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By Jo Freeman

This article was published in QUEST: a feminist quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 1, Summer 1979, pp. 26-36, and later translated into German. An earlier version was given as the keynote address at the Feminist Scholar conference at Montclair State College, Upper Montclair, NJ, May 16, 1974.


At first glance, there appears to be an inherent contradiction in the term "feminist scholar." The idea of the scholar implies one who sits back and dispassionately studies a topic; who seeks and objectively weighs all evidence, forming an opinion only after the data are in. Yet as a feminist, when I am dealing with questions concerning women, I don feel in the least dispassionate; the "truth" is largely predetermined by the feminist values that I hold; and while I'm willing to look at all evidence, I reserve the right to interpret it in a way that will support my position. To be a feminist, in effect, is to advocate a particular point of view. Starting from the premise that women and men have the same potential for individual development, this view examines the way in which social institutions create differences; it rejects the idea that there is any meaningful choice for members of either sex as long as there are socially prescribed sex roles and social penalties for those who deviate from them. This is the description of a decisively political position -- which I use my academic. training to support.
Such an alliance of scholarship and advocacy would have been thought an unholy one fifteen or so years ago. Those were the days when the myth of value-free social science predominated. People really believed -- or at least said they did -- that they could approach a fresh research problem uncontaminated by their past experiences and present circumstances. Since then, however, the radical critique of social science has made us aware that all knowledge reflects a bias. People's background and position in the social structure not only determine their interpretation, but filter out what they think they see. In the words of one anonymous pundit, "How you stand depends on where you sit."
Fortunately, this critique preceded the women's liberation movement. It therefore made it easier to be both advocate and scholar. Most academicians are now sensitive to the fact that we all have values which lead us to particular research projects, which define our methods, our conclusions. Points of view not only exist within disciplines but can be brought to disciplines. Sociology has even been described as the attempt to draw a mathematically precise line between unwarranted assumptions and foregone conclusions. Thus, the fact that my scholarship is guided by a feminist perspective does not make it qualitatively different than that of others.
Nonetheless the awareness of ubiquitous bias does impose upon one some responsibilities which those who thought they were value-free could blissfully ignore. The primary responsibility is to not be blinded by one's own politics. There is a time for pure advocacy and a time for critical reflection. Just as the awareness of the inevitable bias of any scholarship makes it easier to apply one's own, so must that awareness make one constantly reexamine one's perceptions. This responsibility grows greater as the acceptability and influence of one's perspective -- feminist or non-feminist --increases. When one is an outsider, criticizing the established view, one can legitimately muster all one's forces for the assault without tolerance for differing points of view. But singlemindedness is a privilege permissible only to those out of power. The more established one becomes, the less one can afford it. To fail to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with power, is to undermine the right to hold it.
Feminists are a long way from gaining much institutional power, so in many ways this responsibility is still a theoretical one. Nonetheless, the need for it can be seen in those few situations where we do exercise significant influence. The best example is the classroom. You may personally like, associate with or support someone on the basis of whether or not they agree with you. But you cannot morally grade them on that basis. Good teaching does not permit pushing a line. power must always be used with discretion.
Provided this discretion is used, feminist advocacy is as compatible with being a scholar as are the many other political views scholars hold. But if feminism is compatible with scholarship, is it necessarily compatible with academia? Frankly, I think it is not. Not only is there an inherent contradiction between the values of the academic world and those of feminism, but that world does not look favorably upon serious dissidents from the status quo -- especially if such dissidents are brash enough to live their beliefs (as feminism requires). Cooley pointed out almost 50 years ago that:
It is strange that we have so few men of genius on our faculties: we are always trying to get them. Of course, they must have undergone the regular academic training (say ten years in graduate study and subordinate positions) and be gentlemanly, dependable, pleasant to live with, and not apt to make trouble by urging eccentric ideas.1

To explain the above conclusions, I must digress from the subject of feminist scholarship to examine the structure and values of the academic profession. Contrary to popular belief, the academic establishment is not in business to pursue truth, promulgate knowledge, or even to package people. Its purpose is the production of prestige.2

The Prestige System

Once one accepts the prevalence of the prestige-motive, most of the otherwise strange actions of academics become quite clear. After all, why do intelligent people spend five to ten years of their lives, paying their own way, to earn the Ph.D union card necessary for a possible job whose starting salary is less than that of a New York sanitation worker? Why is a school's value judged more by the number of Nobel Prize winners it can list in its catalog than by the number or success of its students? Why is the American Council on Education's regular rating of graduate schools based on faculty peer group estimation rather than by the kinds of courses offered? Why is it that we all categorize universities according to their prestige ranking without wondering if there is any substantive basis for this ranking? Why do academics prefer to publish in low circulation journals, and literally thumb their noses at anyone who seeks a wider audience through the popular press? Why are academicians' status determined not by the courses they teach but where they teach them?
Just as the "profit-motive" has informed the analysis of our economic system, so the "prestige-motive" underlies our academic system.
Not all institutions of higher education pursue prestige down the same paths. But academia is a hierarchy and at the top the thirty or forty "major universities" set the ethos for the academic world at large. They do this through their hegemony over public attention, their connections with the private and public elites, their role as gatekeepers to the professional journals and most of all through their Ph.D.'s, who staff a preponderance of all four-year institutions. Even when these graduates commit themselves to institutions with a different purpose than those in which they were trained, they still carry with them the values of their home institutions -- institutions who measure "productivity" by publication.3
Despite myths about merit, in the prestige system "productivity" is determined not by any objective rating, but by the subjective feelings of one's disciplinary peers. What counts is not what you do but what other people think of what you do.4 In order for others to judge what you do, they must see it. They don't see teaching. How many faculty members ever visit the classroom of another. or inquire of their students as to their colleagues' pedagogical effectiveness? One must publish because that is the only way to be seen -- and hence the only way to count.
However, one's colleagues rarely see publications in journals out side their own discipline, or even their own specialty. After all, no one has time to read everything. They do see publication in those journals they read, and/or on the topics they do their own research on. Thus, where you publish and what you publish on is more important than the quality of what you say. Research on women, for example, is rarely read by male colleagues, and is largely considered to be at worse faddish, and at best narrow. Even if one has written twenty papers on extremely diverse aspects of women's existence, it is still considered to be in the same subfield and hardly comparable to five good papers on voting statistics or Melville's novels.

The topic of women aside, most disciplines are subject to their own intellectual and stylistic trends, and if one is not going with the tide, one often can be washed out. Departments quite deliberately hire and fire, in part, on what kind of research they want to support, and many young scholars have seen their careers go down the drain because they didn't fit the right category at the right time.5 The moral to this story is that one must not only publish or perish, one may also publish and perish.
One can try to opt out of this game by decisively insisting on doing one's own work regardless of the consequences. The usual results are not conducive to scholarship, feminist or otherwise. One either ends up as a research assistant finding the facts for someone else's theories, an overworked instructor in a "low-prestige" school with a teaching load so heavy one barely has time to do one's lectures let alone one's research . . . or unemployed. The continuing constriction of academic jobs does not make these prospects appear brighter in the future. It is only when faced with one of these prospects that one becomes acutely aware of why the prestige system manages to hold together.
The more prestigious places usually have the resources young scholars desperately need. Laboratories, government grants, research libraries, collegial expertise, small course loads, computers, contacts with foundations, publishers and journals, are just some of the more tangible assets. Universities get these by playing the prestige game and thus do not look favorably upon those
who violate the rules.6
It is only when one lacks the institutional supports one needs that one realizes how dependent individual scholars are upon them. The ivory tower thinkers who need only their own books and their own muses are very rare, and usually in the humanities. Because success begets success it is easier to attract even outside support if the scholar is associated with a place that has a tradition of receiving it. After all, the people who give out the grants are part of the same networks as most of those who receive them. They look after their own. Prestige is not a very mobile good, and tends to remain in its place of origin. A new school takes years to acquire a reputation, and a declining university takes years to lose one.

The Double Bind

Let us suppose the scholar is one of those fortunate few who comes equipped with most of her resources and could care less about prestige. What then? As a general rule of thumb, the lower the school on the prestige ladder, the greater the course load. Since there are only so many hours in the day, one is then faced with the onerous choice of either shortchanging one's students or shortchanging one's research. Some energetic souls can manage to do both, but most would collapse in physical exhaustion. If one does manage to work in a place with a small course load it is still difficult to be both a good teacher and a good scholar unless one has tenure.
Education is not the purpose of academia and teaching counts for little in most tenure decisions. A poor teaching reputation will be used against you by your opponents, but a good teaching reputation only makes you a threat. In their struggles to make a name for themselves, most faculty cannot afford time for students. A popular teacher becomes a standard of comparison which they cannot meet. Students begin to question why other faculty aren't as good, while they flock to the popular courses. This has roughly the same effect as the efficient factory worker has on his assembly line-known in union terms as "speed up." One can much more justifiably be satisfied with poor teaching if everyone else in the department does the same.

If one is at a school which looks on teaching favorably, the fear of "speed up" is still prevalent, but it is focused on "excessive" research (generally known as "careerism") rather than popular teaching. In these schools it is simply assumed that if one publishes frequently the time for research must be at the expense of other faculty responsibilities. This excuse is used to rid the department of productive scholars who might raise the standards for tenure.
By now it should be clear how the structure of the academic world makes it difficult to be a productive scholar of any kind outside the major universities. These universities in turn operate as exclusive clubs and by so doing define what is acceptable scholarship. Even if a woman should find herself admitted, temporarily, to some of these clubs, she is still limited in the kind of research she can pursue by the definition of what is acceptable. She must constantly defend the value of what she does to her colleagues, who do not wish to see the prestige of their department "diluted by mediocrity."
Most faculty, especially the un-tenured ones, are constantly on the defensive. Their closest colleagues are in reality their closest rivals. Much more than in graduate school, the faculty peer group is highly competitive, and rarely disposed to mutual assistance. The reason it is so competitive is that there are virtually no collective benefits from academic activities.
Prestige from research and publication accrues to the individual scholar and the department at large, but not to other scholars in the department. Grant money may support students or research assistants, but rarely colleagues. Popularity with students simply makes your colleagues look worse. In contrast, nonprestige-gaining activities, such as involvement in committee work or acceptance of difficult courses or schedules imposes burdens, but gains no credit at tenure time. It does not take too long for new faculty to see that it is not in their self interest to take on additional responsibilities.
Consequently, what faculty compete for is not prestige, which can only be conveyed from the outside, but time -- time off from heavy teaching loads, onerous courses and other departmental responsibilities. It is this time that faculty need to produce the publications that gain prestige. It is to get this time that faculty engage in the internecine warfare for which academia is notorious.
In the competition for time, women are frequently at a disadvantage. First of all, as in any hierarchy, costs and burdens are generally passed on to the lowest level, and this is where women are to be found, if at all. Secondly, because women are usually "deviant" in the faculty environment, it is difficult for them to find other faculty with common backgrounds with whom they can ally. This is somewhat alleviated in those rare departments with more than one woman. Third, and most important, the traditional attitudes and expectations about women remain. Women's scholarly achievements are simply viewed as of lesser importance than those of men; they do not bring prestige.7 Concomitantly, woman are expected, much more than men, to render service to the campus community. Doing the departmental housekeeping chores is quite consistent with their traditional role. A woman may even be hired for that purpose and not find out until it is too late.
For these reasons, women faculty tend to receive their strongest and most immediate collegial rewards from committee or student work rather than professional and publishing activity. Yet it is still the traditional double bind: those women who stick to their books and their labs are labelled "incompatible" or "uncooperative" and those who don't are dismissed when tenure time comes for insufficient publications.

The Feminist Impact

The operation of the prestige motive can be easily seen if we examine the kind of impact the women's liberation movement has had on academia. There have been basically three different kinds of demands that the movement has made. The first is for more and better jobs -- affirmative action. The second is for curricular changes -- courses on women, and even degrees for those courses. The third demand has been for a variety of fringe benefits such as gynecological care, women's centers and child care.
Starting from the proposition that an institution gives in first in those areas which either cost the least or it values the least, what has been the success of the movement? The low cost fringe benefits -- such as women's centers and feminist speakers --have often been gained. The expensive ones like child care have not been. Curricular changes have come fairly readily. It is estimated that there are several thousand women's studies courses, at least two dozen majors and eleven graduate programs in women's studies.8

Needless to say, none of the majors are at the highest prestige schools. Gains in hiring have been virtually nonexistent. The employment of female academics has increased by only one percent since affirmative action programs were instituted, and the percentage with tenure has actually decreased. Since, I suspect, the percentage of Ph.Ds who are women has increased by more than that, the net result has probably been a minus one. While the declining academic job market creates difficulty for even the best-intentioned departments, it is clear that the curriculum has been more responsive to change than have the personnel committees.
Why is this so? I suggest it is because the curriculum is where the academic world has the least at stake: The buyers of curricula are students, and students do not control prestige. Instead, by permitting or even encouraging courses on women, the university can make some very real gains. 1) They remove some of the pressure on job demands as female faculty can be hired for women's studies courses -- in new programs or with new lines --which doesn't involve telling the regular departments they must hire women. 2) It allows the universities an opportunity to attract students -- who pay tuition -- by appearing to be "with it." Course offerings are really the only place the student view counts -- as long as it doesn't require eliminating any of the established courses but only adding new ones. In this era of decreasing enrollments, many women's studies programs maintain their precarious hold on the budget by touting their large student enrollments. 3) In most cases, the real costs are often borne by the women faculty. They are the ones who have to put the time and energy in to setting up the programs or preparing the new courses. Frequently women's studies courses are taught as "overloads" in addition to the regular course load and even when they are not, they only use up the free choice course options faculty have available to them. Those faculty who teach primarily women's studies courses pay for this privilege by becoming non-persons within their original discipline. As long as the creation of new departments with their own budgets is not demanded, the formation of women's studies programs involves a lot of faculty committee work and very little money. When such new departments are created, they effectively segregate the active feminists from the rest of the faculty, and from many students.
One can readily see the significance of faculty availability to set up these programs by looking at their pattern of diffusion. Women's colleges have had many such courses for years, and they were among the first to initiate new ones in response to the demands of the feminist movement. The other origin was in the high prestige universities where most Ph.D.s are incubated. Here they were largely initiated and taught by graduate students, occasionally without pay. Some of them were taught by junior faculty women. After a couple of years, the number of women's courses in the high-prestige schools decreased and they appeared in the state colleges. Why? The graduate students graduated. The junior faculty women weren't reappointed, and both followed the traditional path of academic women into the second echelon schools, taking their courses with them.
Appointments in the regular departments on the regular lines, on the other hand, present difficulties. The faculty prerogative that is most zealously guarded is the right to make personnel decisions. The administration usually has the right -- seldom exercised -- to veto departmental recommendations but not to force its own preference upon them. Faculty are most concerned about the right to decide who shall have the prestige of associating with them, not what those people will teach. The concomitant major concern is the right to make those decisions by whatever means they wish. It is the challenge to this right that makes affirmative action investigations so threatening. Male faculty members aren't opposed to having a woman or two around -- especially in the untenured slots. What they are opposed to is having to make their decision-making procedures public.9
The reality of the matter is, that "merit" is only one of the criteria used in selecting colleagues. Having the right qualifications and the right recommendations may get one through the first elimination round to the interview stage, but that's as far as it goes. Beyond that, many purely subjective factors, centering around how well one "fits in" to the department, are primary.10 The hiring process in academia is quite similar to, and serves the same functions as, sorority "rushing" in college.
However, since under the prestige system "merit" is the only legitimate rationale, the role of the other factors cannot be publicly justified.11 Thus the real threat of affirmative action requirements is that they will force departments to "objectify" their selection procedures or to admit that they are, in fact, not objective. Neither consequence is minor. If procedures are objectified, one of the main supports of the prestige system is lost. The academic community, like similar social structures, has its own economy. This economy is based on an exchange of favors, not money. Jobs, information about openings, publication in anthologies and even in journals, participation on panels, critical reviews, ideas, and other information are among the favors that can be exchanged. Like most primitive economies these exchanges are not quid pro quo, but given or received as needed with the understanding that eventually they will be returned. One could look at the academic community as nothing more than an overlapping series of exchange networks. Needless to say, some faculty are in a position to give more favors than they need to receive. They are compensated by being accorded higher prestige. To a certain extent one shows one's importance by the number of favors one can do. Objectification of selection procedures threatens this exchange economy by removing part of the "currency."
It is therefore unlikely that the academic hiring procedures will ever be basically altered. In industry the government can pressure for affirmative action through manipulation of the "profit-motive" -- by threatening to cost a recalcitrant company money. Higher education does not operate on the profit motive and is not responsive to such threats. Indeed, the prestige motive defies manipulation because to change the hiring process is to undermine the prestige system itself.



1 Charles Horton Cooley, Life and the Student: Roadside Notes on Human Nature, Society and Letters, (New York: A. S. Knopf, 1951) p. 184.

2 A year after I first gave this paper I discovered The Academic Marketplace by Theodore Caplow and Reece J. McGee (New
York: Basic Books, 1958). These authors also found that prestige was the "central variable" which interpreted most of the findings in their study of the vacancy and hiring process in all the liberal arts departments of ten "major universities." While my observations were made independently of their analysis, I will cite them where pertinent. They in turn are indebted to Logan Wilson's The Academic Man: Sociology of a Profession (London: Oxford University Press, 1942). It is worth noting that "prestige" has been seen as important by independent observers for a very long time. I would like to thank Leslie R. Wolfe for having provided me with a copy of Caplow and McGee, which has long been out of print.

3 Caplow and McGee, p. 83.

4 Ibid., p. 128. "There is very little point in trying to determine how good the man really is.... What is important is what others in the discipline think of him, since that is, in large part, how good he is. Prestige ... is not a direct measure of productivity but a composite of subjective opinion."

5 Ibid., p. 91-92, 145.

6 Arthur Friedman, "Publish or Perish," The University of Chicago Record 6 (October 31, 1972), p. 105.

7 Caplow and McGee, p. 111. Numerous studies asking "objective" judges to rate the quality of scholarly articles, artistic works, vita, and other forms of "productivity" have shown that those works with female names attached to them are consistently rated inferior to the same works with male names.

8 Women's Studies Newsletter, January, 1976, p. 8.

9 One of the best examples of this fear is Richard Lester's Antibias Regulation of Universities: Faculty Problems and Their Solutions; A Report Prepared for the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974). Caplow and McGee analyze the internal political reasons academic Institutions want to maintain the secrecy of their hiring process on p. 187. Many of the quotations they give us as to why a particular person was hired show a high degree of capriciousness which would be reason enough to desire secrecy.

10 Caplow and McGee, p. 133-134.

11 Ibid., p. 16 1.