs, I should determine to advance my career, move anywhere, write what would most please the powers that be, and generally “clean up my act” lest I never get a tenured position elsewhere. Powerful individuals offered variations on this theme out of sincere concern for my welfare. As much as I appreciated their concern, I feel strongly that we must not ask each other to forget either our personal lives or our political commitments in the name of achieving professional “success.”
The final and perhaps most telling response came in the form of interpretation of what was happening. The most frequent commentary was that a backlash had begun to hit women historians and feminist scholars. One former student asked, is getting rid of the feminists “part of the new look on campus”? A scholar in another discipline put it somewhat differently: “The rejection seems to go beyond you individually to all women who have academic appointments at elite universities and real commitments to feminism.” Letters from both women and men in various disciplines informed me of other cases of tenure denials, some of which have been resolved and others of which may go on to the courts. Frequently, the grievant had been active in women’s studies as well as in her discipline.
A subtheme running through a number of letters suggested that my denial of tenure was, for some, a clarifying event. “Your experience has outlined with merciless clarity the perils and politics of academia,” wrote a graduate student in women’s history. Another explained, “They don’t see the world the way we do (we were foolish to forget that) and the way we see the world threatens. . . them.” Or, as one local feminist explained, “I suppose I should stop being surprised that institutions correctly perceive feminism as such a threat.” A feminist political scientist suggested to me that this recognition could be strategically useful. “One can only hope,” she wrote, “that the experience will make clear to some of your supporters what kind of thing has to be done to crack open ‘men’s studies.’ ”
The recognition that we are indeed different from many of our colleagues also led to affirmations of that difference and its value. For example, a recent Ph. D. in women’s history made my day when she wrote that my situation was “a useful reminder to me not to shape my work too much to conform to conventional standards of what is an important issue. . . . This may sound paradoxical, but it has convinced me to follow my own inclinations and do what I think is right. If the. . . establishment doesn’t approve, they won’t approve no matter how I dress it up!” Several senior scholars in women’s history offered fascinating commentary on the question of how we judge our own work. As one wrote, “Who’s to say what makes scholarship ‘good’? I think that for feminists, engaging in nonscholarly activities, simply living. . . gives us different sorts of insights.” Another, in one of my favorite letters, explained, “Fortunately, as feminists we have learned the limits of male acknowledgment (and the limits of its true value), and have learned to treasure our own. Unfortunately, the bums still have the fucking power (no pun intended).”
All of these themes — empathy, a sense of common struggle, a commitment to fighting discrimination, and a belief in the value of feminism and feminist scholarship — recurred in the congratulatory letters I received when the denial was reversed. Predictably, some viewed the victory as evidence that “the system works,” to which I must add that it does so only under intense pressure and at great — possibly unbearable — costs to individuals. The decision, a former colleague wrote, “restores my faith in justice. . . and in the strength of scholarship about women and by women making headway, slowly but surely.” Many people correctly perceived the victory as one “for feminist scholars nationally” and for “the movement at a time when our spirits need uplift.” As a historian wrote from another elite university (one that has hired and promoted all too few women), “It is so elating and, unfortunately, so rare to feel oneself part of a winning cause!”
In closing, I want to quote at length from one final letter that I received from a woman journalist who has followed women’s politics and women’s history over the past decade. I think she expressed better than I can what could be the outcome of this story, but only if we continue to recognize discrimination when we encounter it, refuse to let it immobilize us, and utilize the power of our networks to combat it. She wrote:
I remain appalled that you had to go through what you went through, but your victory helped lock in feminist studies as a discipline to reckon with. It is difficult for people — especially male people—who have taught one way for years to acknowledge that they may not have known it all and furthermore that they may have to change what they know in the future. The work, in short, is not done and they can’t coast. The whole point of scholarship, as I understand it, is to open doors, not close them, and that is what you [feminist scholars] have done and they haven’t.
This is 1983 and none of us should have to be working so hard just to stay in place, but little by little there are these victories. Perhaps eventually the people who cannot stand change will find we have our hooks in granite and won’t let loose!
Meanwhile. . . HOORAY.
I share her relief and her vision for the future, and I thank all of you, here and elsewhere, who helped make this victory possible, for all of us. May it help strengthen our networks and our loyalties for the ongoing tenure cases, in which we seek to make women and feminism legitimate within the university.