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.
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.